Monday 18 February 2019

John-Paul McCarthy: Dark arts of Haughey can save Martin

The embattled Fianna Fail leader could learn a trick from the ultimate Renaissance Man

John-Paul McCarthy

In certain respects, Micheal Martin's current problems are not unlike those of Charles Haughey circa 1982.

Like Haughey, Martin is finding that his biggest internal problem is his governmental record.

In most instances, Cabinet experience is considered a sign of political potency, but the IMF bailout negated this at a stroke.

Anonymous Fianna Fail voices warned recently that "no member of the government that allowed the Troika in here should ever be in government again".

This formulation sets at nought all of Martin's work in four ministries since 1997, that is to say, Education, Health, Enterprise, and finally Foreign Affairs.

Haughey's critics were equally unimpressed with mere experience after his first two premierships imploded in 1981 and again in 1982.

Having sent all the economic dials spinning in the wrong direction after he barged Jack Lynch out of office in 1979, Haughey turned his tender arts to the State's institutional structure during the GUBU ministry.

For the first time since the early Thirties, members of the police expressed their fears about the government.

As an open-mouthed Garret FitzGerald later explained: "For some time I had been receiving disturbing reports from journalistic and, indirectly, from Garda sources about an abuse of the telephone intercept system that existed as part of the State's security arrangement. I was told that it had been used to intercept telephone calls being made to two journalists believed to be in touch with members of the Government opposed to the Taoiseach. This subversion of the State security system for party political purposes had most serious implications for our democratic system of government."

This would end with a High Court censure a few years later.

Today this episode is a key pillar in the indictment of the Haughey operation, alongside his cynical manipulation of the H-Block crisis and his attempt to use the Galtieri junta as an electoral lever.

For someone who had been Taoiseach for less than three years by 1982, this was one hell of a resume to have amassed. And yet he lasted another decade, and did most of the good work that was in him, such as it was, from 1987 to 1992.

There's a lesson in this for Martin, loath though he may be to look for guidance from someone whose collected speeches bear the deathless title The Spirit of the Nation.

There is no such thing as original sin in politics.

Even the most abject calamity can be overcome if you approach it in the right frame of mind.

In certain respects, Haughey's early operation was actually worse than the last Fianna Fail Cabinet's foray into fiscal slapstick. Haughey was always happy to encourage that paranoid streak in our national life that saw political criticism as a kind of intellectual stab in the back.

One of his favourite retorts in the New Ireland Forum years was his insistence that Ireland as a society had nothing to apologise for.

On Northern Ireland issues, he acted as if his father-in-law Sean Lemass never existed. "I believe," Haughey said in 1981, "there is always in the general, in the mind, the Irish public mind, a wish for a solution to this problem, a wish for ultimate unity. I believe that's as present today as ever it was."

If he had sent Fianna Fail canvassers across the Border to organise and stand for election in Northern Ireland's constituencies, that would have added a certain frisson to the unity rhetoric. But instead he was content to indulge the lowest forms of prejudice.

The journalist Henry Kelly recalled a private encounter: "I vividly recall the burden of Haughey's conversation: that Ulster Protestants were secondary to the future of Ireland and that – his own words – 'they've never achieved anything'."

Not quite the stuff we associate with Mitterrand and Kohl, is it?

None of this mattered electorally in the end because he kept reinventing himself over the decades. In the Fifties and Sixties, he was an Irish Stolypin, a hard-charging champion of state capitalism.

In the Seventies, he courted the provincial Catholic vote. And in the Eighties he turned in a creditable performance as a chastened big-spender. By 1990 he spoke like a Hibernian Huey Long weighed down with ciall ceannaithe.

Politically speaking, Haughey was always something of a Road Runner, just a nose ahead of the coyote.

And while it is true that he languishes somewhere near the bottom of our premier league, he did linger for a long time.

Martin has none of Haughey's paranoia or self-pity, but he does share a predicament with him.

Haughey recovered from calamity by pretending it never happened.

Martin has to find a new version of the old Marxist prescription that calls for a public critique of error, an annulment of bad habits and a final transcendence to a new plane.

Sunday Independent

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