Faced with the public outcry about the scheme, they resorted to pathetic efforts to justify it on the grounds that Eithne Fitzgerald of the Labour Party had invited people to mix with the then minister for finance in March 1996 at a constituency fundraising dinner for which they were being asked to pay £100 a plate.
Eithne was roundly and justifiably lacerated then, because she was the Labour Party’s voice on ethics and that party had been highly critical of similar Fianna Fáil fundraising tactics in the 1960s.
As minister for finance, Charlie Haughey asked his friend Des Greevy to set up a committee to raise funds for Fianna Fáil. He drew up the blueprint of what became known as Taca (the Irish word for support). It was made up mostly of businessmen, who paid £l00 a year. This money was to be deposited until election time, and the interest would be used to fund lavish dinners at which Taca members could mix with cabinet ministers.
Taca was “a fairly innocent concept”, according to Haughey. “Insofar as it had any particular motivation, it was to make the party independent of big business and try to spread the level of financial support right across a much wider spectrum of the community.” Some supporters subscribed “substantially more” to the party at election time than the £500 that would accumulate in Taca subscriptions, if the Dáil ran its full five-year term, he contended.
Although Haughey was the politician that the public most closely identified with Taca, it wasn’t his idea. And anyway, the money was controlled by Kevin Boland, Neil Blaney and Taoiseach Jack Lynch. But Haughey embraced the scheme with enthusiasm. He organised the first dinner, a particularly lavish affair attended by the whole cabinet.
“We were all organised by Haughey and sent to different tables around the room,” Kevin Boland recalled. “The extraordinary thing about my table was that everybody at it was in some way or other connected with the construction industry.”
Opposition deputies promptly questioned the propriety of such a cosy relationship between the property developers and cabinet ministers. In particular, there were questions about the property being rented by government departments and agencies as they mushroomed in the midst of the then unprecedented economic growth.
Whatever about any private reservations, Jack Lynch publicly defended Taca from the outset. “In order to maintain our system of democracy, we have to have political parties,” he said.
“Political parties can’t run without funds and these funds can only be provided voluntarily. Traditionally, our means of accumulating funds were, first, the national collection, and, second, the special collections that are made at election time,” he explained.
“The increasing cost of running elections, the increasing cost of maintaining party headquarters and the necessity to increase the services at party headquarters, we find that the existing means of collecting funds have not been sufficient even though we have been stepping up our national collection.” Hence it was necessary to adopt new methods.
“The criticism levelled against Taca was that those who became members of it could expect some favour from the government,” Lynch noted. “Well, I can say now that if any member has joined Taca for that purpose, he has been, or will be, gravely disappointed.” If he believed that, he must have been one of the few people in the country who did.
Boland insisted that he “never did a thing” within his department for any member of Taca, but he admitted that other ministers might have been “susceptible”. A cloud of suspicion was cast over the operations of Taca, and it “unfortunately provided a basis for political attack which,” Haughey said, “did us a lot of damage at the time.”
“Our people will get the government they voted for,” James Dillon of Fine Gael declared. “If it is Animal Farm they want, they should vote for Fianna Fáil, but if it is democracy and decency they want, I suggest they will have to look elsewhere. I think the acceptance of corruption as the norm in public life is shocking.”
Haughey hit back. “Is it not another form of corruption to take people’s character away, to spread false rumours about them?” he asked. Fine Gael was vilifying and slandering him with malicious rumours, he said. “That is all you are good for, the lot of you.”
WHICH one of the rumours was false, Charlie? Even then, questions about Haughey’s methods were by no means confined to the opponents of Fianna Fáil. The snide insinuations were widespread, and they were fuelled in May 1967 when George Colley urged those attending a Fianna Fáil youth conference in Galway not to be “dispirited if some people in high places appear to have low standards”.
It was widely assumed that Colley was alluding to Haughey in particular. Lynch reportedly gave Colley a severe dressing down, and Colley duly suggested that he was really referring to Fine Gael members of the previous inter-party government. But there was little doubt that he was alluding to Haughey, or that the Short Fellow was referring to Colley when he criticised hypocritical politicians who put themselves forward as men of virtue.
At various times during his career, Eamon de Valera turned to the United States for help - when he was under sentence of death in 1916, after his release in 1917, after his election as Priomh Aire of the Dáil in 1919, after the formation of Fianna Fáil in 1926, before setting up the Irish Press in 1931, after his election victory in 1932, during the Munich crisis of 1939, and repeatedly during World War II. Much as he admired the American system, however, he warned that money was perverting democracy in the United States.
Yet Fianna Fáil tried to adopt American fundraising tactics with Taca in the 1960s, and resorted to even shoddier tactics 20 years later. Tom Gilmartin told us about that. He was introduced to virtually the whole Fianna Fáil cabinet. On leaving the room, he was asked for £5m for the party, and told to deposit it in an offshore account.
“You people make the effing Mafia look like monks,” Gilmartin replied.
“You could end up in the Liffey for that statement,” the party extortionist warned.
Fianna Fáil took a vicarious delight in savaging Eithne Fitzgerald when she foolishly sought to raise money by asking people to pay £100 a plate to have dinner with Ruairí Quinn. That was patently wrong and she had to scrap the whole thing, which essentially scrapped her political career. In 1992 she was elected with 17,256 votes, the highest vote in the country. She became the voice of political correctness in the next Dáil, piloting through ethics legislation, but her gaffe cost her dearly and she lost her seat in 1997 with considerably less than half her previous vote.
Now some in Fianna Fáil are justifying their €4,500 golden circle on the basis of Eithne Fitzgerald’s behaviour. “Don’t they realise what happened to Ethical Eithne!” they say.
Is this just stupidity, or is it contemptible arrogance of the highest order?