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Charlie, you’re my darlin’? Haughey: chieftain or chancer?

For some people, choosing gifts for significant people in their lives is more of an ordeal than it should be. That is because they are beset by a romantic perception of how the process should unfold. The gift should be a complete surprise to the recipient who should spontaneously and immediately realise this is exactly what they most wanted. This happy outcome should be achieved without any prior consultation between donor and beneficiary. Like wordless sex, wonderful in theory, but difficult to execute smoothly in practice.

In our household, things are more prosaic and, therefore, much more relaxed. Shortly before last Christmas, a new biography of Charles J Haughey was published. I suggested to my wife that she buy it as my Christmas present. She committed and delivered. Not exciting but effective.

As I lived through most of Mr. Haughey’s political heyday, I already know the plot of this movie. But two things about this biography made me want to read it. First, it is based not only on “extensive interviews with more than eighty of his [Haughey] peers, rivals, confidants and relatives” but also “on unfettered access to Haughey’s personal archives” which no previous biographer has been given.

Second, the writer entrusted to make good and fair use of those archives was Gary Murphy, Professor of Politics at Dublin City University (where the archives are held). He has generally struck me as diligent and decent in his media punditry, if also prosaic.

Another feature of the biography that encouraged and discouraged me in equal measure is that it is the proverbial doorstopper, running to 630 pages. That is why it was left aside for summer holiday reading.

But I did read some reviews at the time of the book’s publication.

The first was in The Irish Times by Professor Diarmuid Ferriter of UCD who is as frugal in his praise of the book as he is generous in his swipes at its subject. To be fair, this was classified as an opinion piece rather than a review as such, but the headline captures it all: “Latest assessment of Haughey era seems derailed by deference”. The same newspaper’s “official” review by Colm Toibin was slightly less pointed, the headline again capturing the tone: “A scholarly but overly flattering portrait”.

The third was by the former RTE producer and journalist, Michael Heney, for the Dublin Review of Books (DRB). This was longer, more detailed, probably more considered, courteous and less curt than the others but no less withering in its criticism.

Links to all three are at the end of this blog.

Anyone who grew up after the Haughey “era” and who has only a historical perception of the man might have difficulty grasping why he was such a fascinating figure to “oldies” like myself who lived through his time in public life.

Political longevity was the foundation. First elected a TD for Fianna Fáil in his familial hinterland of Dublin North East in 1957 and a prodigious vote-getter from then on, his cabinet career began at the age of 35 in 1961, ending with his resignation as Taoiseach in 1992.

But, the “colour” matters more than the chronology.

At the beginning of his career, Fianna Fáil was truly the natural party of government — the only party that entered every election with a decent prospect of emerging from it capable of forming a government without support from any other party. It ruled uninterrupted as a single party government from 1957–1973.

Mr. Haughey ascended the cabinet rankings briskly and smoothly through the 1960s, from Justice to Agriculture to Finance. His succession to the office of Taoiseach seemed almost inevitable until the arms crisis of 1970 banished him to the Hades of the backbenches for five years from which he resurrected his career to become Taoiseach in 1979.

The 1980s was the decade of “head to head” contests with Garret Fitzgerald, Fine Gael’s squeaky clean, new broom leader and the deliberate antithesis of Haughey, against a backdrop of a decade-long grimly stagnant economy. They fought four elections between 1981 and 1987, each emerging as Taoiseach from two of them. But that decade also introduced the fragmentation of the parliamentary political spectrum that prevails today and the consequent erosion of Fianna Fáil’s majoritarian ethos.

After four years in opposition, Haughey headed a minority Fianna Fáil government after the 1987 election. As the economy began to look up, in 1989, Haughey called a snap election in a final lunge for the elusive overall majority. The gamble failed. Fianna Fáil lost seats and the party was forced into the ignominy of formal coalition with the new Progressive Democrats beginning the countdown to his political decommissioning by his own party three years later.

Colourful though his professional career was, Mr.Haughey’s political ups and downs contributed only part of his overall impact on national life. He was a man in a hurry in every sense. In 1959, Mr. Haughey, his wife Maureen (the then Taoiseach’s daughter) and family moved from their semi-detached house on the Howth Road to Grangemore, a large Georgian house on 45 acres in Raheny. Ten years later, the family moved to Abbeville in Kinsealy, north of Dublin Airport, a 12 bedroom Georgian mansion on 270 acres to which he later added a swimming pool. Further trappings of apparent wealth also appeared along his life’s journey: vintage wine, horses, yachts, exotic holidays, his own island and the clichéd ultimate accessory, an attractive mistress.

It was a lifestyle entirely unaffordable on many multiples of any political salary. “How is it done?” was a question frequently posed but never satisfactorily answered in the media, and never answered at all by Mr. Haughey until it emerged through the tribunals after his retirement that he was essentially a “kept man”, remaining afloat for much of his life because of donations from friends. The confirmation of at least €9 million such donations in aggregate was the equivalent of the revelation of Dorian Gray’s sordid portrait in the attic. The lingering remains of Mr. Haughey’s reputation were shredded instantly.

