Diarmaid Ferriter: Why we have an enduring fascination with Haughey
Former Taoiseach led a dramatic and sometimes scandalous life, writes Diarmaid Ferriter
Published 19/10/2013 | 05:00
News of the filming of a new political drama about the career of Charles Haughey, leader of Fianna Fail from 1979 to 1992, has once again put the controversial former Taoiseach under the spotlight.
The three-part series, being filmed for RTE, has attracted a host of Irish acting stars, including Aidan Gillen in the role of Haughey.
Pictures of the actors during the week arriving on set created much interest, suggesting the preoccupation and fascination with Haughey shows no sign of abating. This is perhaps unsurprising; his political career spanned five decades and he was a polarising character, loved and loathed in roughly equal measure.
As early as 1969, Conor Cruise O'Brien referred to Haughey, then Minister for Finance, as "an aristocrat in the proper sense of the word; not a nobleman or even a gentleman, but one who believed in the right of the best people to rule and that he himself was the best of the best people. He was at any rate better, or at least more intelligent and interesting than most of his colleagues ... there were enough rumours about him to form a legend of sorts."
These assertions were made before the drama of the Arms Trial of 1970; there is little doubt that Haughey lied about his knowledge of a plan to import arms to assist republicans in Northern Ireland, but he was acquitted.
During the trial, the judge stated that either Haughey or the Minister for Defence James Gibbons must have perjured themselves; intriguingly, there was never any clear explanation of why Haughey got involved.
His comeback after the Arms Trial was remarkable, not least because he came to the leadership in 1979 without the backing of the Fianna Fail cabinet, carefully working the grassroots network.
During his tenure as leader, internal party votes became associated with fear, intimidation and loathing.
Garret FitzGerald, when reflecting on his infamous "flawed pedigree" description of Haughey, recalled that he was speaking not just for the Fine Gael party he led, but for those in Fianna Fail who were too scared to speak out.
But he was also heralded as the man who had introduced free travel for pensioners and he had carefully cultivated the artistic community with tax exemptions and patronage.
Throughout the 1980s, Haughey desperately sought an overall majority and came very close.
It proved elusive because he inspired devotion and hatred in equal measure and could never quite tip the balance in his favour. Notwithstanding, under his leadership, Fianna Fail polled exceptionally well, managing 44pc-47pc of first-preference votes – a figure his successors could not come near.
In terms of government policy, he discovered fiscal rectitude late in his political life and historians of the future will point to the reduction of the national debt in the late 1980s and early 1990s as laying some of the groundwork for the Celtic Tiger boom.
Questions about his seemingly spectacular wealth began to be asked in the early 1960s and were still being probed in the 21st century – where did the money to purchase mansions come from, and how did land that boosted the value of Haughey's property get planning permission?
As the late political commentator Dick Walsh used to comment, the party and the leader, seeing the nation and itself as one, felt they had no need for programmes or rules.
He will also be remembered for his television address to the nation in January 1980 when he urged the need for the country to live within its means; over 25 years later, the Moriarty Report concluded that the scale of payments to Haughey (he received over £9m from businessmen between 1979 and 1996) "can only be said to have devalued the quality of a national democracy".
In 1991 alone, he spent £16,000 on handmade shirts from the Paris luxury supplier Charvet. In 1999, the public revelation by his mistress Terry Keane of their long affair caused considerable humiliation to Haughey and his family.
Haughey had to resist heave after heave within Fianna Fail, which diverted his attention from effective government until the late 1980s.
A measure of how divisive a figure he was in his own party was the vote of confidence in his leadership in February 1983, which he won by only 40 votes to 33.
Many of his contemporaries simply could not, or would not, accept his leadership, and some of them too, contributed to the nastiness of the politics of this era, as they did to the culture of corruption by demanding and accepting large sums from businessmen.
Haughey decided in 1989 to enter coalition with the Progressive Democrats, having called an unnecessary general election, and demonstrated his determination to cling to power at all costs by firing Brian Lenihan during the presidential campaign of 1990, indicative of an insecure man who was constantly distracted and capable of complete disloyalty.
Many will see the creation of the Irish Financial Services Centre as an important legacy, but his contribution to Anglo-Irish relations was arguably of more significance. He presided over important initiatives in Anglo-Irish relations while Margaret Thatcher was British prime minister, and established the principle of two sovereign governments working on a par with each other.
His authorisation of dialogue with the IRA in the late 1980s will be seen as historically important, but his cynical opposition to the Anglo- Irish agreement in the previous decade could be cited in the same breath.
In the first of the 2005 Haughey documentaries broadcast on RTE, his close colleague, PJ Mara, remarked that from the very beginning of a remarkable life, Haughey "had a great sense of himself".
Arguably, that took precedence over any great vision for the country. His greed demonstrated the huge gulf that existed between the civil war generation of Irish politicians and their successors and he did not make effective enough use of his considerable administrative talents.
Haughey's was a dramatic life, lived to the full, often mired in scandal, and incorporated intrigue, ruthlessness, corruption, infidelity, cunning and occasional political vision and skill.
It is not hard to see why all of these elements combined have screenwriters and actors revelling in the opportunity to bring aspects of his life to the screen.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD.