Thursday 12 December 2019

John-Paul McCarthy: 'Visionary' Haughey a throwback

The State papers reveal that the former Taoiseach was no agent of modernisation

John-Paul McCarthy

Some of Charles Haughey's more sophisticated admirers present him as an agent of modernisation. They see his career in terms of a series of trade-offs, and at the end, the celestial scales of historical reputation are deemed to have fallen in his favour.

His Succession Act is said to blot out his more bizarre ministerial appointments like Gene FitzGerald at Finance and Sean Doherty at Justice.

His extraction of the magic words "the totality of relations within these islands" from Mrs Thatcher in 1980 is said to wipe away the stain of his Arms Trial testimony where he betrayed his own Cabinet allies in the witness box. And in a similar vein, the squalid financial nexus unearthed by the Moriarty tribunal is said to be about as big a deal as Helmut Kohl's money troubles.

World-historical statecraft, so this equation implies, doesn't come cheap.

The great value of the Irish State papers is that they remove the foundations of these kinds of arguments, leaving little of consequence for Haughey's admirers.

None of the papers released so far from his first two terms as Taoiseach support the modernisation thesis. Instead we see a crude, provincial populist struggling to get a handle on the crown he thought his by right.

The 1982 papers focus overwhelmingly on the impact of the Falklands crisis on Anglo-Irish relations. And as John Bew showed recently, Haughey was no moderniser, rather a throwback to the era before the Second World War.

Haughey's decision to alienate the British by calling for an end to sanctions against Argentina made little sense in the context of 1982, unless, of course, he thought alongside Sean MacBride, that adverse UN resolutions would make the British Tories void the 1920 border.

But it made perfect sense in the context of Irish nationalist theology. Abrasive word-play in Brussels and New York at John Bull's expense was a popular, if antique tactic in Irish nationalist circles, especially if the perceived beneficiaries of such tactics were pariah regimes.

The perception of Irish solidarity with these regimes only magnified the fact of Irish sovereignty.

Dr Johnson described the logic of this kind of behaviour long before Haughey's premiership, telling Boswell that the animating desire here was "to affect singularity in order to make people stare..."

And the British certainly stared after Haughey withdrew Ireland from the broad EEC consensus in favour of sanctions on Galtieri.

Far from charting a radically new course in Anglo-Irish affairs, Haughey was simply echoing the more lurid aspects of de Valera's statecraft. De Valera paid his infamous respects to the German ambassador after Hitler's suicide not because he was a Nazi fellow-traveller, but because this sort of edgy behaviour was said to prove beyond all doubts that the Irish were masters in their own house.

And just like those who argue that human freedom is only meaningful if it includes the right to voluntarily surrender that freedom in death, Irish nationalism has always asserted its right to keep bad international company.

Even the classier faction within Irish nationalism has been seduced by this kind of behaviour. Carlo Gebler's powerful book on the Enniskillen bombing contained a gem in this regard, unearthing a letter from Peggy Lemass O'Brien to the Irish Times in 1983.

Here she claimed that on his last day as Taoiseach in 1966, her brother Sean said: "Irish people should never forget that it was more humane to be murdered in the gas chambers than to be dragged to death by a Black and Tan tender or to die of starvation in a land of plenty or to be butchered by Cromwell".

Who knows if this is even true, but the moral logic here contains interesting echoes with the later approach of Haughey.

A certain kind of aggressive self-pity holds court here, just as it did in 1982 when Irish nationalism drew parallels between Falkland islanders and Ulster unionists.

Bew quoted from a paper written by the British ambassador in Dublin in 1982 where he explained that "those features of the Falklands crisis which most stirred British national feeling (an isolated but long established British community, intensely loyal, under pressure from a hostile neighbour) reminded the Irish of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland and helped them to identify with Argentina".

Haughey's private version of this parallel was much less decorous. Recalling a conversation with Haughey in the early Eighties, journalist Henry Kelly wrote: "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'".

The frail flower of modernisation won't bloom in that kind of air.

Cabinet secretary Dermot Nally always said Haughey was "a changed man" by the time they met again in 1987.

Maybe the State papers for 2018 will give evidence of the superman conjured up by his admirers? I wouldn't bet the house on it though.

Sunday Independent

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