Wednesday 21 February 2018

Haughey and ­ his conviction to end Partition

History: A Failed Political Entity: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question 1945-1992 Stephen Kelly, Merrion Press, pbk, 446 pages, €24.99

From friends to foes: Charles Haughey on the steps of London's number 10 Downing Street with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
From friends to foes: Charles Haughey on the steps of London's number 10 Downing Street with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
A Failed Political Entity by Stephen Kelly
John Downing

John Downing

A considered new book explores Charlie's youthful Anglophobia, his relationship with Thatcher and the truth behind his interest in the 'failed entity' of Northern Ireland.

On January 15, 1955, Charles Haughey, as secretary of Tomás Ó Cléirigh Fianna Fáil Cumann in Dublin, sent a six-page typed memo to party headquarters.

It advocated a Dublin government guerrilla military campaign to end Partition with Northern Ireland. The hope was that the initiative would "force negotiations".

But, according to the memo, preparations must be made for a prolonged military campaign focused predominantly on nationalist areas, probably in Derry or Armagh, and backed up by a campaign of civil disobedience.

It was deliberately modelled on Sinn Féin's earlier methods, but also astonishingly close to the violent campaign kicked off by the IRA less than two years later, when Limerick man Seán Sabhat was killed during a failed raid on an RUC barracks in Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh, on New Year's Day, 1957.

When the 'Ó Cléirigh memo' was delivered to Fianna Fáil HQ, a 29-year-old Charles Haughey had yet to win a Dáil seat. But, ironically, he was soon to play an important role as justice minister, including the revival of the Special Criminal Court, in crushing the IRA's six-year "border campaign", which ended with a "dump arms" order in 1962.

It's now a full decade since his death, aged 80, but the man known across the land simply as "Charlie" can still provoke heated debate.

And one of the abiding questions is: did Charles Haughey really care about Northern Ireland nationalists and the ending of Partition? Or, was it all just a vehicle to propel his tremendous political ambition?

In this engaging book, historian Stephen Kelly argues that Haughey did really care; that he abhorred partition; and his most ardent and consistent belief was that the North was nothing but "a failed entity".

His conviction made him disapprove of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement negotiated by his protégé and successor, Bertie Ahern.

The title dates cited begin with a young Haughey, and pals from UCD, burning a Union Flag outside the gates of TCD on VE Day in 1945, and end with his forced resignation as Taoiseach in late 1992. The flag-burning was evidence of Haughey's youthful Anglophobia, which was typical of the times.

We are told the book draws on newly unearthed archive material from Dublin and London to throw fresh light on the issues.

It cannot be definitively said that the 'Ó Cléirigh memo' was written, or even co-written, by Haughey. Indeed, his son, Deputy Seán Haughey, insists otherwise, pointing out that the document is not in his late father's voluminous archive of papers.

But the author argues convincingly that Haughey had a very strong role in the memo's production. A short while later, his father-in-law and newly appointed Fianna Fáil national organiser, Seán Lemass, co-opted Haughey to a party committee to consider strategies to address Partition.

It appears Lemass, determined to cultivate better relations with Northern Unionists, was appalled by the memo proposals. But a little context is also required here. Fianna Fáil had lost the 1954 general election and many members' frustration with perceived apathy about Partition, by then 30 years old, was compounded by remarks on the issue by party leader Éamon de Valera which appeared defeatist.

Happily, for the rest of the Irish nation, the party working group produced a much more anodyne report.

Luckily also, the memo remained secret for decades, as publication back in the 1950s, or even much later, would have been deeply unhelpful for everyone in these islands.

The book deals well with the notorious 1970 Arms Trial, aptly described a "nervous breakdown" for Fianna Fáil, and something which almost ended Haughey's political career.

It looks at the North's hunger strikes in the early 1980s and is extremely good on Haughey's relationship with Margaret Thatcher, which began brilliantly but ended up non-existent.

He argues that Thatcher's actions marginalised Haughey in the 1981 hunger strikes, which led to 10 deaths and hugely stoked Northern violence. Haughey, in turn, put the complete kibosh on the relationship by his refusal to back EU sanctions against Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

The author lays huge emphasis on Haughey's sense of place and his own declaration that "I am a man of Northern extraction". Both his parents came from south Derry, each had been active in the IRA during the War of Independence, and the young Haughey identified with his Northern cousins.

The book cites the Ulster Unionist politician and journalist Frank Millar, who described Haughey as "that rare creature in southern Irish politics - a man with an abiding interest in the North".

It acknowledges that Haughey "played the green card" to gain advantage within the Fianna Fáil party - but argues that this did not preclude a genuine interest in the plight of Northern nationalists and a visceral hatred of Partition.

But it too easily dismisses the contrast between the 1955 memo and his hard-line actions and words as justice minister in the early 1960s. This is styled as Haughey "biding his time" as he climbed the greasy pole in party and government. That thesis will seem a bit of a stretch for many readers.

But, in life, Haughey engendered far too much emotion, for and against, to allow much rational appraisal. A good attempt at sober assessment by the historian Ryle Dwyer in his 1999 book Short Fellow was attacked as "cheerleading for Haughey".

Ten years on from his death, this book is a good start in delivering a more considered appraisal, which Charles Haughey requires as a colossus in Irish politics across four decades. To paraphrase Haughey himself, it is time the historians began their work, and time for history to judge.

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