Haughey’s public reputation resided in perception of him as a man of action and energy, smartness and cuteness, rather than a person of probity and integrity. If he could only do half as well for the country as he had done for himself, it would still advance us by leaps and bounds.

He never revealed the sources of his affluence, but was perfectly happy for the fact of it to be on open display. As a result, the general assumption was that, while he might have bent the rules (such as the “rules” were) in accumulating his fortune, he might not actually have broken them. That his lifestyle was the result of straightforward handouts rather than any financial or commercial acumen on his part was a devastating revelation.

Ní fheicfimid a leithéid arís.

And that’s a cause for relief — but with a tinge of wistfulness. Today’s bland, pallid and pasteurised political leaders are as stale beer to Mr. Haughey’s champagne.

Now back to Professor Murphy’s book.

First, the reviewers’ verdicts.

Diarmuid Ferriter concedes somewhat haughtily in his review that there is much of value in the book. Michael Heney puts more flesh on that bone, albeit with praise faint enough to come full circle towards damnation:

…there is much to be said in its favour. It has an epic feel, and only in describing some of the early years is it ever less than interesting. The writing style is direct, accessible and effective.

[an] exhaustive, and exhausting tome of a biography

For most of the book’s 630 pages, the approach is relentlessly chronological.

Colm Toibin affirmed that Professor Murphy “writes with skill and relish”. The biography “benefits from a sober research led tone” and “will be a useful work for historians”.

“But there are times when his praise goes too far”. And times “where he loses the run of himself completely”, illustrated by this:

Churchill, like Haughey, had seen himself as the man destined to lead his people to greatness, was sustained in his lifestyle by wealthy supporters, complained of an ungrateful electorate, and of intellectual pygmies in his own party, and suffered bouts of melancholy and self-doubt. Haughey was the same in all respects.

Professor Murphy does not spare the rod in his assessment of Haughey’s political skills. Haughey was as often ham fisted as he was adroit. He got much right but much wrong too. If he had a Midas touch (almost literally) in his personal “business” dealings, he lacked equivalent assurance in political decision making.

But the reviewers’ most trenchant criticisms are not of Professor Murphy’s assessment of Haughey the politician, but of the professor’s skirting around any accusation of hypocrisy, double standards or related moral failing against his subject, let alone any expression of outrage about him. Indeed, Professor Murphy sometimes seems to bend over backwards to find mitigating doubts in Mr. Haughey’s defence with a punctiliousness that only amplifies the case for the prosecution.

In summary, Professor Murphy confined himself mainly to the role of detached chronicler which he does reasonably well, while ducking any responsibility to act as an authoritative assessor of his subject’s personal behaviour. Garret Fitzgerald famously described Haughey as having a flawed pedigree. The book highlights the perceived pedigree while downplaying the actual and egregious flaws. Light touch adjudication it surely is.

I will come back to the substance shortly. But, first I want to highlight some irritating editorial shortcomings in the book which diminish its authority more than it deserves.

On my way through the book, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter (on Page 130) a benign reference to my father, Donal Creedon, who was appointed as Haughey’s Private Secretary on the latter’s first day as Minister for Agriculture. Having hit on one reference, I turned, as one does, to the index to see if there were more. Sure enough, the index signalled another on Page 138.

But when I turned to Page 138, no such reference was to be found. There was a reference to the Fine Gael TD, Donal Creed, but not to Donal Creedon. Donal Creed is not listed in the index.

Nine pages further on, I came to this:

Brendan O’Donnell, who had replaced Michael Creedon as Haughey’s private secretary in 1965, recalled….

“Michael” Creedon?

If this seems like point scoring or nit picking on my part, it isn’t. The accuracy of details like this doesn’t affect the credibility of the overall narrative but they are especially irritating because they are as easy, indeed easier, to get right than to get wrong. And there is no shortage of similar slovenly slips throughout the book.

On to the more serious matter of whether Professor Murphy is unduly lenient in his treatment of Haughey’s personal character. I want to focus on two important examples of his being exactly that.

The first is Haughey’s handling of the Fine Gael-Labour government referendum of 1986 to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. The lesser allegation of hypocrisy or doublethink is that Haughey and Fianna Fáil “officially” took no stance on the proposal but, in practice, went all out to defeat them. Professor Murphy records this faithfully.

Prior to the referendum Haughey told one of his correspondents that ‘our party came to the conclusion that this was an issue which should be left to the people to decide in a calm, objective non-political atmosphere…

Yet, in a statement made in the closing stages of the campaign, Haughey said that he came to the issue of divorce from the perspective of the family, and expressed his ‘unshakeable belief in the importance of having the family as the basic unit of our society’. This left no one in any doubt as to where he stood on the referendum.

