Exclusive extracts from a new book by Gary Murphy recall a fascinating journey to power that saw Haughey win against the party establishment candidate
1. EARLY RETIREMENT
On Tuesday December 11, 1979, the day Charles Haughey was elected taoiseach, the editor of Magill, Vincent Browne, wrote to him seeking an immediate interview for a background briefing for a large story that Browne was planning on “The Making of a Taoiseach”.
Browne’s plan was to deal with everything that had happened politically since the 1977 election. The exhaustive list of topics he wanted to cover was indicative of the dramatic change in politics in the two and a half years since Jack Lynch’s landslide general election victory.
Browne had spoken with Haughey about the article the day after the dramatic Fianna Fáil leadership election which had seen Haughey, with the overwhelming support of the backbenchers, win the leadership of the party. Browne told Haughey he needed to speak with him urgently because of the looming deadline; Magill intended to publish the leadership article before Christmas. Haughey refused to do the interview and the article did not appear until the January 1980 edition.
It was a stunning piece of reportage. It outlined in over 12,500 words how Haughey won the leadership with 39 of the 57 backbench votes. It charted Haughey’s recovery from the dark days of 1970, when he was fired as finance minister, arrested at his home and taken to the Bridewell in a Garda car, held for the morning before being bailed, and subsequently prosecuted in the courts on a charge of conspiracy to illegally import arms, to the day when he was elected taoiseach.
Haughey’s election had been orchestrated by a handful of rural backbenchers referred to as the “gang of five”. Seán Doherty, Jackie Fahey, Mark Killilea, Tom McEllistrim and Albert Reynolds were the leaders of a group who had schemed for months to oust an administration which, they believed, would be routed at the next election. The only thing more extraordinary than this revelation was that Haughey himself had played little part in the removal of Lynch.
As Browne accurately put it, “the eventual benefactor of that revolt, Charles Haughey, had little involvement in and indeed, little knowledge of what was going on”.
That was true, but only to a certain extent. Certainly Haughey was very aware of the discontent with Lynch on the backbenches and the fact that many were anxious for a change of leadership. He also knew who they were. In his personal papers there is a photocopy of a page with 16 signatures on it under the small-type heading: “It is our view that the interest of the party can best be served by the early retirement of Jack Lynch and the election of a new leader of the party.” The first signatory is Jackie Fahey.
Of the gang of five, Doherty, Killilea and McEllistrim all appear in the list. The other signatories are Liam Aylward, Lorcan Allen, Chub O’Connor, Joe Fox, Paddy Power, Eileen Lemass, John Callinan, Charlie McCreevy, Seán Calleary, Seán Keegan, Ger Connolly and Síle de Valera. There is no date and a small yellow Post-it with the date 1979 is attached to the sheet. All voted for Haughey in the leadership election.
When Haughey returned from Inishvickillane at the end of August 1979, two events were convulsing the Irish people. One was the heinous IRA murder of Lord Louis Mountbatten in a bomb attack on his boat, Shadow V, at Mullaghmore in Co Sligo. In all, the bomb claimed four lives. On the same day, 18 British soldiers were killed in an IRA attack at Warrenpoint, Co Down.
Jack Lynch was on holiday in Portugal with his wife, Máirín, at the time. He did not return home immediately, although at least one person in his private office thought he should. Instead he was persuaded that he should stay on holiday until all arrangements had been made. He was widely criticised by the Irish and British press and eventually returned home a day later.
His return coincided with the removal of Mountbatten’s body by air to London from Baldonnel Airport. The special representative of the British queen sent over to accompany the body back refused to salute when Lynch offered him the Irish government’s condolences. This was interpreted by the Irish military present as an official indication of the fury in British government and royal circles at Ireland’s failure to protect Mountbatten.
On September 5, Lynch, on behalf of his government, attended the funeral service in Westminster Abbey. He cut a sombre, downbeat figure. After the service Lynch met the newly installed British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Lynch spent the five-hour meeting on the defensive as Thatcher attacked him over what she saw as his government’s failure to properly police the Border. In her view, this made the Republic of Ireland a safe haven for murderers. She wanted an immediate strengthening of security.
Lynch at this stage was politically extremely vulnerable. A month earlier, Fianna Fáil’s youngest TD, 24-year-old Síle de Valera, a granddaughter of the party’s founder Éamon de Valera, had delivered an inflammatory speech in Cork. De Valera railed against her taoiseach and urged him to demonstrate his republican leadership.
