So much for shame

Colm Tóibín

  • Haughey: His Life and Unlucky Deeds by Bruce Arnold
    HarperCollins, 299 pp, £17.50, May 1993, ISBN 0 00 255212 4

My father was a supporter of the Fianna Fail Party. ‘You could salute Fine Gael people,’ he once told my sister – Fine Gael was the main opposition party – ‘but if you ever actually voted Fine Gael, your right hand would wither off.’ Throughout my childhood I believed that you could recognise a Fine Gael person merely by looking at him or her. They looked stern and serious, as befitted a group who had run the state in the decade after independence while our side wondered whether to hand in their guns or not.

Fianna Fail was ‘a slightly constitutional party’, Sean Lemass, who succeeded de Valera as party leader in 1959, declared in 1928. Fine Gael, on the other hand, respected law and order. Its members were richer than us. Solicitors, big shopkeepers and big farmers were all Fine Gael. Secretly, we believed, they were pro-British, not as Irish as we were. And our party, Fianna Fail, once it took over power in 1932, did not represent interests, big or small, but the whole nation, or so its rhetoric went; it was not a political party, but a national movement. It believed itself to be the natural party of government in Ireland, and to some extent it still does.

People had reason to be loyal to Fianna Fail. It held unbroken power from 1932 to 1948 and from 1957 to 1973. Fianna Fail could get you a job, a house, a favour. Being a party activist in a small town could give you a sense of power and purpose. But there were other reasons why people belonged to the party. Especially in its early years, Fianna Fail built up a reputation for representing some sort of social justice in Ireland, for building hospitals and houses, for looking after the less well-off, for getting the country moving – this last phrase being much used at election time. Even in the late Sixties there were men and women working for the party who believed this was Fianna Fail’s mission.

But ordinary party loyalists shared another dream: an Ireland which would use Gaelic as a first language; a united Ireland without trace of the British presence; an Ireland for which our dead heroes and martyrs had fought. Although these dreams became tawdry and faded over time, they were an important element in the rhetoric and appeal of Fianna Fail, a potent mixture of self-interest and idealism. Fine Gael people, we believed, never dreamed.

The first two leaders of the Fianna Fail Party, Eamon de Valera and Sean Lemass, had fought in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Their agenda was nationalist rather than social or economic. On St Patrick’s Day 1943 de Valera broadcast a version of his dream for Ireland: ‘a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. It would, in a word, be the home of a people living the life that God desires that man should live.’

While Eamon de Valera dreamed, Sean Lemass, increasingly pragmatic and impatient for power, was left in charge of Irish industry. In the Fifties, as de Valera clung to power, four out of every five children born in Ireland between 1931 and 1941 emigrated. Eighty thousand people left in 1959, de Valera’s last year in power. Ireland could no longer survive on protectionist economic policies and self-sufficiency. In 1957, on Lemass’s initiative, Ireland was admitted to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Lemass and his Secretary of the Department of Finance, T.K. Whitaker, were ready to make sweeping changes. Late in 1958 they published the First Programme for Economic Expansion. ‘We have decided,’ Lemass said, ‘to facilitate external participation, financial and technical, in industrial activity.’ Whitaker later wrote that ‘in industry, export-oriented expansion, even if under foreign ownership, was to be preferred to dependence on protected but inadequate domestic enterprise.’ American capital had come to Ireland, and the country would never be the same. So much for de Valera’s frugal dreams.

Until the mid-Sixties the old guard who had fought in the wars still held power in Fianna Fail: solemn, conservative old men. Outside Dublin, the party did not change, despite Lemass’s much-quoted phrase about the rising tide lifting all boats. The party activists remained decent, quiet-spoken, lower-middle-class people, deeply loyal to the party’s traditions and ideals, superb at organising election campaigns. But in Dublin things began to change.

A relative of ours moved away from our town and became friendly with one of the traditional Fianna Fail families who revered de Valera and who, as the Sixties progressed, had made a fortune in the building industry. I remember listening to accounts of huge dinners in Dublin, the bill a week’s wages. We listened with awe and wonder: this was something new, a new Fianna Fail, a new way of treating money. Around then the word Taca (which means ‘support’ in Irish) began to be often heard: it was the name of a group of rich businessmen who supported Fianna Fail and paid money to the party.

At home we bought the Irish Press, the Fianna Fail newspaper owned by the de Valera family, but our neighbours took the Irish Times. Some time in the mid-Sixties we began to make a swap in the evening and thus became acquainted with the writing of John Healy in the Backbencher column of that newspaper. He wrote every week about a new breed of Fianna Fail politician. He wrote with wit and irreverence, but he wrote from the inside and he conferred a huge glamour on the young ministers in Lemass’s government, especially on Lemass’s son-in-law Charles Haughey, who became Minister for Justice in 1961 and then Minister for Agriculture.

