“The best thing I ever did was introduce the free travel…”

Such a large figure in Irish political life, apparently self-contracted to such a modest achievement in last the days of his life…

  • The scale and complexity of Haughey mean we ask, as Metternich did of Talleyrand’s death, “what did he mean by that?”

    On one level, the triviality of this interview (not that the free travel was not, and is not an imaginative leap, and a worthy credit) agrees with Diarmaid Ferriter’s assessment :

    For all the acres of newsprint Charles Haughey generated up to his retirement in 1992, what was most significant was his insistence that he had no ideology, from which one of his protégés, Bertie Ahern, Toaoiseach from 1997, was later to reap much political benefit. Both presented themselves as equally concerned with wealth creation and social justice, with little mention of class or inequality, while socialism, according to Haughey, was ‘an alien gospel of class warfare, envy and strife, is also inherently unIrish and therefore unworthy of a serious place in the language of Irish political debate’.

    Ah! so now we know whom and what to blame!

    Yet, the Metternich/Talleyrand question doesn’t go away.

    Haughey specifically proffers:

    the reason given for joining Fianna Fáil was the same as for his interest in politics in the first place – contemporaries in his youth. In particular, he mentioned that Harry Boland and George Colley were already tied to Fianna Fáil, and “it was as simple as that”.

    Well, simple perhaps it ain’t. The Haughey family were deep into the nationalist cause. Father Johnny, burned out of County Derry for his switch to the Free State, had smuggled guns into Donegal. Charlie was born to the Free State garrison of Castlebar (which must have been a “front-line” posting). There’s little “simple” in the politics there.

    Haughey (1925-2006) might have been a contemporary of George Colley (1925-1983) and even of Kevin Boland (1917-2001), but most definitely not of the original Harry Boland (1887-1922). Of course, Haughey is referring here to the St Joseph’s CBS, Fairview, connection and to Harry Boland’s nephew and namesake, son of Gerry Boland (1883-1973), with whom Haughey formed the accountancy practice. On another occasion we might usefully reprise the curious dealings of Haughey and Harry Boland in connection with Guinness & Mahon, Bankers. However, there is a troubling echo, perhaps a hint to posterity, there.

    If the Boland thing is what brought Haughey on board FF, that is definitely worth a moment’s thought. Here I am mindful of David Fitzpatrick’s biography of the original Harry Boland (the original publication of which would have been close in time to this interview), and the parallels it prompts. Re-reading the very opening paragraph of that book, I found myself transposing names:

    … an arms-smuggler. Quick-witted, hard-working, efficient, generous, attractive even to his adversaries … clear-headed and a shrewd political analyst, he was not an original thinker or policy-maker… Many things to many men and women, he had the gift of seeming straight-forward even when compelled to be devious.

    Actually, Charlus never needed too much compunction to be devious, and that is the essential parallel which can be drawn from Fitzpatrick’s epilogue.

    The doings of both Boland in the revolutionary period and of Haughey later did have an ideology: they stemmed from a quest for republican unity and political hegemony (in the latter case, we should chuck in personal aggrandisement). The shared methodology was compromise, duplicity, and a superb line in propaganda. As Fitzpatrick grimly concludes: Harry Boland was a forerunner for Adams and McGuinness. Haughey was in the same game.