Monday 22 July 2019

Money, sex and power: why Charlie is still box office

Haughey's legacy is one that continues to intrigue

Aidan Gillen as Charles Haughey
Aidan Gillen as Charles Haughey
Charlie Haughey speaking at the 1986 Fianna Fail Ard Fheis. Photo: NPA and Independent Collection
Charlie Haughey and Margaret Thatcher
Peter O'Meara as Brian Lenihan in RTÉ's drama series 'Charlie'

Shane Coleman

CHARLES Haughey would no doubt approve that more than two decades after his retirement from politics, and nearly nine years after his death, he continues to fascinate.

That it is he, and not the five Taoisigh who came after him, who is the subject of tomorrow night's prime-time drama on the state broadcaster.

It's well over half a century since CJH became a minister - one of the "men in the mohair suits" that would take a wrecking ball to Fianna Fail's ascetic and frugal persona. It's also fast approaching 20 years since his corruption was first laid bare by the McCracken Tribunal.

But while his reputation and legacy have been thrashed by those revelations of an almost comically lavish lifestyle funded by the largesse of others, the legend of 'Charlie' remains.

If anything the colourful private life, the Charvet shirts, the dinners in Le Coq Hardi, where we the taxpayer picked up the tab via the Leaders' Allowance account, the €11.5m (€45m in today's money) it's estimated he got from benefactors and businessmen, only adds to the magnetism.

You disagree? Well imagine for a moment that the dark secret of his personal finances had never come to light. Would we be still be watching in our hundreds of thousands tomorrow evening? Would there be a 'Charlie' at all? Unlikely.

That's not to say that Mr Haughey's political career was ever uninteresting. Back in 1969, even his fiercest critic Conor Cruise O'Brien conceded he was "better, or at least more intelligent and interesting, than most of his colleagues".

Mr O'Brien, a long-time columnist for this newspaper, was less complimentary when he wrote that Mr Haughey "was 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".

Fast forward a decade-and-a-half or so and Alan Goodison, the British ambassador in Dublin, was painting an equally unflattering/accurate portrait of Mr Haughey to the British government. The pen picture, which emerged this week from the 1985 UK state papers, portrayed the then leader of the opposition as being unconstructive, unhelpful and wallowing in the negativity that comes with not being in charge.

Mr Goodison said Mr Haughey appeared happy to snipe from the sidelines, while at the same time not putting forward any fresh or concrete ideas of his own.

His assessment that Mr Haughey wouldn't be "constructive or helpful" in relation to a pending Anglo-Irish Agreement proved prophetic. Mr Haughey's deeply cynical opposition to the agreement later that year wasn't the first or last time that he would put personal ambition before the interests of the State.

And the ambassador's verdict that Mr Haughey would "relish the opportunity of attempting to destroy" Garret FitzGerald was something the likes of Jack Lynch, George Colley and Des O'Malley could have identified with.

Mr Haughey's "eff him Frank he's finished" line about Mr Lynch, to then government press secretary Frank Dunlop in the dying days of Mr Lynch's tenure, sums up the future Fianna Fail leader's ruthlessness.

There were rumours in the subsequent leadership battle with Mr Colley of intimidation of TDs in the run-up to the vote. In the three leadership heaves that Mr Haughey somehow survived in the early 1980s, stories of threats and inducements emerged.

Jim Gibbons, Mr Haughey's old adversary from the Arms Trial, was punched by a member of a crowd of angry Haughey supporters. Charlie McCreevy was chased across a car park, kicked, jostled and called a "bastard" and a "Blueshirt".

One story from the time speaks volumes. Martin O'Donoghue was dropped by Mr Haughey from his first Cabinet in 1979. A couple of days later he got a special delivery to his home. It was a parcel containing two dead ducks with the message: "Shot on my estate this morning."

Mr O'Donoghue regarded it as both a bad joke and a menacing gesture.

Mr Goodison was wrong about one thing though. His assessment of Mr Haughey as having no concrete proposals on how to dig the country out of economic mire underestimated the Fianna Fail leader's determination to make up for two indecisive and weak spells as Taoiseach.

On returning to office in 1987, Mr Haughey, assisted by Ray MacSharry, introduced the tough budgetary medicine that the country had needed for the best part of a decade.

In comparison with how 20 years later Brian Cowen and then Enda Kenny would struggle so badly to preside over similar enforced economic policies, it was Mr Haughey's finest hour, laying the foundations for the Celtic Tiger. It provided a brief glimpse of his talents that were obvious from his time as Justice Minister and which prompted Garret FitzGerald to say he had the potential to become one of the best Taoisigh the country ever had.

The 'flawed pedigree' - political as opposed to family - that Mr FitzGerald infamously referred to in a Dail speech on the night Mr Haughey first became Taoiseach meant the potential failed utterly to become a reality.

Mr Haughey was a brilliant politician, hugely bright, savvy, visionary and tough. But, as many in the Fianna Fail old guard (most notably Frank Aitken) feared, he was fatally compromised. His legacy is of a crooked politician who took millions of pounds, including misappropriating donations given to a fund to finance medical treatment for his old ally Brian Lenihan Snr. The damage he did to politics and democracy in this country is incalculable.

And then there was the infamous affair with Terry Keane.

The Moriarty Tribunal found that while there was much diligence and capability in the manner in which Mr Haughey discharged his duties, there were also "elements of fear".

But he also had an undoubted hold over the Irish electorate, despite the constant rumours and unexplained personal wealth.

In five general elections under Mr Haughey, Fianna Fail won 44pc-48pc of the first preference vote, a figure none of his successors have come close to. He was adored by voters magnetically drawn to his brand of tribal politics.

That magnetism may be of a different nature - the adoration is certainly gone - but the likely viewing figures tomorrow night suggests it still endures.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk

Irish Independent

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