De Valera was in no doubt that her speech was unacceptable to the leader of Fianna Fáil. Yet she felt in no way intimidated by Lynch, who was forced to condemn her speech on the day it was delivered, which meant that both the speech and his criticism of it was front-page news in all the newspapers.
Lynch was badly damaged by Fianna Fáil’s defeat in a by-election in his heartland of Cork City on November 7, the same day he left for a trip to the United States, when its candidate John Dennehy lost to Fine Gael’s Liam Burke. Fine Gael also won the by-election in Cork North East on the same day. The Cork City defeat was particularly humiliating for Lynch, as he had been campaigning in Cork on four successive weekends.
Fianna Fáil losing in the taoiseach’s native city, where he was held in something approaching awe, was something that no observer had predicted. Yet a number of shrewd political journalists knew all was not well in Lynch’s Fianna Fáil.
Michael Mills of the Irish Press recalled that as he watched Lynch’s final rally in Cork City on the eve of the elections, it seemed to him that the taoiseach’s extraordinary personal appeal to voters, which had seen him win the 1977 general election with the biggest majority in the party’s history, had lost much of its magnetism. Gone was the old enthusiasm of the crowds, to be replaced by a dull apathy.
Lynch received the news of the Cork by-election defeats when he was standing on the White House lawn with President Jimmy Carter. Kevin Healy of RTÉ described Lynch as ashen-faced, very subdued and almost resigned to his fate when they had a one-to-one interview in Boston a few days later.
Lynch flew back to Ireland on the morning of November 16. He was met in Dublin Airport by George Colley, and up to 40 other ministers, TDs and senators. The greeting was far more subdued than that of some nine years previously when he returned from the United States in the week of Haughey’s acquittal in the arms trial.
Haughey did not show up. This was seen by some as an indication of the opening salvo of a leadership challenge to Lynch, but at this stage Haughey had no intention of challenging Lynch for the leadership. He was willing to bide his time, to wait for Lynch to resign and to take his chances against the party elite’s preferred candidate, George Colley.
As November ended he judged that the contest was very close, but would probably not happen until well into 1980, although some in his inner circle thought it would be January. None of them considered that Lynch would go in December.
Lynch told his parliamentary party on Wednesday December 5 that he was stepping down as taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil. The contest to replace him would take place two days later.
2. ‘THEY’RE ALL MY PEOPLE’
On the day of the parliamentary party meeting, Geraldine Kennedy reported in The Irish Times that if there was a leadership contest anytime soon, Haughey was likely to have 38 votes, with 36 for Colley, and eight undecideds. This was remarkably prescient. Kennedy had long considered that Haughey would win a two-way contest against Colley.
She recalled a conversation she had with a delighted Haughey in the RDS on the night of the 1977 election. She said to him: “I don’t know what you’re so pleased about given that Jack Lynch is going to get a strong overall majority,” and he replied: “Yes, but they’re all my people. Now I know I’ll be leader.”
Lynch’s announcement that he was stepping down and the short time period for the contest was essentially designed to ensure a Colley victory. The tánaiste was convinced he had the necessary support. The leadership contest pitted the maverick of the cabinet, and the darling of the backbenchers, against the candidate of the party’s establishment. It was the quintessential contest between the outsider with no Fianna Fáil bloodline and the insider whose family was steeped in the party.
When it was over, those on the defeated side could not understand how they had lost. They felt that it must have been due to the nefarious tactics of the victor. The then Fine Gael leader, Garret FitzGerald, wrote in his autobiography that several Fine Gael TDs told him that many Fianna Fáil TDs had told them they were being intimidated by people in Haughey’s camp and that the ballot to elect the leader would not be conducted in secret.
Some deputies claimed they had been told that unless, as they walked to deposit their votes in the ballot box, they showed them to members of the Haughey camp they would be assumed to have voted for Colley and would subsequently be treated accordingly.
In his autobiography, Des O’Malley, one of Colley’s chief supporters, and at that stage industry and commerce minister, wrote that he was shocked by the number of people who voted for Haughey on the grounds that by not voting for him he would have smashed the party; O’Malley asserts that this was a “perversion of democracy”.
A number of backbenchers were summoned to Lynch’s office in Leinster House while Colley was there. At least a dozen more were not contacted at all because the Colley camp assumed that their votes were secure. This was a terrible misjudgment. It was not just Lynch who had no relationship with the backbenchers; the same was true of Colley, O’Malley and Martin O’Donoghue.
The fear of giving Haughey more time to build up his support base was what, in essence, led Lynch to announce his resignation so quickly. The Colley camp ultimately pushed him to go several months early because they felt they were losing ground.
