Commentary (The Times)

Obituary: Haughey [Charles] (1925-2006) [former Irish Taoiseach]

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 14 June 2006
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3,160 words
Themes: Defence (Falklands), Northern Ireland, Terrorism

Charles Haughey
September 16, 1925 - June 13, 2006

Charismatic Irish politician whose substantial achievements as Taoiseach came to be tainted by charges of shady dealings

CHARLES HAUGHEY served three separate terms as Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of the Republic of Ireland between 1979 and 1992. For almost 30 years he was arguably the central and certainly the most controversial and glamorous figure in Irish public life.

To many he epitomised the new Irish capitalist class, dynamic, ruthless and brash, just like their Irish-American prototype. After his dismissal from Jack Lynch’s Government in 1970 and subsequent acquittal on charges of conspiring to import arms illegally, presumably for use in Northern Ireland, he became the focus within the Fianna Fail party of hardline Irish republicanism. The legacy of this dogged his periods as Taoiseach in that he was deeply distrusted by Ulster Unionists and never realised his ambition to achieve a historic breakthrough on Northern Ireland.

When he became Taoiseach for the third time in 1987 he presided over the necessary cut-backs that provided the essential basis for the dramatic expansion of the Irish economy since the mid-1990s. But prosperity bred corruption, and his final period in office was marred by a series of scandals that pursued him in retirement and culminated in his disgrace and humiliation.

Haughey’s parents came from Swatragh in the Sperrin mountains of East Tyrone and were both active in the guerrilla war preceding the creation in 1921 of the Irish Free State. His father, Seán Haughey, was the officer commanding the south Derry IRA and became a commissioned officer in the Free State Army that defeated the republicans in the civil war. He was stationed in the West of Ireland when Charles, the second of seven children, was born at Castlebar, Co Mayo, in 1925.

Seán Haughey’s career did not thrive after he left the army in 1928. He was dogged by ill-health and died in his forties. The family of four boys and three girls were brought up in fairly straitened circumstances on the Northside of Dublin. Charlie (as he was generally known) went to school with the Christian Brothers in St Joseph’s Fairview where he was a clever student and a good hurler and footballer, if somewhat truculent and hot-tempered on the field of play. He won a scholarship to University College Dublin, where he studied commerce. While there, he was one of the leaders of a crowd of its students who on VE-Day in 1945 burnt the Union Jack outside Trinity College. It was, it should be added, a response to some Trinity hearties who had burnt the Irish tricolour on the roof of the college.

Having taken his degree Haughey went on to qualify as a chartered accountant and practised for a time. Despite his family background on the Free State side he joined the republican Fianna Fail party. In 1951 he married the daughter of its deputy leader, Sean Lemass.

After several unsuccessful bids he was elected to the Dail in 1957. When Lemass became Taoiseach in 1959, Haughey was one of a group of thrusting young men whom he brought into government to replace the veteran republicans who had served under De Valera since 1932. Haughey held the portfolios of Justice, Agriculture and Finance in turn. Incisive and highly intelligent, he rapidly mastered his brief in each department and was not afraid to make bold innovations even in the teeth of advice from his civil servants. He had enviable qualities of clarity and imagination. Succession rights for widows, free travel for pensioners and tax exemption for the earnings of stallions and artists were measures long remembered to his credit.

However, Haughey seemed to disdain the priest-like image of impeccable respectability cultivated by previous Irish political leaders. Although far from handsome, he had a way with women that was legendary. There was about him a whiff of scandal. Rumours abounded of high living and sharp property deals, encouraged by his apparent but unexplained affluence. Small in stature, he bore himself with ceremony and dressed immaculately. He bought a large Georgian house situated in several hundred acres, became a patron of the arts, rode to hounds with the gentry and flirted with their womenfolk.

