On a shelf near my desk I keep a small gold bar, a souvenir of an event celebrating the career of Charlie Haughey. I’ve had it since the mid-1990s.
When I say a small gold bar, I mean a very small, tacky cardboard box with the colour and shape of a gold bar — where Charlie was involved, something might initially seem flashy, but it invariably turned out to be phoney.
On the side of the box is printed: “Charles J. Haughey A Tribute.” It’s a memento of an evening when some of the well-off gathered to honour Haughey — publicly disgraced, yet respected among the wealthy.
Haughey lied to courts and he lied to tribunals.
He lied to loved ones and he lied to strangers. He lied to voters and to journalists.
He lied casually and he lied solemnly, under oath.
When his lies were uncovered, he lied about his lies.
Only some of his secrets were uncovered, and he held on to most of the millions he harvested corruptly.
Professor Gary Murphy’s major biography of Haughey landed last week. Nine years in the making, 700 pages in hardback.
I’ll buy the book, and I expect it will contain much of value.
Prof Murphy is an accomplished historian. He had access to Haughey’s private papers, and by all accounts he writes well about events that mattered and that helped shape today’s politics.
But the book will have to wait until the new year.
I intend to enjoy this Christmas — a festive season under siege. And having Mr Haughey sitting on my bedside table for the next month would destroy the Yuletide mood.
The book has been extensively reviewed and promoted, so information about its content is already all over the place.
The Irish Independent review headline: “Charles Haughey biography tries too hard to see his good side.”
The Irish Times: “A scholarly but overly flattering portrait.”
On the other hand, in the Sunday Times, Bertie Ahern (the political minion who literally signed blank cheques for Charlie) reviewed the book. Heaping praise on the man who lied for Ireland, Ahern concedes: “Haughey certainly made mistakes...”
Ah, no, Bert, no, that won’t do.
A mistake is when I leave the house wearing two odd shoes. Haughey stealing money from accounts that didn’t belong to him and hiding millions in his own coded offshore accounts to elude Revenue... that, I’m afraid, cannot happen by mistake. It was criminal activity.
Haughey was a liar and a thief. This newspaper can print these words safely, as dead men cannot sue. But we published the same words when he was alive — because they were true. He knew better than to sue.
Ahern concedes there were some “financial irregularities” in Charlie’s accounts.
Those words are too flimsy to carry the weight of truth — which involves persistent tax fraud, money hidden offshore, money stolen from the State, money stolen from Fianna Fáil. And money stolen from the fund created to pay for a liver transplant operation for Haughey’s ailing old friend, Brian Lenihan.
I turned on the radio and Prof Murphy was telling Miriam O’Callaghan his book outlines the Moriarty Tribunal’s findings against Haughey. And for balance points out Haughey claimed he handed over all his financial affairs to Des Traynor.
There is no equivalence in these things.
Judge Michael Moriarty made evidence-based findings from records that were scrupulously assembled and rigorously assessed.
On the other hand, Haughey simply made up the yarn about his accountant friend Traynor having total control of his affairs. He wanted Traynor, his bagman, blamed for all the dodgy stuff. Mr Traynor couldn’t deny this as he was dead.
But that yarn has long been discredited. See Haughey’s Millions (Gill & Macmillan) by Colm Keena.
So, here I am, looking at the cardboard gold bar on my shelf. That evening back in the 1990s there was a charity dinner for a hospital, with Haughey as Honoured Guest. I covered the event for this newspaper.
There were dozens of tables, countless Haughey fans. Each place setting had a cardboard gold bar with a chocolate sweet inside.
It was supposedly Haughey’s period of disgrace. He had been found out, his secrets were dug up and examined by lawyers, his shame discussed in pubs and TV studios, while comedians rooted through the details of his life for laughs. Even the Fianna Fáil toadies who kissed his backside made themselves scarce.
Yet here at the dinner to honour him, the cream of Dublin society turned up, designer-dressed and bejewelled, the air around them solid with the scent of Chanel. They patiently queued to have The Great Man Himself sign their menus.
They fussed over him, the lucky ones showed each other the prized possession of his scrawled autograph. The queue got longer as their hero patiently wrote his name.
I opened my cardboard gold bar and chewed on my chocolate sweet. Why, I wondered, did this apparently ultra-respectable crowd feel it appropriate to honour a proven criminal?
As a young man in the 1960s, Haughey was one of a trio of ministers (with Brian Lenihan Sr and Donogh O’Malley) who did valuable work reforming a stagnant society and making countless lives better.
Given their head by taoiseach Seán Lemass, the three reformed censorship and prison conditions, abolished the death penalty, jump-started free secondary education and, with the Succession Act, instituted a major reform that altered the status of women.
When he finally became taoiseach in 1980, Haughey was bloody awful at it.
He had been corrupt since the late 1960s — accumulating money at a fabulous rate, with no plausible explanation.
The rest of his political life was primarily, but not totally, about holding on to power, while his enemies sought to do him in.
He needed power so he could tend his money crops. The reforming, imaginative Haughey was long gone.
Haughey is today seen by people like Ahern as an individual greedy man, who made some “mistakes”. But that’s not true.
He was representative of a class of people who in the 1980s and 1990s created a criminal layer of privilege based around tax evasion.
The financial value of those rackets was staggering. Fianna Fáil sought a cut of the profits for the State. They set up two tax amnesties so the crooks could legitimise their wealth, at a price. In 1988, the government expected €30m in hot money. It got €500m. Half-a-bloody billion.
The 1993 amnesty was a money laundering scheme — tax criminals could pay the State 15pc of what they owed to make their wealth legit. Fine Gael wanted the laundering fee to be lowered to 10pc. That racket brought in €260m, which suggests something like €1.7bn was laundered.
This was a massive criminal sub-culture.
Throughout the 1970s, the 1980s and into the 1990s, hospital wards were being closed, with devastating long-term effects. Hospitals survived on charity, which the rich used for social functions.
With tax revenue depleted by the crooks, the PAYE classes were paying high taxes to keep the State functioning. At the dinner parties of the wealthy, the conversation featured which of the designer tax evasion schemes they might choose in the coming financial year.
Haughey’s political life in the two decades after 1970 is of limited interest — petty games involving petty people.
What has for too long been ignored by historians is the criminal sub-culture he and other politicians helped foster. It was embraced by a rapacious establishment, which used austerity to create a hefty transfer of wealth from the PAYE classes to the rich.
And, as my tacky souvenir reminds me, even in his disgrace they honoured the old thief. With cardboard gold bars.