TO BE A TAOISEACH: HAUGHEY PART II: THE FIRST ADMINISTRATION
It is virtually impossible at this distance of thirty plus years to view Haughey’s first administration other than through the prism of the later revelations about his finances. At the very time he was lecturing the nation about belt-tightening and living “away beyond our means” he had by 1980 clocked up a staggering debt of IR£1.14 million to his bank. This was partially written off by the bank and the rest paid by a property developer friend. These and the other revelations about Haughey’s unorthodox finances for the most part only emerged much later after he had departed office. However, much was rumoured and suspected at the time and dogged journalists were uncovering the truth.
Haughey’s first term as Taoiseach lasted for just over eighteen months. It was marked by the continuing downward spiral of the Irish economy but will be remembered most for the Hunger Strikes in the North and, domestically and close to home, by the tragic “Stardust” disco fire disaster which killed 48 young people on Valentine’s Night 1981 in the heart of Haughey’s own constituency. Hopes (and fears) that Haughey would take some major initiative on the North proved unfounded and indeed an attempt to oversell the one concrete achievement – the significance and outcome of the Anglo-Irish Summit of December 1980 – received a rebuff from London and served to sour permanently relations between Haughey and Thatcher.
Apologists for Haughey often claim that he was “unlucky” from the off, pointing inter alia to the veto defeated rival Colley held over several cabinet posts. Yet this was hardly decisive; Haughey was where he wanted to be – top dog – and he set about cultivating immediately a presidential style . The Taoiseach’s Department was expanded in numbers and power.
Certainly Haughey took over half way – at best – from the worst government the country had seen in a generation. However he was part of that government – which had shamelessly and ruinously bought the 1977 election – and cannot totally dodge responsibility for its excesses. The only mitigation for the policies and performance of that government is that it was elected by over 50% of those voting and therefore had the mother of all mandates ( as De Maistre put it ” every nation gets the government it deserves”).
By mid-1979 and following, among other bitter labour disputes, a disastrous 18 week postal and phone strike, that mandate was in shreds and Lynch only kept his backbenchers under control temporarily by pointing to the fact that the next Dail would have 18 more seats, greatly increasing the chances that they would save their political skins. Haughey took over with considerable good will from neutrals who had high hopes that his political and economic acumen would halt the economic slide and political paralysis. The “away beyond our means” speech fed that optimism.
As 1980 unfolded that optimism dissipated. Haughey, like many politicians before and since, discovered that making tough decisions was not easy, particularly with even a distant election clock ticking. The necessary difficult decisions were ducked. A giveaway budget was an early indication. Generous pay settlements in the public and private sector underlined the trend. Far from reducing borrowing as he had signalled, borrowing increased dramatically, as, indeed, did taxation. It was essentially more of the same ragbag from Fianna Fail , with Haughey declaring that to curb or cut spending would be unacceptable.
With the luxury of hindsight, particularly Haughey’s record after 1987, when he DID supervise a programme of savage cuts in spending, stabilising a collapsing economy and setting the foundations for recovery, the question arises why didn’t he do it in 1980? His apologists argue that he hadn’t enough time. That indeed may have been an element, but Haughey had waited a long time for power and proved reluctant to do anything that might jeopardise his position. Allied to that was his clear populist streak, demonstrated in his spell in the 1960s as Finance Minister. Ultimately he preferred being well-liked by the public to being tough. By contrast, in 1987 he had a metaphorical gun to his head.
Much had also been expected on the North and at first Haughey did not disappoint, declaring Northern Ireland a “failed political entity” in his first Ard Fheis speech and following up with a high profile meeting with Margaret Thatcher in London in May. It was at this meeting that Haughey reportedly remarked that while no Taoiseach would be remembered for fixing Ireland’s economic problems, the one who solved the North would go down in history.
The next meeting between the two in Dublin Castle in December 1980 saw the high power British delegation include the Foreign Secretary and Chancellor as well as the Northern Ireland Secretary. It is sometimes overlooked that the historic meeting one of the first dedicated bilateral meeting between premiers in Dublin since Irish independence – took place against the background of an ongoing escalating IRA Hunger Strike (in its seventh week) , the continued IRA campaign (deaths at three per fortnight)and in the wake of yet another fruitless attempt by the British to kick-start internal political talks within Northern Ireland. For Haughey also the Republican threat was real; three Gardai had been murdered since July.
The joint communique issued afterwards was strong on rhetoric, with references to the “further development of the unique relationship between the two countries.” It went on to signal that the “totality of relationships” would be considered in a series of joint studies on a wide range of subjects. Arguably Haughey had moved matters forward significantly. Ireland and Britain seemed on the same page regarding future cooperation.
However, Haughey then proceeded to oversell the rhetoric by describing the meeting as historic and hinting that everything was now on the table, including the constitutional position of the North. Thatcher took public umbrage at this, denying that constitutional issues had been discussed. Relations between the two never recovered. Nevertheless the Summit, and all it implied, was an important milestone on the way to the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, which included acceptance by the British that Dublin had to be involved in any Northern solution.
Then 1981. Haughey could have delayed an election until mid-1982, but instead resolved to go in the Spring of 1981, when he judged his prospects to be optimum and the polls favourable. The game plan was to announce the election at Fianna Fail’s Ard Fheis in mid-February. But tragedy intervened in the form of the Stardust disaster. The Ard Fheis – and announcement – were cancelled and by the time the election was called in May, another issue had surfaced. Four IRA men had died in a renewed Hunger Strike, with more deaths expected.
The considerable public sympathy for the Strikers , particularly in the border areas, was skilfully harnessed and channelled into votes. Two hunger strikers, who died subsequently, won election to the Dail. The election result was one of woe for Haughey. Fianna Fail support dropped by 5% – admittedly from an artificial high -with the party losing five seats, down to 78, even in an enlarged Dail. Fine Gael by contrast gained twenty, rising to 65. The margin was tight but, with Labour support, Garret was in and Haughey was out.