Assessing — and learning from — the legacy of Charles J Haughey

Charles J Haughey was born 90 years ago tomorrow. Biographer Ryle Dwyer examines his political legacy and the scandal that followed him

Assessing — and learning from — the legacy of Charles J Haughey

In the early 1980s, publishers Gill & Macmillan asked me to write a biography of Charles J Haughey, which they planned to publish on his likely return to power. The book,  Charlie, was duly published in 1987, just after he became taoiseach for a third time.

Although I began my research from a hostile perspective, I soon discovered that some of Mr Haughey’s most vocal critics had essentially engaged in much the same conduct that they so sanctimoniously denounced.

For instance, they roundly criticised Mr Haughey’s involvement in tapping the telephones of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold in 1982 on the grounds that tapping journalists was unacceptable in a democracy, but the Fine Gael/Labour coalition of the 1970s had also tapped two journalists — Vincent Browne and Tim Pat Coogan.

Of course, the Cosgrave government’s tapping of two journalists did not justify Mr Haughey’s involvement in tapping other journalists, but Fine Gael and Labour could have spared us their hypocrisy about tapping journalists.

Mr Haughey’s career was blighted by other controversies, such as personally accepting over £4m from various businessmen, such as Patrick Gallagher and Ben Dunne, as well as the way in which he pocketed excess money donated to cover the medical expenses of Brian Lenihan’s kidney transplant.

Judge Brian McCracken concluded in his 1997 tribunal report that it was “quite unacceptable that a member of Dáil Éireann, and in particular a cabinet minister and taoiseach, should be supported in his personal lifestyle by gifts made to him personally”.

The judge went on to criticise the evidence given by Mr Haughey under oath.

“The tribunal considers Mr Charles Haughey’s evidence to be unacceptable and untrue,” the judge concluded, citing 11 instances in which the former taoiseach’s evidence was “not believable”, “quite unbelievable”, “most unlikely”, “beyond all credibility”, or “incomprehensible”. Nobody should really have been surprised, because Mr Haughey had obviously perjured himself in 1970 during the Arms Trial in contradicting the evidence of cabinet colleague Jim Gibbons and his co-defendant, Capt James Kelly.

At the time, it was suggested that the arms were intended to help Northern nationalists protect themselves against armed unionist thugs. That might have been understandable, but a closer look at the role of Capt Kelly suggested a much more sinister purpose.

“It is now necessary to harness all opinion in the State in a concerted drive towards achieving the aim of unification,” Capt Kelly wrote on August 23, 1969. “This means accepting the possibility of armed action of some sort, as the ultimate solution.

“If civil war embracing the area was to result because of unwillingness to accept that war is the continuation of politics by other means, it would be a far greater evil for the Irish nation.”

In short, he was ready to provoke a civil war to promote his concept of Irish unity, and Mr Haughey bolstered Capt Kelly’s crazy machinations.

This aspect of the Arms Crisis has generally been overlooked. This exposed not only a reckless streak in Mr Haughey but also a similar recklessness on the part of some of his vocal opponents within Fianna Fáil. They were aware of the planned gun-running, but turned a blind eye.

Mr Haughey survived the various political crises because he had been such an effective minister in a wide range of portfolios. Peter Berry — the secretary of the Department of Justice and the person most responsible for forcing the issues that led to the Arms Crisis — tried to have Mr Haughey jailed, but he personally regarded him as “the ablest” of the 14 justice ministers under whom he had served.

“He was a joy to work with, and the longer he stayed, the better he got,” Mr Berry recalled.

Mr Haughey was responsible for introducing the Succession Act, which bolstered women’s rights. It ensured that a man had to provide for his wife in his will, and could not leave everything to the Church or somebody else.

As agriculture minister from 1964 to 1966, Mr Haughey helped to build up the national herd. James Dillon, the former leader of Fine Gael who prided himself on his agricultural expertise, personally despised Mr Haughey but still considered him “an excellent Minister for Agriculture”. Mr Haughey was also credited with being an innovative finance minister from 1966 to 1970. The country was enjoying unprecedented prosperity and he had the vision to introduce a number of imaginative yet comparatively cheap giveaways, such as free travel for the elderly.

When Jack Lynch returned to power in 1977, he appointed Mr Haughey health and social welfare minister. The purse strings of that government were controlled by the taoiseach and George Colley, Martin O’Donoghue, and Des O’Malley.

Figuratively speaking, they would not give Mr Haughey the “itch”, but he still got funding for a hospital building programme and established himself as a particularly effective health minister. After little more than a couple of years, he was elected to replace Jack Lynch as taoiseach in 1979.

After two tainted terms as taoiseach from 1979 to 1981, and again in 1982, Mr Haughey revitalised the economy after his return to power in 1987. Even his most vocal critics credited him with being behind the success of the Financial Services Centre in Dublin.

Mr Haughey used his tremendous talents to get to top of the greasy political pole, but in the process he abused those talents and seriously tainted Irish politics. Surely it is time people should ask how he got away with it all? Otherwise, we could be doomed to make the same mistakes again with even more disastrous consequences.

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