Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Charles Haughey on the Road to Power

Charles Haughey was always on the road to power but never quite reached this longed-for destination. He wanted absolute power yet he never won a general election. He took the country into its worst crisis when he attempted, illegally, to import arms and convey them north, into Northern Ireland for use by the I.R.A. Jack Lynch blocked him in this and dismissed him. All the carefully orchestrated attributes of a leader who was waiting to take over were dismantled. He went to the backbenches in the Dail humiliated and profoundly disgraced.

He had split his party and the country, damaged relations with the majority in the North and with successive British governments after that major error of judgment. Fianna Fail suffered defeat in the election that followed, in part as a result of this, and Liam Cosgrave came to power and stayed in power for the full term, 1973 to 1977. Lynch then won the landslide election of that latter date with a huge majority and made the mistake of bringing Haughey back into his government. Lynch then resigned two years later and Haughey took over as leader of the party.

To make a three-part film running for four and a half hours on three successive Sunday evenings and treating the main character, Charles Haughey, as ‘a mesmeric figure’, while at the same time ignoring the ignominious early part of the journey, which cost him the trust of half the Irish people, was a preposterous undertaking. To do it as badly as it has been done in recent weeks and to do it at huge public expense, represents a further decline in the wisdom and judgment of RTE.

Most seriously of all, the programmes reduced Charles Haughey himself to a limp and facile portrait of a vulgar and vicious political creature. He was made absurdly simplistic and boring, fumbling his way through an undistinguished crowd of political associates who are given thumbnail sketches of their own place in the drama that renders the whole of it implausible and ridiculous.

I felt apprehensive about the conclusion that was to emerge about this man and had been sold heavily by RTE and the film-makers as a key figure in the construction of modern Ireland. I need not have worried. In its way modern Ireland, though it fumbled and delayed the process, and came to unsatisfactory conclusions about its terms of being part of the new dispensations of Europe, took care that the things Haughey stood for that were unworthy of the man are part of our chequered and shameful past.

Though I have reasons not to say it, Charles Haughey deserved far better and might have got it in a truthful dramatisation of the whole of his career, more rigorous, more elegant, more diverse and rich.

I was entangled in that career during three dramatic phases, the beginning, middle and end of his unsuccessful hunt for the absolute power he deliberately sought, and from which he was held back, precariously perhaps, by the Irish electorate, which never gave him what he asked for – their trust and their overwhelming support.

The first of these periods in his life, prior to the Arms Crisis, was for me the most enjoyable of them all. I wrote speeches for him at that time, mainly addressed at audiences attending arts events, where he was a welcome figure. I collected briefs and details from Tony Fagan in the Department of Finance, and returned the drafts of speeches, usually going on to attend the events. There was a certain private pleasure in hearing him deliver my words. This work led on to my writing the popular version of the Third Programme for Economic Expansion, a colourful pamphlet that went to many homes in the country.

The events surrounding his dismissal from the Government were among the most dramatic ever seen in this country and their omission from a film where the main protagonist went on to rule in a savage and vengeful way, makes no sense at all.

It is the key to the sustained distrust of the man and it did diminish him. But it did not reduce him to the shallow and limited television portrait we have had to endure on three successive Sunday evenings.

He was a graceful and charming man to be with. I knew him in a different way from other journalists. I attended many of the press conferences where he was relentlessly questioned about the source of the money with which he bought Abbeville. I never let on to fellow journalists the fact that my wife’s favourite uncle, Roy Cusack, married to my mother-in-law’s sister, Maud, had lived in Abbeville as a child. He gave to Charles Haughey, on a visit there with me, photograph albums of the house and garden as the Cusack’s had known it. They showed the elegance of what used to be called ‘old money’ and Uncle Roy himself reflected it in his natural and happy memories of his own youthful life in the house at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Cusack family was a distinguished one. They had come to Ireland with Strongbow, and the descendant who bought the property was Queen Victoria’s Surgeon-General in Ireland. Cusacks owned the house for much of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. When Haughey took it over the house continued to be referred to, by local people, as “Cusack’s Place”, much to his irritation. But the visit made by Uncle Roy and Auntie Maud was an agreeable occasion, the uncertain meeting between “old” and “new” Ireland.

The dismissal of Charles Haughey (of Neil Blaney as well) was like the fall of an axe. I was told, quite peremptorily, that my services were no longer needed and parted company wit hthe Department of Finance until I was appointed Parliamentary Correspondent by the Irish Independent in 1973.

I worked my way through the second phase of his career in which he climbed laboriously from the backbenches to being health spokesman in opposition during the Cosgrave administration. After he succeeded Jack Lynch and became Taoiseach, I wrote, often with caustic dismissal, about his poor judgment, his fumbling mistakes, his inability to win the overall majority he so longed for. He was unlucky. The Stardust fire stalled his first attempt at a general election, which, when it came, was damaged by the Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland and by growing economic problems. This caused him to lose it. He tried to avoid his second electoral challenge by a private approach to President Paddy Hillery. This was rejected and he grappled for power with the Tony Gregory deal. The performance of Gregory’s role and the exchanges between the two men provided a few good moments in ‘Charlie’.

The year 1982, for those who lived through it, was a bit like a Greek tragedy, with one disaster following another, and Haughey’s finger-nail grip on power being loosened to the point of losing their ultimate hold. Though Haughey habitually used pretty dismissive language towards me, particularly during the November 1982 general election, referring at one point during a press conference when he tapped menacingly on a sheaf of papers beside him, that he ‘knew all about me’. This was the time when he attacked Garret FitzGerald for supposedly revealing too much to the Duke of Norfolk! Haughey had taken against Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands War and was generally stirring public feeling, at home and abroad, against our nearest political neighbour and our friend. This extended anti-British episode in Haughey’s life, not properly realised in the film and including puzzling exchanges with the French and German leaders, rather rawly displayed more lack of political judgment without adequate explanation.

Disgrace descended on him with Peter Murtagh’s revelation about the tapping of two journalists’ phones, Geraldine Kennedy’s and mine, presumed to be by Haughey though responsibility was carried by Sean Doherty. The narrative of all this was quite clear at the time and should have been the subject of good film-making. I found the TV version confused and clumsy and the portrait of Sean Doherty lacking edge.

Though Sean Doherty did not spare me, in the forbidding charge that I was a British spy, I nevertheless came to like him as he suffered the burden of unfair blame as Minister for Justice who authorised the phone-taps.

When Sean Doherty gave Shay Healy the interview on Nighthawks, in January 1992, Healy had little idea of what his words meant and asked me in to the studio to see the programme. I explained that it was a political coup de grace that Haughey could not possibly survive and wrote a piece for the Irish Independent the next day advising readers not to miss the programme that evening. It was my last Haughey ‘scoop’ and represented a reasonable conclusion. Whatever part was played by the introduction of the Arms Crisis folder was and remains a curious mystery in the film.

At a press conference given by Haughey to deny the implication of his involvement in the phone-tapping, he suggested that the people would judge in his favour. An immediate poll found that two-thirds of the population supported Doherty’s story. Haughey’s demise was inevitable after that.

He suffered from tribunals following his ignoble departure. They revealed financial misdemeanours which completed the business of destroying forever his reputation. Is this what made ‘modern Ireland’?