Those hectic meetings with backbenchers in late November were a late bid to stave off a Colley defeat. It was too late. The same backbenchers had long since decided it was time for a new direction. The day before the vote, Colley and O’Donoghue made a frantic round of last-minute phone calls from the Taoiseach’s office to every minister and junior minister to shore up their support. The tenor of those calls was extremely blunt: stay with Colley or face not being in cabinet. Some of the calls were made right in front of Lynch’s deputy private secretary, Seán Aylward. All pretence of Lynch being in any way neutral in the contest to succeed him had been dropped.
Symptomatic of the miscalculation in the Colley camp was its view that it could count on the votes of the foreign affairs minister, Michael O’Kennedy, and the junior minister at the Department of Finance, Ray MacSharry.
MacSharry had been contacted as early as October by some confidants of Colley who told him they suspected that Lynch would be retiring in the next number of months and they were setting up a team to support Colley. Given that MacSharry was Colley’s junior in Finance, they reckoned that they could count on his support. MacSharry rebuffed them, stating that he would not be involved in any leadership contest at this stage given that there was no vacancy, that he had been appointed by Jack Lynch, and that he did not know who the other candidates might be.
He later phoned Haughey and told him that he’d better get on his bike if he intended to be leader of Fianna Fáil because Colley already had his team set up and was ready to go. Haughey told him he was talking out of his backside. MacSharry replied that Haughey could think what he liked but that was the situation. Notwithstanding MacSharry’s original refusal to support Colley, the tánaiste’s camp still considered that he would vote for their candidate.
In the end, however, like pretty much all the undecideds, he went for Haughey on the grounds that Haughey would be more progressive and would protect Fianna Fáil’s republicanism. He also considered Colley to be too conservative. By contrast, MacSharry considered Haughey’s genuine interest in people would make a real difference. For many, Haughey was interested in the backbenchers, as naturally they were the ones who could make him taoiseach, but he was also interested in what politics could do for ordinary people.
On the night before the election, Colley invited MacSharry to his office in Leinster House to make a last-ditch attempt to get his vote. Their conversation was short and to the point. Colley asked MacSharry for his vote and MacSharry refused. Just before midnight, Ray Burke and Brian Lenihan came to see MacSharry and asked for his vote for Colley. Once again, he refused and set off to the house he shared with Mark Killilea, Flor Crowley, and Bernard McGlinchey in Harold’s Cross.
On his way out of Leinster House, Seán Duignan of RTÉ asked MacSharry who was going to propose Haughey for the leadership. MacSharry replied that if Haughey was stuck for someone the following morning he would do it himself. RTÉ duly reported this in its hourly bulletins. At 7am on the morning of the vote, Haughey rang MacSharry. Close to four decades later, the conversation was still imprinted in MacSharry’s mind:
CJH: “Who the f**k said you were proposing me?”
RMacS: “Well, if you’re having trouble finding someone, I’ll do it. How many votes do you have?”
RMacS: “Fifty-two? If you have 42 you’ll be doing well.
CJH: “What the f**k do you mean? I have the votes.”
RMacS: “Two of your bankers are supporting Colley.”
RMacS: “Lenihan and Burke, your two neighbours. You still have work to do.”
CJH: “F**k. Well if you want to propose me go ahead.”
With that Haughey slammed down the phone. Another phone call shortly afterwards, however, put him in a much better mood. The foreign affairs minister, Michael O’Kennedy, rang him to tell him that he would be voting for him.
As was typical, Haughey neither promised him anything for his vote nor even asked him for it. O’Kennedy knew, however, that in deciding to vote for Haughey he was either guaranteeing himself a senior role in Haughey’s government or potentially banishing himself to isolation in a Colley government, as had been intimated in the calls from the taoiseach’s office the previous day.
Haughey was absolutely ecstatic that O’Kennedy switched to him at the last minute. O’Kennedy was the most prominent defection from the rump of Fianna Fáil Munster deputies who were regarded as most heavily influenced by Lynch, and his decision clearly swayed at least one other deputy from the region. Haughey immediately rang Brendan O’Donnell and told him to spread the word that O’Kennedy was voting for him.
O’Kennedy was closer to Haughey than Colley on the Northern Ireland question, and while some of the hardcore backbenchers saw him as a late convert, it was a brilliant political judgment call, guaranteeing him a senior ministry, and later the EU commissionership.
O’Kennedy’s decision to vote for Haughey came as a major surprise, particularly to the Colley camp, which considered that it had every vote in the cabinet. O’Kennedy was, however, disconcerted by the phone call he received from Colley. He was also angered by what he considered a very aggressive approach by Colley’s chief canvasser, the defence minister, Bobby Molloy, demanding to know which way he was going to vote. His defection to the Haughey camp certainly persuaded a number of undecideds to join him.