Yet he remained a man of the people, accepted as one of their own by his North Dublin constituents who were to support him mightily through thick and thin. They recognised in him a kindly, open-handed man capable of genuine compassion for those in need and always as good as his word. But others derided him as abrasive, intimidating, arrogant and crooked.

Within his party, Haughey was distrusted by old guard republicans who could not forget that his father was a “Free Stater” and suspected that Haughey himself was an opportunist with little commitment to their austere ideals.

This was one factor in the failure of his bid to succeed Lemass in 1966 when he was forced to yield gracefully to Jack Lynch. He was apprehensive that in a future leadership contest he would be upstaged by Neal Blaney, a hardline republican from the border county of Donegal.

This may provide an explanation for Haughey’s involvement in the plan to import arms for use in Northern Ireland in 1970. It surprised observers who had never seen him as a hardliner on the issue of partition and recalled that in 1962 he had put down a previous IRA campaign by the establishment of a non-jury military court to try those involved.

The attempted importation led to his dismissal as Finance Minister by the Taoiseach Jack Lynch. At the time Haughey was in hospital as a result of injuries said to have been incurred in some kind of riding accident. He, Blaney and several others were charged with conspiracy to import arms illegally but all were acquitted.

It was an unsatisfactory episode for all concerned. There were indications that the whole Government had connived in the operation until it was discovered by the police and leaked to the Leader of the Opposition.

In the wake of the attacks on the Catholic areas of Belfast in 1969, the Irish Government was under pressure to be ready to give aid to the Catholic population in Northern Ireland to defend themselves if they were attacked by Orange mobs and once again not protected by the police. But Haughey’s own denial in evidence that he had sanctioned the importation was contradicted by several witnesses as well as one of his co-accused. When, after his acquittal by the jury after a sensational trial, he called on those responsible for the prosecution to “take the honourable course”, he was faced down by Lynch and forced to eat humble pie on the back benches.

But Haughey was nothing if not resilient. He travelled the length and breadth of the country addressing party meetings, consolidating his position with the rank and file and uttering the odd bit of Anglophobia. There were soon to be found in every neck of the woods self-styled patriots, wheeler-dealers and sharp operators proud to proclaim themselves “Charlie men”.

In 1975 Lynch was constrained to recall Haughey to the front bench and he was appointed Minister for Health and Social Welfare when Fianna Fail won a landslide victory at the 1977 general election. As a minister, despite a restricted budget, he once again displayed that spectacular flair that made his colleagues seem flat-footed. He even squared the circle in the controversy about legalising the sale of contraceptives (including condoms) by making them available to married couples on a prescription from a doctor. It was, he announced brazenly, an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

When Lynch retired late in 1979, Haughey seemed to be the best man to revive his party’s flagging fortunes and he was elected, albeit by a narrow majority that included few of his Cabinet colleagues. But, in his first term as Taoiseach, Haughey proved a disappointment. Although he began well by demanding more action from his ministers and promising a correction in public finances, he showed a lack of toughness that belied his public image in not cutting back expenditure and not sacking inefficient or dissident ministers.

He struck up an amiable relationship with Margaret Thatcher whom he presented with a Georgian silver teapot at their first meeting. He persuaded her to make the first official visit by a British prime minister to Dublin and won acceptance for the idea of joint action by the two governments on Northern Ireland rather than awaiting an internal settlement among the parties there.

He and some ministers hinted that the agreement to examine the totality of relationships between the two islands would enable the issue of partition to be reopened. For a period the British Government, although irked, seemed content to allow him to make political mileage out of these claims, influenced perhaps by the fact that the policing of the border was more efficient than under Jack Lynch. But Thatcher’s inflexibility in face of the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland soured relations. The electoral boost it gave to republican hunger-striker candidates in border constituencies precipitated Haughey’s narrow defeat in the 1981 general election.

He was, however, back in office after a further general election in February 1982. This term was even less successful than his first. He was dependent for his majority on a left-wing Independent and could not make the necessary cut-backs. His relationship with Thatcher collapsed when the Irish Government backtracked to adopt a neutral position in the EEC and at the United Nations at the time of the Falklands invasion.

