Saturday 20 July 2019

Flashback 1987... CJ heads to the Champs-Élysées

This weekend 28 years ago Charles Haughey dropped everything and flew to Paris to see cyclist Stephen Roche crowned Tour de France champion

Charlie Haughey with Stephen Roche
Charlie Haughey with Stephen Roche

It wasn't just a measuring session in the Charvet shirt shop that would make Charlie Haughey drop everything and fly to Paris. Back in 1987, he was Taoiseach for the third time, head of the last single-party government the state has seen, albeit a minority one.

The cyclist Stephen Roche had won the Giro d'Italia earlier in the summer and was expected to challenge for the Tour de France. For three weeks he was locked in a titanic struggle with Spanish rider Pedro Delgado.

At one stage Roche exerted himself so much that he passed out at the finish and needed oxygen. When he was revived, he was asked if he was OK, to which he replied, "Oui, mais pas de femme toute de suite." ("Yes, but I am not ready for a woman yet.")

He won by just 40 seconds over the 115 hours of racing, and the outcome was unsure up to the last day.

"There was lots of dealing with the Irish government in the last days of the race," recalls cycling official Pat McQuaid. "On the Friday, [the Taoiseach] was going to come over, but then on Saturday we didn't know if Stephen was going to hold on to the yellow jersey. So the decision wasn't taken until the Saturday evening. I remember getting the phone call from his advisors saying he was coming and we had to deal with that with the organisers of the tour."

Haughey flew to Paris on Sunday morning, and enjoyed lunch at the Irish embassy. Perhaps it was not to his satisfaction as he later said that Stephen Roche had "done more for Ireland in France than all the Irish diplomats who had served here put together".

As the peloton entered the city, Haughey joined his French counterpart Jacques Chirac in a car which followed the racers up and down the Champs-Élysées. He described it as "one of the greatest experiences of my life. It is one of my favourite cities… the atmosphere, the excitement. It was just unbelievable."

McQuaid takes up the story after the race was over: "So Stephen wins and is up on the podium and the Taoiseach goes straight up and congratulates him. And of course Stephen didn't know anything about this and was surprised to see him!"

Mr Haughey had hopped up on to the podium and into the full view of the cameras beaming the scene around the world. He turned and waved, while tucked in behind him were Roche and Tour de Feminin winner Jeannie Longo.

Mr Chirac pulled the winning yellow jersey over Roche's head while CJ stood on the other side of the rider clutching a cuddly lion before lifting Roche's hand high like a referee hailing a winning boxer.

He then kissed the cyclist, who wept as La Marseillaise and Amhrán na bhFiann were played, with a tuneless Haughey clearly audible.

The Taoiseach flew back home after a visit of just eight hours, and some tutting in the media. But as opposition leaders Alan Dukes and Dick Spring were away on holidays, Haughey had the field to himself and enjoyed milking it.

He had a maxim he was fond of quoting: "There's no point having an inside track if you don't run on it." It was one he clearly observed throughout his day in Paris.

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