Just after 11.15am on Friday, December 7, 1979, in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary room of Leinster House, Des O’Malley proposed George Colley for the leadership and he was seconded by Seán Browne. Ray MacSharry then proposed Haughey, with Jerry Cronin seconding him. No speeches were allowed. Over the next 40 minutes the 82 TDs voted. When they were finished the votes were counted by the official tellers, Michael Woods and Ben Briscoe.
When the counting was finished Woods handed the result to the party chairman, Willie Kenneally from Waterford, a strong Colley supporter. A shocked Kenneally then read out the result; 44 for Haughey, 38 for Colley.
Immediately, Haughey shook hands with both Colley and Lynch. He made a brief speech to the stunned gathering saying there was no animosity between himself and his “old school pal”, ending by telling the deputies, ‘You can be sure of one thing; I will give it my very, very best.”
Haughey retired to his office on the first floor to prepare for his live press conference that afternoon. PJ Mara and Brendan O’Donnell made brief visits, but otherwise he was alone. It was an apt metaphor. For all the jubilation his victory brought to the backbenchers, and to the grassroots of Fianna Fáil, Haughey essentially remained a solitary figure. At that press conference he was surrounded by the party whips, Woods and Briscoe, and about 30 of his supporters. None could be in any way classified as a close friend. In his speech Haughey emphasised that his chief priority was the “peaceful unification of the people of Ireland”, a very unusual but carefully chosen phrase, stressing as it did that unity was about people.
He also stated that he had a very clear priority to promote the economic development of the country and to provide the best possible social welfare arrangements for people who needed it. He condemned the IRA, and refused to be drawn on the arms trial, saying that he was leaving it to the historians.
He swatted away questions about his wealth with the witty but essentially true response that the questioner had “a simple false assumption… that I am a wealthy man. I wouldn’t necessarily assume that if I was you. Ask my bank manager.”
He also declared that Colley had promised him his full support and loyalty, which was not true. When the press conference ended he made his way home to Abbeville, and that night hosted a party for a large number of friends. There were few politicians in attendance. Both MacSharry and O’Kennedy went home to their constituencies. Burke and Lenihan were not invited.
3. CASTING ASPERSIONS
The day Haughey had longed for all his adult life began early, as it always did at Abbeville. Haughey rose before 6am. He walked the grounds of his estate before having his normal Spartan breakfast and readying himself for the day. The postman came early, bearing a deluge of congratulatory mail. His driver, Max Webster, collected him and drove him into Leinster House. His family followed him some hours later. His brother Eoghan collected their mother and drove her in. She had bought a new hat for the day.
Sarah Haughey’s proudest day was, however, soon to be marred by the vehemence of the attacks on her son by his political opponents. The speeches from the opposition that greeted Haughey’s nomination as Taoiseach were among the most aggressive seen in Dáil Éireann since its foundation. In opposing Haughey, the Fine Gael leader, Garret FitzGerald, quite early in his speech, famously said that Haughey “presents himself here, seeking to be invested in office as the seventh in this line, but he comes with a flawed pedigree”.
FitzGerald’s point, he insisted ever afterwards, was that all previous holders of the office had the full confidence of their own parties and indeed a degree of respect from their opponents in the Dáil. He blamed the use of the phrase on the late hour at which he had drafted his speech the night before.
Up in the VIP gallery, Sarah and Eoghan Haughey bristled with shock and indignation. What right did Garret FitzGerald, a man brought up in privilege, have to cast aspersions on their son and brother?
As Martin Mansergh, later to become one of Haughey’s most trusted advisers, pointed out, the word “pedigree” reeked of social snobbery. What made it even worse was that it came from a man who had had a private education and every advantage that the Irish social class system could give. FitzGerald would never have used such a word about George Colley. The phrase rankled with Haughey on the day and was one he never forgave FitzGerald for using, primarily because it had been made in front of his mother, a woman who, with virtually nothing, had raised a son who had risen to the office of Taoiseach.
A son who, she was aware, had flaws, like all sons, but a son who nevertheless had overcome a childhood of deprivation to become taoiseach. The good of that historic achievement had been taken away from her by a man with no conception of what it was like to be poor, and to have struggled the way she did when she was raising her seven children in Donnycarney. Haughey seethed with resentment against FitzGerald through all their battles over the course of the next seven years. There was more to their dislike of each other than the “flawed pedigree” remark, but to Haughey, FitzGerald had crossed a line.