There was something doomed about those men, the young princes of the Fianna Fail party jostling for power in the Sixties. Two of them – Kevin Boland and Neil Blaney – would be cast into the political wilderness by the time the decade was over; two – Donogh O’Malley and George Colley – would die suddenly (there was no such sudden death among the old guard); one – Brian Lenihan – would be fired in disgrace; another, now dead, would end up sodden with drink in the European Parliament; and then there was Haughey.

The sentiments on which Fianna Fail was founded, its aims – a self-sufficient, Gaelic-speaking, united Ireland – could not survive the Sixties. The rhetoric remained; the reality changed. The young ministers were worldly; they hung around the bars of the Dublin hotels by night, and played hard, but by day they made sure that the Catholic bishops approved of new legislation, and the party faithful were assured that Fianna Fail stood by the ideals of the old guard. Clearly, once there was a crisis, something would have to give.

Haughey first appeared as an ambitious outsider. His parents both came from Northern Ireland, and he was brought up in Artane, a suburb on the north side of Dublin, winning a scholarship to University College Dublin where he studied commerce, and becoming an accountant. Among his university friends – as Garret FitzGerald, the leader of Fine Gael from 1977 to 1987, has pointed out in a review of this book – were the sons of three Fianna Fail ministers. FitzGerald’s own father had been a minister in the first government after independence. In a world of inherited privilege and barely concealed snobbery (when Haughey gained power in 1979, FitzGerald referred to his ‘flawed pedigree’), a man with Haughey’s origins, whose lifestyle was lavish and ambition boundless, was greatly distrusted.

He made money in the mid-Sixties on a land deal, but the other sources of his wealth have remained mysterious. He lived in an 18th-century mansion, and spent part of the summer on a remote island which he bought off the coast of Kerry. He rode and bred horses, he enjoyed wine, he bought paintings. He lived like the Anglo-Irish used to live. He came a long way. And as the Sixties went on, a sense of mystery and wonder developed around him. He survived a car crash and a fall from a horse (but was it really a car crash? did he really fall from his horse?). The poet Anthony Cronin, who later became an adviser, remembers Haughey visiting him in Clare, and after the visit rumours spreading that Haughey was going to buy the local hotel, or other property in the area.

As Minister for Agriculture, he had stood up to the farmers, left them camping outside his office, refused to give in to them. As Minister for Finance he had increased payments to the elderly and introduced a scheme whereby artists didn’t have to pay income tax. Thus he developed a reputation for being caring and cultured as well as tough. He was still in his mid-forties. He had everything going for him until the first crisis arose and the North blew up in 1969.

Bruce Arnold has been a commentator on Irish political and cultural life for the past thirty years. He writes about politics using logic and reason, which is unusual in Ireland. He is able to write about certain Irish political figures with a respect which the rest of us who grew up with them could not possibly feel. (Arnold grew up and was educated in England.) But from the time Charles Haughey took over power in 1979, Arnold examined his activities with real distaste, finding no logic in his policies and serious dangers in the way Haughey ran his office. Haughey’s government had Arnold’s telephone tapped in the early Eighties, on the basis that he was ‘anti-national’ in his outlook. Arnold later won compensation in the courts for this unwarranted infringement of his privacy.

His book, the first serious biography of Haughey, is greatly marred by his constant insistence on Haughey’s lack of achievement. Over the past two decades hardly any Irish political leader has ‘achieved’ anything; political life has been characterised by failure, compromise and slow movement. Yet Arnold keeps insisting on Haughey’s failures as somehow unique, and his dislike for his subject is apparent on every page. For the outsider the book may be a useful telling of the tale, well-written, coherent and combative, but it contains very little new information, and relies too heavily on a few secondary sources.

Why did Haughey seek to import arms into Ireland and send them to the North in 1969? Bruce Arnold is clear about this: ‘Haughey’s covert republicanism, which really developed in a slow and minimalist way between the Burntollet march, at the beginning of 1969, and the summer riots, was then accelerated for shrewd and politically opportunist reasons.’ Arnold’s view – that Haughey had no real feelings about Northern Ireland, that he was, like his father-in-law Sean Lemass, a pragmatist and a materialist – has recently been endorsed by Garret FitzGerald. Haughey, the two men claim, sought to import arms out of naked and cynical ambition, rather than confusion, or panic, or emotion, or conviction.

