McCreevy showed moral courage in Haughey leadership challenge

McCreevy explained he was objecting to Haughey’s leadership because there had been a lowering of political standards, mishandling of the economy, as well as the party’s failure to secure a majority in two successive general elections.

People wanted to be governed not bought

THE 25th anniversary of Charlie McCreevy’s famous no-confidence motion in the leadership of Charles Haughey went virtually unnoticed last week. It was one of the braver political acts, and is worth remembering.

John F. Kennedy famously wrote a book, Profiles in Courage, in which he examined a number of courageous political acts by different people. We have a colourful history, which has been crying out for similar treatment, commemorating people who showed moral courage.

On the night the 1921 treaty was signed Lloyd George remarked privately that the big question was whether Michael Collins would have the courage to sign. The Prime Minister had given the Irish delegation until 10 o’clock to sign. When 11 o’clock passed without any sign of the Irish team returning, the British became uneasy. “We had doubts as to whether we would see them again,” Lloyd George admitted. He realised it all depended on Collins.

“If only Michael Collins has as much moral courage as he has physical courage,” the Prime Minister said, “we shall get a settlement. But moral courage is a much higher quality than physical courage, and it is a quality brave men often lack.”

The Big Fellow was not lacking in moral courage. He signed the Treaty, not because he was afraid of the British, but because it essentially contained all the means of achieving what he had been sent to get.

“Think what I have got for Ireland,” he wrote hours later. “Will anybody be satisfied at the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this, early this morning I signed my death warrant. I thought at the time, how odd, how ridiculous — a bullet might just as well have done the job five years ago.”

Richard Mulcahy was Chief of Staff of the IRA during the War of Independence and he became Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army during the Civil War after the death of Collins.

Walls around the country were daubed with the threatening slogan, “Move over Mick, make room for Dick.”

Mulcahy, who unselfishly stepped aside for John A. Costello to become Taoiseach in 1948, had the courage of his convictions during the Troubles, but he did not show himself in the bravest light during the 1950s as Minister for Education. When the bishops said, “Jump,” he figuratively asked, “How high?” He realised that the leather strap — of which the Christian Brothers were so fond — was illegal. He actually moved to get rid of it until he realised he was treading on the toes of those church figures who thought it was their God-given right to control Irish education. He then dropped the idea. Why was he so afraid of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and company? Mulcahy was not lacking in physical or moral courage.

Probably his greatest contribution to Irish political life was in March 1924 during the Army Mutiny. The government had been cutting the size of the army by more than three-quarters following the end of the civil war. As Defence Minister Mulcahy implemented the cuts, much to the disapproval of some of his men. General Liam Tobin and Colonel Charlie Dalton issued an ultimatum to halt the demobilisation. They and their backers had followed Collins in accepting the Treaty as a stepping-stone to full freedom, but now it seemed the government was happy with the Irish Free State as an end in itself.

They therefore insisted that the goals of Collins be implemented. It was only little over a year since Benito Mussolini came to power with his famous March on Rome. It was to be one of a whole series of military coup d’états throughout Europe.

Mulcahy opposed the mutiny and loyally stood up to his former comrades, but he was forced out of the government and went quietly. This was not the sign “of a weak man, but a committed democrat,” in the judgment of historian Joe Lee. By having the courage to accept his humiliation, Mulcahy “forestalled a really serious crisis.”

Eamon de Valera showed moral courage by supporting the admission of the Soviet Union into the League of Nations in the 1930s. A whole generation would never forget the Long Fellow’s magnificent response to Churchill in May 1945 after the end of the war in Europe. It was one of those rare moments in life.

Noel Browne defied the Hierarchy during the Mother and Child controversy, and Donogh O’Malley had the exquisite audacity to say he had not even asked Archbishop John Charles McQuaid before announcing plans to amalgamate Trinity and UCD with the same abandon that he had announced free secondary education. Donogh was a man before his time, but unfortunately he died very shortly afterwards.

Charlie McCreevy showed his mettle in December 1981 as a Fianna Fáil backbencher when he denounced Charlie Haughey’s tactics as leader of the opposition. “We seem to be against everything and for nothing,” he complained. “We are so hell bent in assuming power that we are prepared to do anything for it.”

Haughey had the parliamentary party expel McCreevy for a short time until a general election was called. On Friday, 1 October 1982, McCreevy dropped a political bombshell by placing a motion of no confidence in Haughey’s leadership on the agenda of the parliamentary party meeting for the following Wednesday.

That meeting began at 11am and lasted into the evening. McCreevy explained he was objecting to Haughey’s leadership because there had been a lowering of political standards, mishandling of the economy, as well as the party’s failure to secure a majority in two successive general elections.

People wanted to be governed not bought, he said, emphasising it was time “to get decency back into the party.” Haughey defeated the motion comfortably, but some of his supporters were anything but magnanimous in victory.

“These people have been flushed out now,” one supporter said. “The situation after tonight is that they had better be ready to kiss Haughey’s ass, or get out of the party.”

THE MOOD was so ugly that gardaí tried to persuade McCreevy to leave Leinster House by a side entrance, but he refused. As he emerged by the front door, surrounded by six gardaí, he was met by a jeering group of Haughey supporters. Some of the ass-kissers — let’s not to mention any names — could hardly do enough for Haughey, but Charlie McCreevy bravely ploughed his own furrow.

He was not appointed to the cabinet until 1992, when the announcement by Albert Reynolds got a warm friendly reception from all sides of the house. In his years in Leinster House McCreevy demonstrated both courage and vision.

In time he may yet be best remembered not only for his moral courage but also for his vision, as the man who introduced the SSIA saving scheme, which started many people saving.

Ultimately McCreevy was despatched to Europe as Ireland’s EU Commissioner. He deserved this as a reward for his moral courage, but he got the golden shaft because he was his own man.


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