The year which saw two governments fall is best summed up by the phrase coined that August: Grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented. Ryle Dwyer reports
Reading through the State papers released today for 1982, one might think that it was a particularly dull year in the Republic.
But the relative calm of the files was contradicted by the turmoil in government. Two different governments actually fell during the year.
The period was best remembered as the year of the “Gubus”, thanks to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s characterisation of a massive scandal that erupted in Aug 1982 when a man wanted for two murders was arrested in Attorney General Patrick Connolly’s apartment, where he was staying as a guest.
During a press conference after Connolly’s resignation, Charles Haughey variously described the whole thing as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented, which prompted Cruise O’Brien to coin the word Gubu.
Looking back it seemed like there was a Gubu just about every month of the year, but there was little evidence of any of these in the government files. In January, Charlie McCreevy was expelled from Fianna Fáil for criticising taoiseach Charles J Haughey.
On Jan 26, Garret FitzGerald’s first government fell after the Dáil rejected John Bruton’s budget on a proposal to put Vat on children’s shoes. That night, Haughey tried to telephone President Paddy Hillery in an effort to persuade him not to call a general election, as Haughey believed that he could form a government with the support of disillusioned Independents in the Dáil.
If he were able to win a confidence vote, he could then ask for a general election, with Fianna Fáil holding office during the campaign. But Hillery refused to talk to Haughey or the other people who phoned on behalf of the Fianna Fáil leader.
It was an insult to the President to think he was not aware of his constitutional powers. The affair came back to haunt Fianna Fáil during the 1990 presidential election.
Haughey’s failure to lead Fianna Fáil to an overall majority in the ensuing general election of Feb 1982 led to unrest within the party. Des O’Malley was persuaded to challenge Haughey for the leadership in what amounted to an internal heave, but the challenge collapsed within a matter of hours.
Fianna Fáil needed independent support to form a government, and Haughey secured this by making a deal with Tony Gregory in return for agreeing to allocate money to employ 500 extra men in the inner city, generate 3,746 jobs in the same area within three years, build 440 houses in the inner city, and to nationalise Clondalkin Paper Mills, if no other option could be agreed upon within three months.
Those were only some of the features outlined in the agreement, which was formally signed and witnessed.
“As the Mafia say,” Haughey declared as he shook hands with Gregory following the signing, “it is a pleasure to do business with you.”
After forming a new government, Haughey pulled another political stroke by appointing Dick Burke of Fine Gael as Irish Commissioner to the European Community. This created a Dáil vacancy in Dublin West, where Haughey believed Fianna Fáil would easily win the ensuing by-election. However, Haughey had miscalculated. Liam Skelly retained the seat for Fine Gael.
In another by-election in July, Jim Mitchell of Fine Gael caused a sensation by divulging that telephone system installed in Haughey’s office during his first term as taoiseach had the capability of listening in undetected to any telephone conversation in Government Buildings and Leinster House. While the latest State papers have plenty of evidence of officials wishing to be connected to the telephone system, there was no evidence of any investigation into its extraordinary capabilities.
Haughey denied that he was aware of those capabilities. By divulging the matter for the first time during the Galway East by-election, Fine Gael were seen to be merely playing politics with the issue, and Fianna Fáil duly won the by-election.
During September there were two scandals involving justice minister Seán Doherty. On Sept 22, his escort car was involved in a crash in the early hours of the morning near Ballyduff, Co Kerry. There were unfounded rumours that Doherty was in the car, and these gained credence when An Garda Síochána initially stated that there had been no accident. If there was nothing to cover up, why were they covering up, people asked.
Some months later, the garda driver was charged with drink driving, but he was acquitted after a jury trial in 1983, so the file relating to this crash may be held over until the opening of the State papers next year.
Little over a week after the Ballyduff crash, Doherty was in further difficulties when his brother-in-law — Garda Thomas Nangle — was facing assault charges in Dowra, Co Cavan. The victim in the case, who was from the North, was mysteriously arrested and held for the day by the RUC, and the judge threw out the case in Dowra as the witness had failed to turn up.
Collusion between the RUC and An Garda Síochána was widely suspected, but Doherty denied any involvement. He publicly called on the Garda Commissioner “to conduct enquiries as to the circumstances in which the case proceeded in the absence of a key witness”. There is no evidence in the files that such an investigation was held.
On Oct 1, Charlie McCreevy threw another grenade into the political parrot-house when he proposed a motion of no confidence in Haughey’s leadership within Fianna Fáil. This led to an acrimonious debate within the party, but Haughey survived by 58 votes to 22.
Afterwards there were disgraceful scenes as some of Haughey’s inebriated supporters barracked McCreevy and assaulted Jim Gibbons as they were leaving Leinster House. Shortly afterwards, Gibbons suffered a heart attack, and the Fianna Fáil deputy Bill Loughnane died. Thus Haughey’s majority evaporated. As a result, his government was defeated on a confidence motion on Nov 2.
The ensuing general election was particularly acrimonious, as Garret FitzGerald was pilloried for having suggested closer co-operation between the Garda and RUC. The Fianna Fáil response seemed particularly ironic in the wake of the Dowra affair.
The disclosure in December that the Garda taps had been placed on the telephones of journalists Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold gave rise to another political crisis.
The new Fine Gael-Labour government made a major issue of tapping journalists, while conveniently ignoring the fact that they had previously tapped journalists Vincent Browne and Tim Pat Coogan. There is no mention of those scandals in the files just released.
It is ironic that detailed Garda files relating to the 1930s and 1940s have just been released, while there is essentially nothing on the Gubus. Maybe next year, or will the Irish people have to wait another 70 or 80 years to get the truth?
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