For six hours, Haughey listened to attacks on his character from the opposition. Noel Browne told the Dáil that in his own nightmare Haughey was a dreadful cross between Richard Nixon and the Portuguese dictator António Salazar. The leader of the Labour Party, Frank Cluskey, implored Fianna Fáil deputies not to vote for a man who they knew better than him was “totally unfit for that position”.
At 5.06pm Haughey replaced Jack Lynch as taoiseach, the man who had sacked him from office over nine and a half years earlier and who Haughey had long suspected was the cause of his trial for conspiracy to illegally import arms.
He then went to Áras an Uachtaráin to receive his seal of office from president Patrick Hillery before returning to the Dáil to unveil his ministerial team.
After the Dáil rose for the night Haughey returned home to Abbeville where a select group of friends and family met him to celebrate his historic achievement. One of them was the merchant banker Patrick Gallagher.
Haughey’s announcement as taoiseach had reached the Gulf States and the Middle East where it was announced on the news that: “Today millionaire Charles Haughey was elected prime minister of the Republic of Ireland.” The truth was that Haughey owed AIB over £1m. At the gathering in Abbeville to celebrate his election, Gallagher told Haughey he would give him a third of the money.
Like all of Haughey’s benefactors he knew the money he gave came with no conditions. Haughey had an uncanny ability to compartmentalise the various facets of his public and private lives. Within a month of becoming Taoiseach he would go on television to tell the country it was living beyond its means, notwithstanding the fact that he was in serious, eye-watering debt.
When he was introducing family planning legislation for married couples, he was involved in an extramarital affair. While Haughey would often claim that his entire life was bound up in politics, the reality was that he had an unparalleled ability to divorce his private life from his political decisions. When the revelations about his financial and private lives became public two decades later, he was widely reviled as a byword for hypocrisy. Yet in real time Haughey never saw it that way.
Politically, he made decisions that he thought would work. There were times when he would have liked to have gone further but was restrained by various factors including opinion within Fianna Fáil and indeed among the public at large. That was the public Haughey and it was a persona that was far removed from the private Haughey. The great advantage the public Haughey held was that he was able to keep the private Haughey out of his decision-making on public policy. The private Haughey would, however, go on to haunt the public Haughey in the aftermath of the taoiseach years, when his secret life was revealed.
Haughey’s four children were not at the gathering in Abbeville that night. They had stayed in the city centre after the ending of the Dáil proceedings and went to Peter’s Pub, just off St Stephen’s Green, to celebrate with their friends. Haughey had given them just one piece of advice earlier in the day: “Whatever you do, don’t get arrested.”
4. A DIFFERENT MARKER
The criticism of Haughey triggered a voluminous postbag. A large amount of correspondence complained about the attacks on him. Vincent Browne, in his letter seeking an interview with Haughey, ended his request by stating that he was “delighted for yourself, for the country and the wild men on the backbenches who put you there… PS I thought Garret’s behaviour was disgraceful but from your point of view it’s just as well to get these matters out of the way and let you get on with things.”
There was outrage from the Fianna Fáil grassroots. The congratulatory messages, however, outweighed anything else. They came from all corners of the world. Aidan Lehane, the president of Blackrock College, de Valera’s alma mater, told him that another former president of the college, John Charles McQuaid, had said twice in the months leading up to his death that: “Charlie Haughey will be taoiseach. He was the most competent minister I ever dealt with.”
The American author Gore Vidal, who a decade earlier had sought Haughey’s help in inquiring how to gain Irish citizenship, telegrammed to say he could not be more delighted: “Finally, in life as in drama, the best man wins.” He then sent Haughey a personally inscribed volume of his works. The spy novelist Len Deighton, who had availed of Haughey’s artists’ tax exemption scheme, was another writer who routinely sent him inscribed copies of his books.
When Haughey had his first cabinet meeting on Thursday, December 13, he had high hopes that his administration would reshape Ireland’s politics, society and economy into the 1980s. He was to be sorely disappointed. He arrived into the cabinet room in Government Buildings five minutes early. He was the first to arrive.
By 10.30, when the meeting was due to begin, he was still on his own. The five newcomers came in together just after the scheduled starting time. Haughey began to drum the table with his fingers. The rest of the cabinet arrived over the next quarter of an hour. Haughey kept drumming until everyone was in place. He was used to the laid-back style of Lynch’s cabinets but was determined to set down a different marker. He was coldly resolute as he told his cabinet that meetings would start at exactly at 10.30am, and end at 12.45pm, and anyone who was not on time should not bother coming at all. The tone was set.