In November 1982 he was forced from office after the death of one of his backbenchers and was defeated in the subsequent general election. On polling day his election agent was caught presenting himself to cast his vote in two different places. It was revealed by the incoming government that Haughey’s Justice Minister, who was one of his chief henchmen, had had the telephone lines of several critical journalists tapped to listen to conversations with disloyal members of his government. Haughey was pilloried by the media.

As it seemed inevitable that he would be replaced as leader of Fianna Fail, journalists vied with one another in writing his political obituary. However, Houdini-like, he held on where a less doughty fighter would have resigned, and rivalries among possible successors helped to ensure his survival. He was then able to rid the party of his most hostile opponents within it (including Desmond O’Malley, who left to form a new party).

In opposition between 1982 and 1987, Haughey marked time while his successor, Garret FitzGerald, who had promised to rectify the public finances, failed to have this done and lost credibility. Somewhat irresponsibly, Haughey castigated any feeble cutbacks as Thatcherite or monetarist.

He emerged as a champion of traditional family values when he supported an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution and opposed the introduction of divorce. He also opposed the Hillsborough agreement giving the Irish Government a permanent advisory role in the government of Northern Ireland, saying that he was opposed to its accepting that Northern Ireland had a right to choose to remain part of the UK.

However, when his stance proved unpopular, he changed tack and announced that he regarded the agreement as binding and would work it if returned to office. But when FitzGerald’s Government moved to legislate for the extradition of political offenders, which was the price of the agreement, Haughey opposed them tooth and nail.

Haughey was returned once more as Taoiseach after the general election in February 1987. He chose a government that excluded the “wild men” of his 1982 administration. He did a deal with the unions on pay restraint. His tough Finance Minister, Ray McSharry, introduced the cuts that FitzGerald’s Fine Gael party had advocated but failed to implement. This revived business confidence.

Haughey showed his old flair for the spectacular initiative when he sponsored a low-tax Financial Services Centre in Dublin’s docklands that attracted many foreign institutions to set up there. He worked the Hillsborough agreement, albeit with a lack of enthusiasm, and relied on his genial Foreign Minister, Brian Lenihan, to smooth out differences with the British.

In the aftermath of the carnage caused by an IRA bomb at the Remembrance Day Service at Enniskillen in November 1987, he agreed to enact legislation to allow for the extradition of political offenders to Britain although he insisted on inserting the safeguard that each application would have to be examined and approved by the Irish Attorney-General.

Thatcher always felt that she understood the incisive, short-spoken Haughey better than FitzGerald, whose talkativeness and obsession with trivia irritated her. But that did not stop her from giving Haughey several unmerciful dressings-down when the Irish Government failed to deliver on the security front.

While often unyielding, he was restrained and statesmanlike in his responses even when the behaviour of the security forces in Northern Ireland gave cause for complaint. New political initiatives were ruled out because the Unionists were loath to have direct contact with Haughey despite his benign assurances that they would be surprised at his generosity when they got to negotiations. Peace was impossible as long as the IRA was not prepared for a ceasefire without a prior commitment from the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

However, through some Belfast priests and Martin Mansergh, an Oxford-educated Anglo-Irishman who was his devoted political adviser, Haughey opened lines to the leadership of Sinn Fein that were to bear fruit some years after he had left office.

Haughey cut an impressive figure during the Irish presidency of the European Union in 1990 when his mastery of the issues and urbanity were much admired. He had the government buildings splendidly restored for the occasion; the Dublin wits called it “the Chas Mahal”.

Abandoning his previous scepticism about the effects of European integration on Irish neutrality, he now emerged as a full-blooded advocate of political union on the road to Maastricht. He struck up a singularly good rapport with the French President François Mitterrand, whom he liked to regard as a kindred spirit. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was grateful for his prompt support for German unification. Ireland was to be rewarded with the generous allocations of structural funds that fuelled the unprecedented economic boom of the 1990s.