Without further comment, Professor Murphy moves on to the tougher question of how this stance could be reconciled with Haughey’s long term extra-marital affair.

The affair had swirled vaguely in the media ether for years. But it was confirmed publicly a decade later when Terry Keane confessed all on The Late Late Show. Professor Murphy writes:

…critics said that Haughey was quite happy to espouse family values while condemning thousands of others to misery in loveless marriages. This is obviously true on one level, but on the other hand it is also clear that Haughey never intended to leave his own wife. He certainly had no interest in getting divorced and he did believe that the family unit was best organisational structure for society.

That implies a verdict on the Professor’s part that Haughey’s moral compass had somehow managed to navigate safely through the narrow channel of “That’s maybe just about alright, then.”

But let’s look at what he says more closely.

First, in saying it “is obviously true on one level” that Haughey was being hypocritical and then moving rapidly along, Professor Murphy is downgrading the “truth” he has just stated or saying that it doesn’t matter very much. Something is no less true for being obviously so and therefore no less morally relevant. End of story.

Second, we have only Professor Murphy’s and Haughey’s word that he actually believed the family unit was the best organisational structure for society. And even if Haughey did actually believe it rather than just say he believed it, his behaviour in this instance was not obviously compatible with that belief.

Third and most important, Mrs. Haughey’s position in all this escapes any consideration by Professor Murphy. Whether or not she acquiesced or even blessed her husband’s betrayal is irrelevant. The unavailability of divorce restricted her options. Haughey was able to dine a la carte with wife and mistress. She was stuck with a table d’hote of betrayal within marriage or the bleak alternative of separation without any possibility of a new marriage.

The second example I want to look at is the “gifts” of money conferred on Haughey.

To be clear, Professor Murphy does not condone this explicitly, but he does leave a trail of soothing commentary through the book. I will focus on just one; his reflections on the verdict of the McCracken tribunal regarding donations made to Haughey by Ben Dunne that it could find no evidence that Ben Dunne had sought or Haughey had offered political favours. The professor writes:

In fact, there was no evidence of any political impropriety by Haughey in relation to the moneys he received.

He cites Charlie McCreevy:

He would have been outraged if anyone asked him to do anything for them in return for money. I guarantee you the one way not to get a decision from him was to give him something.

And solicitor Noel Smyth from an interview with journalist Maeve Sheehan in 2018:

Asked… whether Haughey was corrupt, he replied: ‘Not at all … Haughey was a great character, great bonhomie, he felt that if somebody wanted to give him money, you know he had a lifestyle to lead, why not?

A few things need to be said about all that.

The mantra: “No favours were sought or given” was the standard response from other politicians found to have received substantial “donations” around that period. Ray Burke, Padraic Flynn, Liam Lawlor and another recent former Taoiseach who received “dig outs” from friends. I cannot present evidence, but it is hard not to believe that these senior Fianna Fáil figures around him looked at Haughey’s lifestyle and said to themselves, “I wouldn’t mind having a small piece of that.” Whether you choose or not to call Haughey’s behaviour corrupt in itself, it is behaviour likely to corrupt the body politic.

Second, there is almost never an explicit “trade” of money for favours in circumstances like this — in much the same way that, in 1986, Haughey and Fianna Fáil did not have to say the words: “Vote against these divorce proposals” in order to make it clear that they opposed them. Desires and instructions can be conveyed with total clarity in myriad indirect ways. Donald Trump did not order Michael Cohen to “square” Stormy Daniels or the mob to attack the Capitol, but it was perfectly clear what he wanted done. Likewise, Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano didn’t have to spell their shopping lists out either.

Third, political donations are only sometimes about easing the path towards achieving a specific desired outcome. They are as much a form of insurance against the possible emergence of undesired outcomes. The stream of donations was about discouraging Mr. Haughey succumbing to any temptation to tamper with the economic status quo that enabled his donors to accumulate the largesse from which they donated to him.

Fourth, there is a screamingly obvious point that applies both to Haughey’s acceptance of donations and his opposition to the legalisation of divorce. If Haughey was only a “bit of a lad” rather than positively immoral, why did he bother to conceal his extra-marital liaison and his financial support. Why be so coy if everything is so normal and non-passremarkable?

But what miffs me most is this. My columns may give a contrary impression, but I like to think I can do bonhomie, craic and convivial conversation as well as most when I’m on my game. But there are no rich business people queueing up to give me free money. What is it that these wealthy men saw in Taoiseach Charles J Haughey that they cannot see in plain old ordinary me?

But then, back in the late 1980s, when Charlie was in his pomp as Taoiseach, I could never see what his much younger assistant, Debbie McGee, found attractive enough about the millionaire television magician Paul Daniels to cause her to accept his proposal of marriage.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain


Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.