Book review: On the flawed genius of Charles J Haughey…

David Moane is a Dublin-based retiree with an interest in politics and current affairs. Here he re-assesses the career of Charlie Haughey in the light of Gary Murphy’s recently well received biography.
I have mixed views on Haughey. I am in my early sixties now and am old enough to remember the great sparring matches between him and Conor Cruise O’Brien. When Haughey was appointed Taoiseach in December 1979, O’Brien was editor-in-chief of the Observer newspaper. He wrote a column with the memorable heading “Beware of the sulphurous charms of Charles J. Haughey.” I have often wondered if he was right.
The latest biography of Haughey by Gary Murphy is well researched, comprehensive and sympathetic but not uncritical. Haughey’s long and chequered ministerial record took wing when Lemass appointed him Minister for Justice in 1961. As Minister he revived the de Valera military courts to deal with the “old IRA” Border campaign, something often forgotten. I do not believe he was willingly prepared to arm what became the Provos in 1969-71 and he was acquitted in a court of law during what became known as the Arms Trial.
He took an imaginative approach to NI when appointed Taoiseach which impressed Thatcher when they first met in the spring of 1980. She came to Dublin with a high-powered ministerial delegation in December 1980, the first of its kind, and agreed to his suggestion that NI should be approached by both Governments in the context of the “the totality of relationships” (his famous term) covering both countries. That led to the FitzGerald achievement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and on to the three Strands of the Belfast Agreement.
Was he personally corrupt? He took money from personal donors to fund his lavish lifestyle (hello Boris Johnson) but despite a lengthy and exhaustive public tribunal into his personal finances, the tribunal was explicit in stating that it could find no links between his donations and corrupt decisions when in office. My own view is he had many admirers who valued his competency, appreciated he would have made a fortune in private business and were happy to fund someone of his calibre who was prepared to make that sacrifice for public office. Not politically correct by any means, but 30 to 50 years ago (his ministerial career spanned 1961 to 1991) there was a different attitude and it prevailed in many parts of the democratic West.
Looking back, there was a coterie in Fianna Fáil who never accepted Haughey’s legitimacy and they made his first two terms in office as Taoiseach virtually impossible (1979-81; 1981-82). You could call it sabotage. They made peace with him in his last term, 1987-91, as did Thatcher (they fell out over the Falklands War) who valued his input at EU summits and on NI. She is notably warm about him in her memoires.
In that final four-year term, when he was allowed to govern unimpeded by sniping, Haughey turned the economy around in dramatic fashion, brought the unions into social partnership and set the precedent for strongly redistributive economic policies which all subsequent Governments have followed. Apart from the Crash years of 2010-13, the economy has gone from strength to strength on the foundations laid by his last administration.
What did for Haughey with the public was the hypocrisy, on their part and his. Canvassing against divorce in the 1986 referendum when most knew he had a mistress was the start. Mary Robinson’s election as President in November 1990 (a pivotal turning point in modern Irish history) ushered in a new era when Haughey seemed like a dinosaur. He had to go and was dispatched a year later. But as he said himself in his final Dáil speech as Taoiseach and quoting Shakespeare’s Othello, he did the State “some service”. Despite the downsides.

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