In the Republic of Ireland in 1969 a great number of people believed in the real prospect of anti-Catholic pogroms in the North, and therefore believed that the Northern Catholics should be armed. It was difficult to assess how long this belief would last. (Not long, it soon emerged.) The appeals for arms were eloquent and urgent. It seems unlikely that Haughey became involved in the attempt to import arms (he was Minister for Finance) from one single motive. Arnold’s and FitzGerald’s analyses should be treated with caution: they are too simple and subjective. Neither offers a new source or new information. It is as though someone wrote that Mrs Thatcher called for the arming of the Muslims in Bosnia as a way of getting at John Major. This is possibly true, but it is also possible that she believes in it as well.

Between 1970 and 1975, when Haughey returned to the Front Bench (Fianna Fail was in opposition between 1973 and 1977), he was in the wilderness. I first saw him in 1973 when he opened an exhibition in Dublin by the Irish painter Paul Funge. He had all the glamour of a self-made millionaire, a caring but tough politician, a patron of the arts, but now as he moved slowly around the gallery he had a new charisma. He was dangerous, he had tried to import guns; and he was out of power, a fallen man, who had suffered. He was still capable of using the rhetoric of de Valera and Patrick Pearse (this tendency worsened with time), and exuding the clear-minded, problem-solving pragmatism of Lemass. And he could add to this the myth-making and populist power of Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, and the allure of the Fallen Leader, Parnell. He is a small man, and he moved around the gallery silently, watchfully, taking in the people with the same cold, charismatic, connoisseur’s stare as he did the paintings. It was hard, and it grew harder, not to want to burst with laughter at his attempt to exude power and mystery.

A friend of mine worked one summer in a fashionable hotel where Haughey often had dinner. Haughey usually ordered steak. In the kitchen the chef always assembled the staff before he put Haughey’s steak on the pan. They stood and watched as the chef took the meat and put it down the front of his trousers, rubbing it around his sweaty crotch. Then he took it out and did it on the other side. Then he cooked it. A waiter then had to serve it to Haughey, and ask him if he was enjoying it.

It was the type of story you might hear about any public person, but hearing this one somehow gave special pleasure. It was easy to dislike him for his grandiosity, for his conservative approach to social issues, his willingness to bow to the power of the Catholic Church, which sat so badly with his fancy lifestyle and his mysterious wealth. There remains, right to this day, a terrible pomposity about him.

In those wilderness years, he toured Ireland, speaking to the party faithful about the party’s core values, bringing his power and mystery to the small towns. In 1977, when Fianna Fail returned with a huge majority, Haughey became Minister for Health. Two years later, when Jack Lynch, who led the party after Sean Lemass, retired, Haughey won the party leadership by a narrow margin. Now he had all the power he wanted.

One theory, to which Bruce Arnold returns throughout his book and which Brian Lenihan, who was Haughey’s deputy leader, has recently endorsed, is that Haughey’s career was damaged by bad luck and by what Arnold, quoting Othello, calls ‘unlucky deeds’ – that if only certain things had gone right for him, he would have triumphed rather than failed.

This seems to me fundamentally wrong. Haughey had two basic aims and two basic problems when he came to power at the end of 1979, and because of the nature of the problems and his approach to the aims, Haughey was bound to fail: the political triumphs he dreamed of would always elude him.

He won the leadership of Fianna Fail by a narrow margin; most of the Cabinet did not vote for him, disliked him personally and mistrusted him, especially on security. From the very beginning, some of them set about undermining his authority and plotting against him. This was his first problem. His second problem was more serious, and like his first it had nothing to do with chance or luck. In 1977 Garret FitzGerald became leader of Fine Gael, the main opposition party. He set about reforming the organisation and image of the party, attracting a large number of young and dynamic people to Fine Gael. He seemed open-minded, ready to confront the Catholic Church, and promised a new deal to the middle classes.

No leader of Fianna Fail had ever had to contend with an opponent as popular and talented as FitzGerald. He tapped into a new Ireland, the Ireland which elected Mary Robinson as President in 1990, and he came very close to replacing Fianna Fail as the largest party in the state. (It should be said that his period in office, 1982 to 1987, was a disaster for the economy: the National Debt doubled from 11 billion pounds to 22 billion pounds.) FitzGerald’s popularity, in a changing society, was nothing to do with luck.

Haughey aimed to deal with the economy and Northern Ireland. These were his priorities. In January 1980 he made a televised address to the nation: ‘As a community, we are living way above our means ... we are living at a rate which is simply not justified by the amount of goods and services we are producing. To make up the difference we are borrowing enormous sums of money, borrowing at a rate which just cannot continue.’ But Haughey had a party to woo, and an election to fight, so he ignored his own analysis and set about doubling the current budget deficit over the next two years while unemployment increased dramatically. During his years in the wilderness, it was always suggested that he would know what to do, that he could recreate the economy in his own image, just as his father-in-law had done. But after the second oil crisis, no amount of creativity could solve Ireland’s economic problems; any progress would, inevitably, be slow and painful. Haughey had waited too long in the shadows of power, and now he floundered without any clear view of where his policies were leading. Bruce Arnold charts this period with accuracy and clarity. It does not do Haughey any credit.

