Haughey-style secrecy of some ministers raises serious questions

SHORTLY before he died, according to his son Seán, Charlie Haughey said: “I never broke my word in politics.”

As an historian, I usually recoil from such claims because they can be refuted with just one example. Everybody lies at some point in their lives. There is almost a sense about this of a child with the chocolate on his hands and face protesting that he did not eat any of the chocolate cake.

There were things about Charlie Haughey to admire. Once I was interviewed on air by Gerry Ryan about my book, Haughey’s 40 Years of Controversy.

During the break when I was ushered into the studio, Ryan told me he was friends with one of Haughey’s sons while growing up and was a frequent visitor to Abbeyville. He liked Charlie. I had expected the interview to last about 12 minutes, but it extended over an hour.

All the questions were about positive aspects of Haughey’s career. During one of the breaks, I remarked that I was not uncritical of Haughey.

Ryan said he knew that, but he thought it would be nice to bring out the positive side because there had been so much negative stuff in recent years. “Do you mind?” he asked.

I did not mind because the discussion was, in effect, providing a balance to all those who were unwilling to say a good word about Haughey. After the programme, the producer told us the phone lines were virtually melding down with complaints.

“To dismiss his entire contribution to the political, social, economic and cultural life of this country, as some commentators have attempted to do, on the basis of selected aspects of his personal finances, is simply absurd,” Seán Haughey argued this week. His father helped to lay the foundations for the Celtic Tiger economy. Of course, he had help from others in his own party and from Garret FitzGerald and Alan Dukes, too.

It was FitzGerald who announced what became known as the Tallaght Strategy on that day in 1987 when Haughey was elected Taoiseach for the third time, and it was Alan Dukes who implemented the strategy.

Unlike Haughey, who acted as a cynical spoiler while in opposition, FitzGerald and Dukes put the country first and allowed Haughey to turn the economy around. This is not to suggest Haughey did not do wrong. He promoted some of the greatest gougers that ever blighted Irish politics. But at least when he was caught, he had the decency to be embarrassed, unlike some of the others. Haughey clearly recognised that what had happened was wrong because, despite what his son might like to think, he lied like the proverbial trooper in trying to dissociate himself from his own misbehaviour. During the Arms Trial, for instance, he testified that he did not know Capt James J Kelly was importing a consignment of arms.

This contradicted testimony of his private secretary, Anthony Fagan; secretary of the Department of Justice Peter Berry; Defence Minister Jim Gibbons and Capt Kelly.

In 1980, Kevin Boland told Vincent Browne he had actually discussed the arms issue with Haughey before the crisis erupted, so there was no doubt Haughey knew that arms were involved.

“When he denied that he was involved in it,” Boland stated on air in 1998, “he was not telling the truth.” He got away with that, and then during the McCracken Tribunal he initially tried to deny he got any money from Ben Dunne, but he had to admit under the weight of evidence that he had indeed received millions from Dunne.

“As a result of reviewing the excellent work of the tribunal and considering the very helpful documentation recently received from Mr Ben Dunne’s solicitor, I now accept that I received the £1.3 million from Mr Ben Dunne,” Haughey admitted. In fact, he would ultimately admit he received more than £2m.

Maybe filial devotion is blind, and this explains Seán Haughey’s blindspot in talking about his father this week. Charlie Haughey had many accomplishments, but nobody else should be so gullible as to suggest he never broke his word in politics.

He noted that his father contended that he “never made a decision or took any action that was not motivated by the public good in so far as I could judge it”.

Terry Keane, who knew Haughey better than most, noted that he had the amazing facility for convincing himself that everything he did was in the national interest. Yea, he perjured himself for Ireland!

Recently members of the cabinet were asked whether they had loans from Anglo Irish Bank. Six ministers refused to answer. Why? If Haughey had refused to answer such a question, the moral rectitude mob would be screaming in indignation.

The vast majority of people borrow money from a bank or finance company at some time — to purchase a home, pay for house renovations or buy car. Politicians are no different and there is nothing wrong with a politician borrowing from any bank for such purposes.

When a bank loans money to its directors, friendly politicians, or just the man in the street, for the sole purpose of buying shares in that bank, however, that smacks of share price manipulation. Those who were enticed into investing as a result of such price manipulation could possibly hold the public responsible, if those who were responsible are not held accountable.

The Irish people now own that bank since its nationalisation, and we should learn from past mistakes.

In the case of Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA), for instance, Bank of Ireland loaned Colm Barrington, one of the directors, $1.5m to buy shares in the company and it essentially accepted the shares as collateral. When GPA went belly up and its shares became virtually worthless, the bank had to go whistle because it could not compel GPA employees to find alternative ways to repay the loans, even in Barrington’s case when he had more than $454,000 in his bank account.

THE public must be assured that no minister got such loans. Some of them — Mary Coughlan, Mary Hanafin and Willie O’Dea — had no problem stating they had no dealings with Anglo Irish. Why are the six so secretive? There must be no suggestion of a conflict of interest in the nationalisation of the bank.

Rather than answering questions, ministers have been behaving like gurriers on television, talking over everyone and answering no one. It is not just unedifying, it is utterly insulting to the public.

Ministers who cannot attest they did not get such a loan are unfit for office. It is not enough they should be above suspicion; they must be seen to be above suspicion.

Of course, ministers are not supposed to invest in stocks and shares and they are supposed to divest themselves of the shares they hold at the time of their appointment. An exception was exposed in 1994 when Brian Cowen was minister in charge of mining. He had failed to dispose of investments in three different mining companies.

The problems we are facing are still only beginning to surface and there must be no question of any minister having a conflict of interest in relation to the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank.

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