Peter Murtagh & Joe Joyce, ‘Charles Haughey Obituary’, in The Guardian 14 June 2006)

[Source: The Guardian archives - online; accessed 07.04.2017.]

Charles Haughey, who has died, aged 80, after a long battle with cancer, was the most controversial Irish politician of his generation, and left few people in the Irish Republic unmoved. Several times his career faltered in a morass of allegations and revelations about his conduct - both public and private - but each time he confounded his critics to emerge triumphant.

Only in old age, when he was once more a private citizen, did the truth catch up with him. The revelation, during a bitter legal row between the scions of a wealthy supermarket family, the Dunnes, that he had received more than £1m from one of them finally threw some light on how he had financed his extraordinarily lavish lifestyle.

Two tribunals, set up in the 1990s to probe Haughey’s private finances, uncovered cash gifts of more than £ 8.5m over a 17-year period, most of it coming from a variety of Ireland’s best-known and most successful businessmen. The loot flowed Haughey’s way within days each time he was elected taoiseach (or prime minister). Haughey denied any impropriety, claiming - to widespread disbelief - that he devolved all responsibility for his personal finances to his financial adviser, Des Traynor, who, conveniently, was already dead.

To the end, Haughey ducked and weaved, refusing to cooperate fully with either tribunal. A criminal prosecution for allegedly frustrating the work of the first inquiry, the McCracken tribunal, was put on ice after a judge ruled that the former taoiseach was incapable of obtaining a fair hearing while the second inquiry, the Moriarty tribunal, was proceeding. Failing health - he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000 - saw Haughey give evidence in private to Judge Moriarty. He died with his reputation irrevocably damaged, but with a loyal group of admirers still seeking to emphasise his less controversial contributions to Irish public life.

Haughey’s unconcealed ambition to be prime minister was one of the more intriguing sideshows in domestic Irish politics for 20 years or more. And when, in 1979, he took over the leadership of the Fianna Fáil party, the electorate watched an eight-year duel, in and out of office, with his opposite number in Fine Gael, Dr Garret FitzGerald.

Haughey was a populist politician - at times demagogic - who desperately wanted people to like him. He mastered the art of the small gesture that cost little but won widespread approval. In his early career, he abolished income tax for writers and artists, and gave pensioners free public travel. He owned one of the Blasket islands, off the Kerry coast, and a Georgian mansion on a 280-acre estate in north Dublin, just a few miles from the working-class constituency where many of his followers were so fanatically devoted to him. His charisma and behind- the-scenes bullying discouraged all but the bravest from questioning how he could afford it all. Throughout his career, he resolutely refused to explain anything about his wealth.

Born in Castlebar, County Mayo, Haughey was the son of a soldier. While he was still a child, his family moved to Dublin’s Northside. Educated at St Joseph’s Christian Brothers’ school in the Fairview district, he obtained a BCom degree from the city’s University College, and qualified as an accountant. In 1949, he was also called to the Irish bar after studying at King’s Inns, but did not practise.

However, despite these modest beginnings, when he became a millionaire he lived like one: dining in the most fashionable restaurants, dressing in expensive clothes and lavishing hospitality on his chosen few. Unknown to the Irish people at large, his friend Traynor was busily dipping into the wallets of willing businessmen to bankroll it all.

Haughey was first elected to the Irish parliament, the Dail, in 1957, and through most of the 1960s held ministerial office under his father-in-law, the Fianna Fáil leader Seán Lemass (he had married Maureen Lemass in 1951). He seemed then to epitomise a new breed of Irish politician - tough, talented, pragmatic, and more interested in economic progress for the republic than in the south’s historic claim to Northern Ireland.

But Haughey’s career was one of the casualties of the violence that erupted in the north in 1969, while he was finance minister in the republic under Lemass’s successor, Jack Lynch. In 1970, he was sensationally fired and charged with conspiracy to import guns for the IRA. His sacking, and that of his colleague, Neil Blaney, threatened Fianna Fáil with its greatest crisis. After a lengthy trial, Haughey and three others were acquitted. But the case and his dismissal from office poisoned his relations with Lynch and a large section of the party. The episode came to dominate his career, generating a cloud of suspicion and personal feuds that he was never able fully to shake off.