Between 1969 and 1979 Haughey had seemed hawkishly nationalist. It was part of his appeal that he did not feel complacent, as the Fianna Fail leadership did, about the North. There were fears that he would be soft on the IRA. Instead, he decided that the only way forward in Northern Ireland was for the two sovereign governments to go over the heads of the two communities there. He decided to woo Thatcher, and it is remarkable how the commentators at the time couched their relationship in sexual terms. He went to London to melt the heart of the Iron Lady. He presented her with a Georgian silver teapot. He invited her to Ireland, arguing that politicians did not go down in history for tinkering with rates of inflation, but for solving the great, intractable problems.

Thatcher came to Ireland, accompanied by Lord Carrington, Geoffrey Howe and Humphrey Atkins, and signed a communiqué agreeing to examine ‘the totality of the relationship within these islands’. It would take years of quiet and careful work for anything to result from this. (In the end, the result was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, but this was negotiated and signed by FitzGerald, and was vehemently opposed by Haughey until he regained power in 1987.) But Haughey in 1980 and 1981 had no time to wait. He himself, as Arnold points out, made too much of the meeting with Thatcher, and he allowed Brian Lenihan, his Minister for Foreign Affairs, to go on the BBC World Service and announce that ‘constitutional’ change was on the table. This was not the case; Thatcher was enraged, and she ceased to trust the man who gave her the silver teapot.

Like the economy, Northern Ireland slipped through Haughey’s fingers, was always beyond his control. His relationship with Mrs Thatcher was not helped by the 1981 hunger strikes, and was finally ended when he refused to support her in the Falklands War. The hunger strikes also made it clear that Haughey’s impatient initiatives did not yield results.

The rest is history. Five times he sought an overall majority – difficult to win under Ireland’s electoral system – and five times he failed. Twice (in 1982 and between 1987 and 1989) he formed minority governments; once (between 1989 and his fall in 1992) a coalition. His failures cannot be put down to bad luck or misfortune. His persona had always been complex; now that that complexity embraced the possibility of failure and the hint of corruption, it became a liability.

In ‘The Southern Question’, his essay on Haughey’s rhetoric, Fintan O’Toole wrote: ‘Charles Haughey’s career in political speech-making begins by accommodating the traditional rhetoric of Fianna Fail – land, Christian values, nationalism – to the rising demands of consumerism, and ends up using that traditional rhetoric to disguise the increasingly obvious failure to satisfy those demands.’ Haughey lived on in a dream of the Sixties, mixing the rhetoric of de Valera with the creation of an open, market economy. Nothing prepared him for the North blowing up in 1969, or the oil crisis in 1973. He was bound for glory; other people would pick up the pieces. Since he retired, he is held in some affection. His replacement is dull and his party will go on losing elections.

Haughey claimed that he did not know that Bruce Arnold’s telephone was tapped in 1982, but ten years later his then Justice Minister, Sean Doherty, insisted that he did know of the tapping, and had even received transcripts. His coalition partners were old political enemies and they forced his resignation on the issue. This is Bruce Arnold’s analysis of the public’s reaction:

The people of Ireland looked upon one version of past events, and then looked upon another version and were ashamed that either might have occurred quite as stated. They were ashamed, too, that they had been governed by these men, that the security of the State had been in their hands, that high office, not just once but repeatedly, had been their responsibility. Most shaming of all was that these men were their choice.

In America you would just add ‘Not’ at the end of that passage. In these islands you need to say plainly that the above is pure nonsense. Nobody, especially people who voted Fianna Fail, felt the slightest shame at these events. ‘The people of Ireland’ was one of Haughey’s great phrases – leaders of Fianna Fail tend to feel that they speak for us all – and it is nice to see Bruce Arnold stealing his thunder. But the people of Ireland, I’m afraid to say, felt mild amusement at these events, and nothing more. Doherty, who authorised the phone-tapping and had previously lost his seat in the Dail, was returned at the next election, just as Haughey’s son Sean replaced his daddy. So much for shame.

Haughey, it seems, is sitting in his mansion watching the political scene like a hawk. But he is not writing his memoirs, and he has been unwilling, like many of the other players, to discuss the events surrounding his trial for importing arms into Ireland in 1970. The account in this book has been the standard version of these events since it appeared in Magill magazine in 1980. There is a real need now for a fuller account of how those in the Republic who dreamed of a united Ireland swiftly lost their innocence. The full story of Haughey’s rise, his finances, his peculiar mystique, still has to be told. This book will, perhaps, be a useful source.