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From zero to hero may be too big an ask, even for CJ

THE Irish WikiLeaks cables did not tell us much that was astoundingly new, but one of them re-ignited an old debate likely to preoccupy us in the future.

In one of the leaked cables we got a secondhand report of a conversation between the US ambassador and the powerful former secretary of the Department of the Taoiseach, Padraig O hUiginn.

Discussing Irish economic success, O hUiginn apparently told the ambassador that "although the concepts behind Ireland's reforms had been simple, the political will to carry out the reforms had only come in the context of the mid-Eighties, economic meltdown".

The cable says that O hUiginn "recalled drafting a proposal for economic recovery during that era, using ideas that were 'apparent to any first-year economics graduate student', viz, cut the fiscal deficit, spur competition, lower corporate taxes etc. The ruling party at the time, Fine Gael, did not act on the proposal".

Though we only have a snippet of O hUiginn's conversation with the ambassador, his comments do not reflect very well on Dr Garret FitzGerald. Padraig O hUiginn himself is cited only once in FitzGerald's 600-page memoir, a fact that suggests they may not have been all that compatible to begin with.

In the cable, it seems that O hUiginn went on to explain the key role played by Charles Haughey's new government after 1987. The leaked cable reports that he explained how "the Fianna Fail government elected in 1987 made the document the basis for the Program of National Recovery (PNR), which set forth the policies that underpinned Ireland's economic turnaround".

The economic argument has always been used by many of Haughey's admirers as a trump card.

While this argument usually ignores the economic realism in the Fine Gael electoral manifesto in 1987 as well as Haughey's own adamantine refusal to countenance national austerity when in opposition between 1982-7, it has had a certain resonance.

Haughey is a difficult Taoiseach to defend because of his cheery indifference to the truth. He betrayed his own co-defendants at the Arms Trial by refusing to back their story about a government plan to arm the Provisional IRA.

He even managed to swell the enormous deficit Jack Lynch left behind him in 1979.

He tried to pummel FitzGerald with the family values vote in the first divorce referendum while conducting an extra-marital affair. And he quickly abandoned his rhetorical campaign against the consent provisions of the Anglo-Irish Agreement after 1987.

O hUiginn's summary of the country's economic salvation after 1987 will doubtlessly be used to offset a lot of these deformities, and it can tempt people to do some judicious balancing as regards Haughey's reputation.

Haughey's admirers usually ask us to make a series of contrasts. We are supposed to set his sticky fingers against his superior analytical capacities, those capacities on display during his execution of the O hUiginn economic plan after 1987.

Only an economic wizard it seems could have seen what Haughey saw in 1987 -- namely, the merits of offering labour moderate wage increases in exchange for income tax relief.

Haughey's "totality of relationships" model of Anglo-Irish diplomacy after 1980 is also cited on occasion by his admirers, though he rather squandered this breakthrough by failing to recognise that he could not bully a British prime minister who took advice from men like Airey Neave, a one-time resident at the Nazis' Colditz Castle. Other admirers also ask us to offset Haughey's insistence on craven loyalty in his private office against his healthy indifference to mere 'process' in government.

This was a big theme in Frank Dunlop's gossipy memoir, Yes, Taoiseach, where he recounted a wacky and unminuted conclave in 1982 between Haughey and West Germany Chancellor Helmut Schmidt where Haughey tried to convince the Germans to open the EU purse on the back of Irish oil and gas deposits.

Schmidt may well have sent him packing, but not before Haughey gave posterity a masterclass in cutting through bureaucratic red tape.

Sometimes though Haughey cut right down to the bone.

Chief Justice Liam Hamilton criticised both Haughey and O hUiginn together in the Beef Tribunal Report when he concluded that the government had acted "wrongfully and in excess of its powers" when the Cabinet changed the rules of an IDA development plan "at the instigation of the then Taoiseach or the Secretary to his Department".

Haughey's admirers may well be banking on a gradual evolution in attitudes towards his career.

They live in hope that one day the O hUiginn emphasis on economic salvation will supplant the image of a cabinet minister being arrested at his home by Special Branch officers on a charge of conspiring to arm one of the most dangerous terrorist organisations since 1945.

'Haughey's admirers may be banking on a gradual evolution in attitudes towards his career -- this would take some shift in the historical winds...'

This would take a shift in the historical winds comparable to that which transformed a Victorian Catholic like De Valera into a liberal constitutionalist, and which turned no-nonsense law-and-order types like Cosgrave and O'Higgins into dim-witted pawns of Churchill during the Civil War. (Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian accepted Ken Loach's crass offer in his film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, to consider the Free State as a "collaborationist entity, which imbibed its habits of governing from its former rulers, who were able to sub-contract the prerogative of cruelty to a deeply uncertain new dispensation").

Haughey may well hitch a ride on these cross-currents, but the very crudity of his politics suggest that it will take something stronger than a temporary economic recovery to rescue him from deserved historical infamy.

JP McCarthy holds a PhD in history from Oxford

Sunday Independent