The spotlight should not fall exclusively on the history of the North these days. We’re told that the launch of a constitutional convention in the Republic is imminent. Doubts are rife that it will it do the job. Although sparked by the financial collapse, it must review the robustness of the Republic’s institutions from much further back, to the State’s birth in revolution and internal warfare and the “slightly constitutional” stance of the young Fianna Fail in the 1920s which continued to inspire the – shall we say – improvised – style of governance that the party adopted under Charles Haughey.
Today the Irish Times carries an interview by Joe Joyce and Geraldine Kennedy with Jim Kirby a former Department of Justice official about the malign role of Haughey as Taoiseach 30 years ago, when although the leader of a short lived minority government he was allowed to act as a virtual dictator. The material corroborates what was covered in minute detail in Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh’s riveting book “The Boss”. But it’s good to hear it sourced to a senior official in the Justice department , not unlike accounts of the Arms Trial of 1970 and the role of the redoubtable Peter Berry. The department tried to hold the line of propriety for decades but failed to blow the whistle sufficiently loudly to compel the whole establishment, in particular the politicians, to get rid of Haughey until the next decade, when one of his most wretched henchman of 1982, Sean Doherty, administered a coup de grace that underlined the inevitability of his resignation.
Haughey’s arbitrary behaviour as taoiseach exposed the fragility of the Republic’s institutions at the time. While these have strengthened , the Republic still has to face yup to just how weak they were – and probably still are. The following extract from the Kirby interview is about about the falling out between the two governments over the hunger strike and the Falklands war.
The nub of it was that Haughey wasn’t going to operate the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act [passed by the previous Fine Gael-Labour government as a compromise to the extradition of IRA activists]. This was the law of the land, and this was a vital piece of legislation in dealing with terrorism – and, you know, it wasn’t going to happen. There were gasps around the place. I could see some of the others’ faces. We were all mesmerised.
“Then Haughey went on to complain about the Argentinians, saying they had let us down, they could have sunk a British aircraft carrier. I thought it was a deliberate policy to worsen Anglo-Irish relations.”
During the period my late friend Barry Cowan who was working for RTE approached Haughey for a major interview for the Today, Tonight show. Relations with Britain were terrible over Haughey’s Falklands posturing and even worse on the Irish side over Thatcher’s intransigence over the hunger strike. Haughey was happy to talk about the Falklands row but reluctant to discuss the hunger strike: “Oh very sensitive, very sensitive.”.
Barry said : “ In that case we might have to give the leader of the opposition a right of reply”
Haughey glared at him: “You’re a fly wee cunt, aren’t you?”
Quick as a flash Barry replied: “Well, it takes one to know one .”
My own brief experience of Haughey in the period came the day after the publication of the New Ireland forum report in 1984 which he signed but immediately reversioned to denounce the recognition of unionist Britishness and opt for only one of the four alternatives offered, a unitary Irish state. The encounter showed both faces of his style. He had granted the BBC an extremely rare Interview back to back with the main studio coverage in RTE. Sitting beside me he purred: “ We must do this more often”. I replied: As often as you like, Mr Haughey”. Then he espied in the monitor Jim Prior the secretary of state being interviewed: “ Get that fuckin’ man off the screen. We don’t want him here.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London