Haughey spent the next seven years in the political wilderness, but did not abandon his ambition to become prime minister, despite the humiliation he suffered when an early challenge to Lynch collapsed. He began the slow business of rehabilitating himself within Fianna Fáil by subjugating his personal feelings and joining former cabinet colleagues - one of whom had been the main prosecution witness at his trial - in a vote of confidence in the Dail. (By contrast, Blaney chose expulsion from the party.)

From 1970 until 1977 Haughey courted the Fianna Fáil grassroots by assiduously attending local party functions on the “chicken and ham dinner circuit”. His perseverance paid off when Fianna Fáil was returned to power, and Lynch was forced to acknowledge Haughey’s position by appointing him as health minister. He promptly legalised birth control with a politically adroit measure - described by him as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” - which made all contraceptives subject to medical prescription.

Lynch’s authority was weakened by two disastrous by-election results and claims that he had agreed to allow British helicopters to fly over the border in pursuit of the Provisional IRA. Amid sniping from the backbenches, Lynch resigned in 1979, and Haughey beat his rival, George Colley, for the leadership.

As prime minister, however, Haughey proved a disappointment, especially to those hard-pressed businessmen who thought he would be decisive - and do for the country what he had mysteriously managed to do for himself: make money. Having achieved his political goal, he seemed paralysed into inactivity, apparently incapable of exercising the power he had sought for so long. Unemployment grew rapidly and the public sector saw massive pay increases, despite a continuing deterioration of the economy.

In June 1981 Haughey called a general election, which he lost to FitzGerald. But the resulting coalition government collapsed the following February, and Haughey was returned to power with a minority administration. Even before he assumed office, however, a challenge to his leadership was launched by Desmond O’Malley. It failed, but it set the scene for 12 months of crippling feuding within the ruling party.

Haughey, dependent for his survival on individuals whose support he bought with a secret, multi-million pound deal, lasted just 10 months in office, and lurched from crisis to scandal. His political agent was charged with voting twice in the general election, and only acquitted on a technicality. A double murderer, Malcolm MacArthur, was arrested in the home of the attorney general, Patrick Connolly, who was forced to resign.

A man about to give evidence in court against a relative of the Irish justice minister, Sean Doherty, was mysteriously arrested by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland and held until the case was over - and the relative acquitted. Doherty denied any involvement, but it emerged that his office had initiated the request that led to the man’s arrest.

As the Irish economy drifted from bad to worse, there were persistent claims that the police were being turned into a tool of government, often against Haughey’s opponents. These allegations culminated in the disclosure that Doherty had used the police to tap the telephones of two journalists whose critical reporting had angered Haughey. Shortly afterwards, the Fianna Fáil government collapsed and, in December 1982, FitzGerald again became prime minister.

FitzGerald launched an immediate inquiry into the phonetapping allegations, which discovered that Haughey’s finance minister, Ray MacSharry, had used Doherty to obtain bugging equipment from the police in order to secretly record a conversation with a former cabinet colleague and Haughey critic. The government published the results of the investigation, Fianna Fáil was thrown into turmoil.

But once again Haughey routed his opponents with a combination of wooing their support and intimidating them into submission. He denied any knowledge of the phonetapping and bugging, and insisted that no one else was capable of leading the party. Some of those who still opposed him, like O’Malley, eventually formed their own party, the Progressive Democrats; others resolved to keep their heads down in the hope of outliving their leader.

Now in opposition, Haughey opposed everything FitzGerald did. All moves to liberalise the republic’s social laws were denounced; the Anglo-Irish Agreement, concluded between FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher in November 1985, was described as the greatest-ever sellout of Irish nationalist aspirations. Never mind that when he returned to power in 1987, Haughey resolved to work the accord with London and, for the first time, seemed to find the resolve to face down the interest groups jostling to knock his tough economic policy off course.

He never achieved an overall parliamentary majority, however, and remained to the end deeply distrusted by those who disliked him. But he was equally admired by his followers and, even among his opponents, there were those who harboured a sneaking admiration for his capacity for survival and his refusal to throw in the towel even when there appeared to be no chance left of carrying on.

In death as in life, Haughey will remain a figure of controversy. Devotees will extol his achievements while critics will continue to damn him. The Irish public at large, however, has made up its own mind: Haughey stands reviled and condemned, as popular sentiment grows increasingly indifferent. Judgment has been passed; Ireland and its young population have moved on. He is survived by Maureen, his daughter Eimear and sons Conor, Ciaran and Sean.

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