A titanic battle that defined Irish politics for the next decade

IT REMAINS one of the most famous quotes in Irish politics. On December 11, 1979, during a Dáil speech on the nomination of Charles Haughey as taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald delivered a withering verdict on the then Fianna Fáil leader.

Haughey, he said, came “with a flawed pedigree”.

It set the scene for their titanic political battles over the decade that followed, with FitzGerald dubbed “Garret the Good” and Haughey seen as the grasping, scheming politician. FitzGerald would later say he regretted the remark, saying its meaning had been misunderstood. “They were badly chosen words,” FitzGerald said in an RTÉ interview aired in August 2006. “That speech was written at 4.30 in the morning. But the wording was completely misunderstood. I just wanted to point out that he was different from previous taoisigh in that he didn’t have the support of a large amount of his own party, but nobody noticed that context.

“We never had any difficulty with our personal relationship, and I always found him courteous. We had a very good private relationship, but I still hold the view that he was not the right person to be the taoiseach. But that never affected our ordinary relationship, which was always straightforward.”

Indeed, FitzGerald visited Haughey at his home in 2005 when he was battling advanced prostate cancer — something FitzGerald spoke of when Haughey died in June 2006.

“He was a man of great administrative ability and formidable political skills,” FitzGerald said following Haughey’s death. “As I often made clear in the past, despite our public political differences… our relationship was always marked by courtesy and absence of personal antagonism.”

But the “flawed pedigree” quote, inevitably, has remained in the political consciousness in a way that FitzGerald’s generous appraisal of Haughey’s skills has not. FitzGerald started that 1979 speech by saying the occasion of the election of a taoiseach was “not any ordinary debate”.

He proceeded to say that he was obliged to speak not only for the opposition which he led, but for “many in Fianna Fáil who may not be free to say what they believe or to express their deep fears” for the future of the country under Haughey. “I take no pleasure in what I have to say,” FitzGerald added.

“I have known Deputy Haughey for more than 35 years. I have never suffered insult or injury from him nor exchanged with him bitter words at any time. I would find my task today easier if we had not had this long relationship with each other, a relationship that was never intimate but never hostile. But I must do my duty regardless of these personal considerations.”

FitzGerald acknowledged Haughey had been regarded as an excellent minister in several government departments, displaying both political skill and administrative competence.

“These are important qualities in a taoiseach, but they are not enough,” FitzGerald said.

Since the state was founded, he pointed out, none of the six men who had led it had been accused “even by his most unrelenting enemy... to have entered public life for any motive but the highest”.

But with Haughey, it was different.

“Deputy Haughey presents himself here, seeking to be invested in office as the seventh in this line, but he comes with a flawed pedigree... we cannot ignore the fact that he differs from his predecessors in that these motives have been and are widely impugned, most notably, but by no means exclusively, by people within his own party, people close to him who have observed his actions for many years and who have made their human, interim judgement on him.”

Fitzgerald said Haughey did not have a simple desire to serve” the country, but rather “a wish to dominate, even to own, the state”.

“The second aspect of the election of this man as taoiseach, which must disturb deeply every democrat, is that whatever may be the result of the vote — and I think that is a foregone conclusion — he knows, I know and they all know, that he does not command the genuine confidence of even one third of this House, never mind one half. No previous taoiseach has been elected in similar circumstances.”

FitzGerald then mentioned a string of senior figures in Fianna Fáil who were known to oppose Haughey: departing taoiseach Jack Lynch, Des O’Malley, John Wilson and others.

“These are people who are respected outside Fianna Fáil as within it for their genuine patriotism, however much we on these benches may at times have to question their judgement or the wisdom of their policies in the national interest,” FitzGerald said. “It is not from such as these that Deputy Haughey won his majority. His majority comprises men judged inadequate in office in the past; men ambitious for office but disappointed of it hitherto; men fearful of losing office because they backed the wrong horse; and, above all, at least 18 men who scraped home narrowly in 1977 and who, fearing for the seats that were so unexpectedly won for them by the gamble of the manifesto, have now switched their bet to another gamble, the gamble of Deputy Haughey.”

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