Following publication of my book, Haughey’s 40 Years of Controversy, in May of last year, I was interviewed by Gerry Ryan on his radio programme. As a childhood friend of Conor Haughey, Gerry Ryan was often in the Haughey household. The former Taoiseach usually made time for his children’s friends, and he would sit down and chat with them. It is not the usual image of an all-consuming politician.
The live interview, which I expected to last for about 15 minutes, went on for a full hour. The questions were about the positive side of Haughey’s contribution to politics. During a break about half way through the programme, I mentioned that I was not uncritical of Haughey.
“I know that,” Gerry Ryan replied. But he thought there had been so much negative stuff in recent years that he would like to bring out the positive. I had no problem with that.
As an historian, I try to be balanced, but sometimes in order to redress an imbalance it is necessary to be reciprocally unbalanced. After the programme, the producer said the phone lines were jammed with calls demanding that they get that so-and-so off the air.
Catherine Butler’s interview in the latest issue of The Village is an obvious attempt to balance some of the negative stuff about Haughey. She was his personal assistant for over a decade and she feels he was courageous, generous, loyal, often very soft and emotional… he set the basis for the Celtic Tiger… he risked his career and reputation by opening up contact with the republican movement to encourage them to give up violence.
She was probably right, but she got carried away when she said “he never used his public office for his personal gain”. That, unfortunately, is the tragedy of Haughey’s legacy. There is overwhelming evidence that he did abuse his office, but he also accomplished a tremendous amount in various ministries.
His first two terms as Taoiseach were disasters, but he accomplished a tremendous amount the third time. He was, in fact, the most accomplished minister ever to become Taoiseach. Haughey was a brilliant Minister for Justice. Even Peter Berry — the Secretary of the Department who did his best to have Haughey jailed over the Arms Crisis — still rated him as the best of the 14 ministers he had served under. James Dillon, the Fine Gael leader, regarded Haughey as an excellent Minister for Agriculture, and he was very widely regarded as a most innovative Minister for Finance.
“How can you write such frightful shite about Charlie Haughey,” Ruairi Quinn asked me one night at a Labour conference. In recent years the Department of Health has been a poison chalice. That was why Haughey was given Health and Social Welfare in 1977.
Political enemies like Jack Lynch, George Colley, Des O’Malley and Martin O’Donoghue dominated the inner cabinet, yet Haughey was still able to do such a good and effective job that he was elected Taoiseach little over two years later.
The big issue in The Village interview is whether Haughey was driven from office by a lie — that he was aware Seán Doherty had requested taps on the telephones of Bruce Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy in 1982 over cabinet leaks.
“What leaks?” Pearse Wyse asked at a parliamentary party meeting.
“The Fianna Fáil farm plan had appeared, for instance, in the Farmer’s Journal,” Haughey replied to a chorus of incredulous laughter.
“Isn’t it strange then that you would tap the telephones of journalists working in the Tribune and the Independent?” Wyse responded.
If Haughey was not aware of the taps when they were introduced, it was because — like Jack Lynch in relation to the Arms Crisis — he chose to turn a blind eye.
Before those taps were introduced, Haughey talked to the Deputy Garda Commissioner, Joe Ainsworth.
“He told me quite clearly that he was worried about leaks appearing in the paper,” Ainsworth later explained. “He asked if I could do anything to find out what was going on.”
In the ways of government, he was softening up Ainsworth for Doherty’s request.
Shortly afterwards, Doherty asked Ainsworth if journalists had ever been tapped.
The deputy commissioner replied that taps were introduced on Vincent Brown and Tim Pat Coogan during the Fine Gael/Labour coalition. On the basis of precedent, Vincent Brown knows that Haughey’s government had a much better case for tapping Arnold and Kennedy.
GARRET FitzGerald told Brown that he was tapped because he had previously been in touch with some subversive and the authorities thought he might resume the contact. On the other hand, somebody had been leaking cabinet information to both Arnold and Kennedy.
After Haughey’s first full cabinet meeting as Taoiseach in December 1979, his Tánaiste, George Colley, telephoned Bruce Arnold with some details of what happened at the meeting. He added that Haughey was “dangerous and should have been blocked from the leadership, and should be got out as fast as possible”.
In the case of Geraldine Kennedy, she quoted from a cabinet meeting exchange the week before the tap was placed on her telephone. Maybe such cabinet leaks did not warrant taps, but surely they provided more justification than the mere suspicion that somebody might phone Vincent Browne. Catherine Butler argues that
Doherty was lying when he said he regularly gave Haughey copies of transcripts. He did not get copies regularly, so he could not have passed them on.
But he did get extra copies of the transcript of a conversation between Geraldine Kennedy and Charlie McCreevy, just before the latter’s no confidence motion in Haughey’s leadership was tabled for a parliamentary party meeting.
Then there was a curious incident after the meeting when the Taoiseach’s son, Ciarán, walked up to Geraldine Kennedy. “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.
Was he aware of her conversation with McCreevy? Catherine Butler depicts Haughey as someone who “never held a grudge”. That probably contradicts many people’s view, but Dick Spring, Garret FitzGerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien have all stated that he was always very polite to them. On a personal basis, they never had a problem with him.
Dick Spring once telephoned Catherine Butler to say he was “very concerned” about Haughey. This was after a meeting of the New Ireland Forum in December 1983. Spring had accused Haughey of leaking to the press.
“No one has suffered more than I have from journalists,” Haughey complained indignantly. At that point he burst into tears and was led from the room sobbing uncontrollably. This was a human side of the political machine that Spring had never seen before.
Later that afternoon Haughey told Spring that his family had been greatly upset by recent publicity and his daughter had to come home distraught over the abuse. This was understandably hard for any father to take. Even Spring felt genuinely sorry for Haughey that day. Haughey was always a soft touch for a hard luck story. He may be too proud to seek compassionate understanding now, but he does deserve it.