THE Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting of Oct 6, 1982 — to consider Charlie McCreevy’s motion of no confidence in the leadership of Charles Haughey — was one of the most extraordinary political meetings ever held in this country.
It was held in the midst of turbulent political periods.
Little over a month earlier, a man wanted for questioning in relation to two murders was arrested in the apartment of the then attorney general, who had to resign as a result. Then on Sept 27, 1982, the brother-in-law of the minister for justice, Seán Doherty, was acquitted of assault in Dowra, Co Cavan, after the main witness failed to turn up in court. It transpired that the witness, who was resident in the North, had been arrested and detained on his way to the court by the RUC.
The previous February, Des O’Malley had challenged Haughey for the leadership of Fianna Fáil, but it had ended in farce when Martin O’Donoghue, who was believed to be backing the challenge, called on O’Malley to withdraw from the contest. On the morning of Oct 6, however, both O’Malley and O’Donoghue resigned from the cabinet, because they intended to back McCreevy’s motion.
It was clear from the outset that there would be a vital test of strength on whether the confidence vote would be taken openly or in secret. Rule 83 of the Fianna Fáil constitution stipulated that “every ballot throughout the organisation should be held by secret ballot”, but the parliamentary party was traditionally free to make its own decisions without dictation from the party itself.
In the aftermath of the arms crisis, Jack Lynch had demanded and secured an open vote of party confidence. Now some of his supporters were demanding his successor should agree to a secret vote. They were undermined by their own precedent.
The meeting began at 11am, with 80 of the 81 Fianna Fáil TDs, 27 senators, and five members of the European Parliament present. The atmosphere was tense.
The dissidents arranged people to speak in favour of the motion in order to prevent a collapse of their challenge, as had happened in February. Thus the meeting dragged on throughout the day and into the night, with adjournments for lunch and tea.
Pádraig Faulkner and Michael O’Kennedy called for a secret ballot, but on a roll-call vote, only 27 favoured a secret ballot on the actual motion with 53 preferring an open vote. The subsequent vote on the McCreevy motion was then defeated by 58 votes to 22.
“These people have been flushed out now,” a Haughey supporter declared afterwards. “The situation after tonight is that they had better be ready to kiss Haughey’s ass, or get out of the party.”
The mood was explosive and there were some of the ugliest scenes ever witnessed within the precincts of Leinster House. Gardaí tried to persuade McCreevy to leave by a side entrance, but he refused.
As he emerged from the front door, surrounded by six gardaí, he was met by a jeering of Haughey supporters, many of whom had been drinking throughout the day.
When Jim Gibbons, another of the prominent dissidents, left shortly afterwards, he was jeered and jostled by the crowd. One man attacked him and landed a glancing blow.
Meanwhile Geraldine Kennedy of the Sunday Tribune was sitting with some journalists when Ciarán Haughey, the taoiseach’s son, walked up to her.
“I want to tell you one thing,” he said. “You’ll be hearing from us.”
She asked if this was a threat.
“You can take it as such,” he replied.
She thought at the time he was possibly annoyed at something she may have said on television the previous night. She never suspected her telephone was tapped.
Back in July, Haughey had complained to Hugh McLoughlin, the publisher of the newspaper, about Kennedy’s articles. McLoughlin, in turn, told Conor Brady, the newspaper’s editor, to go easy on Haughey. McLoughlin said the taoiseach was “desperately worried about the Kennedy woman” and wondered who in Fianna Fáil was talking to her.
A few days later the justice minister asked for and then formally authorised a tap on her telephone. He later said he did this at the behest of Haughey.
When the tap was first disclosed, however, Doherty said it was for reasons of “national security”, the cloak US president Richard Nixon used to cover the misdeeds of his administration during the Watergate scandal almost a decade earlier.
“The parallels to the Nixon White House are uncomfortably close and to the point,” thundered Vincent Jennings in a signed editorial in the Sunday Press.
“Wall-to-wall distrust and paranoia; anyone who disagrees with the leadership is an enemy, or worse — anti-national. Get them, the expletive deleted.”
Before McCreevy tabled his motion, Kennedy had tipped off Peter Prendergast, general secretary of Fine Gael. Their conversation was one of the tapped calls. On the eve of the meeting, Doherty sought extra copies of the transcript of this call. He said he gave Haughey a copy. This was the figurative smoking gun that eventually forced Haughey out of politics.
Although Haughey denied being given the transcript, few believed him. It seemed particularly strange that his son had singled out Kennedy on the night of the meeting. Did he know the dissidents had taken her into their confidence?
Haughey might have won the battle that night, but he lost out in the end. His popularity plummeted to a new low and his government collapsed within a month.
* Ryle Dwyer is the author of Haughey’s Forty Years of Controversy, published by Mercier Press