TO BE A TAOISEACH: HAUGHEY PART I: THE PATH TO POWER
Charlie Haughey merits more than one column. A recent TV mini-series,” Charlie,” with Aidan Gillen (“The Wire”) in the title role, topped the ratings here, demonstrating how Haughey continues to fascinate over two decades since he was in power.
He was Ireland’s seventh Taoiseach and held the office for a total of seven years and three months. Together with Garret Fitzgerald he dominated politics in Ireland for a generation, but, while Fitzgerald is generally regarded with respect and affection, Haughey continues to provoke strong feelings for and against. His whole political career attracts attention. Indeed arguably his achievements before becoming Taoiseach outweigh what he did in the top job.
Mention Haughey and a myriad of images come to mind. $500 Charvet shirts (each!).The 1970 Arms Trial. The bungs from rich businessmen. The “ Irish solution to an Irish problem.” Teapot Diplomacy.” The failed heaves against him. The “We are Living Away beyond our Means” speech. McCracken. Moriarty. And many more.
His administrations included the disastrous short lived GUBU government of 1982 and the much more successful one after 1987, which at last took the harsh but necessary steps to begin fixing a broke economy ( firm actions he had ducked eight years before). His legacy includes populist features now woven into the fabric of society, such as free travel for the elderly, together with programmes to assist the Arts (and artists), including a tax exempt scheme and the establishment of Aosdana. Whether there is anything more enduring must await the verdict of history.
Ireland in the Sixties was a time of opportunity for some, with Ireland experiencing her first (mild) economic boom. Haughey, an accountant, prospered, becoming a rich man with a circle of influential and wealthy friends among builders, speculators and businessmen. His odyssey in a few short years from a semi-detached in a north Dublin suburb to first one, then a second mansion, with extensive lands, was already becoming the stuff of legend and attracting attention. He was also making his mark in politics, with a clear ambition to become Taoiseach.
He was not alone. He was one of a group of ambitious, brash, relatively youthful politicians who came to the fore in Fianna Fail in the sixties, displacing the party’s geriatric old guard as the country finally emerged from decades of stagnation. The issue was who would succeed Taoiseach Sean Lemass, Haughey’s father –in-law. In the event, in 1966, the party opted for a compromise candidate, Jack Lynch, leaving the leadership ambitions of several , including Haughey, unfulfilled but undiminished.
Haughey had already proved an able, competent and modernising Minister for Justice; Lynch appointed him Minister for Finance in 1966. His tenure in Finance, when he was in effect in control of the Government’s finances, saw the emergence of a distinct Haughey style. It was, above all, high profile. Where there was substance, there was style in abundance, something that morphed later into a tendency to talk up and oversell achievements. It was clear also who was the boss. Ken Whitaker, Departmental Secretary and architect of Ireland’s economic revival, was shunted sideways into the Central Bank.
Yet his ability was also clear. As Minister, with little fiscal room for manoeuvre, he championed a number of populist measures, costing little but proving immensely popular. These included free travel and other subsidies for the elderly and the 1969 tax exemption scheme for writers, artists, and composers. (The scheme wasn’t perfect – to benefit one had to earn money first and few did – but it established Haughey firmly as a patron of the arts. That it helped create, in effect, a class of people who paid no tax at the expense of those who did was conveniently overlooked.) In the leadership stakes he appeared to have the edge over his chief rivals, former schoolmate George Colley, who had actually run against Lynch in 1966, and Neil Blaney, a militant republican from Donegal.
Then Northern Ireland exploded . The Fianna Fail cabinet was split. Haughey, not previously known for strong republican views, became involved in 1970, together with Blaney, in an attempt to import arms destined for republicans in Northern Ireland. There are still unanswered questions about the whole affair, including Haughey’s motive. Was it simply political, to avoid being outflanked on the Fianna Fail right by Blaney, in a move aimed at undermining the low-key Lynch? If so it was a miscalculation. The 1970 Arms Crisis did for Blaney and almost did for Haughey. A galvanised Lynch fired both; Haughey was acquitted in the subsequent court case.
Haughey’s political career seemed over, but, unlike Blaney, he was clever enough to avoid expulsion from Fianna Fail, which would have consigned him also to the permanent political wilderness. He ate humble pie from Lynch, while garnering support among the party rank and file over several years. Restored to the front bench (in opposition) in 1975, he joined the Cabinet as Health Minister in 1977. He was handed the perceived political hot potato of introducing measures to legalise the sale of contraceptives, required by a Supreme Court decision, and did so (the “Irish Solution”). He also introduced Ireland’s first serious anti-smoking measures. But these were sideshows.
Fianna Fail had bought the 1977 election, securing a huge majority (their last), by undermining the tax base with frivolous giveaways including the abolition of road tax and property taxes on private dwellings. The second oil crisis in 1978 stopped the economy in its tracks and was followed by a series of damaging industrial disputes, culminating in a postal strike lasting over four months in 1979. Disastrous European election results, as well as the murder of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA, fatally damaged Lynch. In December 1979 Haughey mounted a successful coup against a jaded Lynch, edging out Colley in a close contest among Fianna Fail parliamentarians (forty two to thirty six) and becoming Taoiseach without an election.
Despite reservations from Garret Fitzgerald ( who spoke of Haughey’s “flawed pedigree” in the Dail), and George Colley (“ low standards in high places”) Haughey took over with considerable benefit of the doubt from the public after the preceding two years of disastrous government. He was known, or believed, to have disapproved of Fianna Fail’s economic policy and in fact one of his first actions as Taoiseach was to drop the architect of that policy, O’Donoghue, and abolish his Department. And, while he had arguably received a hospital pass– an economy in poor shape halfway through the government’s term of office – it was certainly no worse than the one his father-in-law had inherited in 1959.
Initially he made all the right noises and appeared hands on and proactive. At his first press conference he condemned the Provos unreservedly. Several weeks later, in a televised address to the nation he spelled out the serious state of the economy and the need to reduce the national debt. He called for economies and the curbing of borrowing , stating flatly that “we are living away beyond our means.” It was a phrase that was to come back to haunt him. But right then the question was, having lusted for power – and got it – how would Haughey use it.