By then, however, Haughey’s days in power were numbered. After he had called an unnecessary general election in 1989, he was forced to enter into a coalition government with the Progressive Democrat Party under his old adversary Desmond O’Malley.

It offended a core value of Fianna Fail to join in a coalition government. The manner in which Haughey went over the heads of his ministers to arrange it was deeply resented, as was the dismissive and foul-mouthed way in which he tended to deal with party colleagues who dared to disagree with him on any matter.

In 1991 he was forced to set up an inquiry into the beef industry in response to allegations of questionable links between his government and a leading beef exporter.

There were other scandals involving people with whom Haughey had close associations. Then, in early 1992, a disgruntled Sean Doherty, who had been his Justice Minister when the telephones of journalists had been tapped in 1982, announced that Haughey had known all about it at the time.

Although Haughey denied the charge, and Doherty could not be counted as a reliable witness, having previously denied that he had told Haughey, the Progressive Democrat Party decided that it had had enough and could no longer support a government led by Haughey. He went quietly rather than fight another election. Haughey left office to a chorus of acclamation, especially in the Dail which he had dominated imperiously since he became Taoiseach. He made no further political pronouncements. He rode his horse on Portmarnock Strand most mornings. He sailed his yacht Celtic Mist around the coast and made visits to an island off Kerry that he had bought in the 1970s. His horse, Flashing Steel, won the Irish Grand National in 1995. He opened his house and gardens for charitable causes and received visitors like one to the manor born. His enduring hold on popular affections was evident whenever he made a public appearance.

Then, in 1997, in the course of an inquiry into gifts made to a government minister by a Dublin businessman called Ben Dunne, it emerged that Dunne had also made gifts of more than £1 million to Haughey in 1987. Haughey at first denied the gifts in correspondence with a judicial tribunal of inquiry before which he then had to appear in a blaze of publicity to admit that he had lied.

Instead of enjoying an honoured retirement, he was embattled, defending himself against prosecutions and tax claims, and had to endure examination by a special tribunal of inquiry set up to examine government decisions affecting those from whom he had received donations.

His explanation that he knew nothing about any donations because he had left all his financial affairs in the hands of a trusted accountant, now deceased, was characteristically brazen.

The public indulgence long accorded to him as a likeable rogue evaporated, especially when it seemed that he might have diverted to his own use funds collected for the treatment in America of his ailing long-time friend and ministerial colleague Brian Lenihan.

His domestic tranquillity and that of his loyal wife and family was upset when Terry Keane, a judge’s wife and Haughey’s long-time mistress, went public with graphic details of their affair in the columns of The Sunday Times. Tales of clandestine trips to Paris and Haughey’s extravagances (notably on Charvet shirts) titillated the Irish public.

Still, he did not falter, remaining apparently oblivious to any wrongdoing on his part, treating critics and interrogators alike with the lofty disdain of which he was a past master. His prosecution on charges of obstructing the tribunal by his lies was aborted when a long-standing adversary, the Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney, remarked in an interview that he should be sent to prison.

Finally, in October 2000, before his cross-examination at the tribunal of inquiry had reached the most interesting questions, his doctors said that his prostate cancer made it impossible for him to go on.

The presiding judge decided to continue the questioning in private and at a slower pace. So far the tribunal has not completed its deliberations so the question whether Haughey granted favours in return for donations remains unanswered. He had, however, to make large payments to the Revenue for unpaid tax arising mainly out of gifts he received.

Haughey is survived by his wife Maureen, by three sons and one daughter. One son, Sean, a former Lord Mayor of Dublin, remains a member of the Dail for the North Dublin constituency long represented by Haughey himself.

Charles Haughey, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) 1979-81, 1982, 1987-92, was born on September 16, 1925. He died on June 13, 2006, aged 80.