Tuesday 25 June 2019

David Robbins: My uncle's distrust of Haughey was instinctive and intuitively correct

Haughey: a little man who wanted to be big
Haughey: a little man who wanted to be big

My uncle met Charlie Haughey only once. It was at an official government meeting and my uncle was assisting his departmental secretary.

He was one of those civil servants you see hovering just out of shot at summits or conferences, the ones who stand behind the chair of their bosses, handing documents or whispering advice as required.

So he was not at the table with Haughey, just in the same room. However, he considered it enough to make a judgment on the Taoiseach.

My uncle joined the civil service in the late 1930s. One of his first jobs was to travel around the country – mostly by train and bicycle – to check on civil defence preparations.

He spoke of this time with affection. There was a great sense in the new-ish Irish civil service of helping the country to stand on its own feet after centuries of British rule.

Of course, the new public administrators largely followed the British model, but many liked to give it an Irish twist. There was a formality to the way the British did things, a slavish adherence to protocol. Some of the new Irish administrators tried to add a bit of flair.

My uncle, I suppose, was in this British tradition. He was a process man. He believed that if you followed the right process, you'd get the right result. He believed in hierarchy, doing things through the correct channels and following the proper form. He was what they called a "stickler".

Charles J Haughey was a results man. He didn't mind what process you followed, so long as you got the right result. When I listened to him, I often detected something approaching contempt for the plodding civil service he found himself saddled with.

There were others ways in which they differed, my uncle and his Taoiseach.

My uncle was careful with money. He wore his shirts until their collars frayed. He saved his bath water and used it on the garden. He spoke with pride of the way his mother often got a second pot out of the tea leaves.

He suspected Haughey's flamboyance. The revelations that the Taoiseach was using his leader's allowance to have hand-made Charvet shirts flown over from Paris appalled him.

When Ireland held the EU presidency in 1980, Haughey had all the roads around official buildings newly tarmaced and painted. He wanted the EU heads of state to get a favourable impression of the city and the country.

If he had followed the proper procurement protocols for this work, I suspect we'd still be waiting for it to happen. My uncle, on the other hand, would have filled out the appropriate forms in triplicate and sent them up the line of command.

Haughey was flashy; my uncle was modest. Haughey liked to spend money; my uncle liked to save it. Haughey was reprehensible but somehow likeable; my uncle was responsible but rather dull.

It is not surprising that my uncle did not like Haughey. And it was not only because he came from a family that traditionally voted for Fine Gael.

There was something about the way he held himself. Haughey was a small man who tried to make himself look bigger. He puffed out his chest and often stuck one hand through the lapels of his jacket. "A little Napoleon," my uncle would say.

This week, as the new RTÉ drama based on Haughey's life continued filming in Dublin, various controversies have bubbled to the surface. It will be a "hatchet job", say the Haughey family; it will be too bloodthirsty and hurt Haughey's widow Maureen, says Mary O'Rourke.

Haughey was a divisive figure during his life. He never managed to get the substantial majority he so craved. The Irish people were always ambivalent about him.

The upcoming drama series is likely to be equally divisive, simply because it is not yet possible to settle on an agreed narrative of Haughey's life. I'm sure my uncle would have tuned in – and harrumphed all the way through it.

For me, my uncle and Charles Haughey represent two aspects of the Irish psyche: probity and panache. Wouldn't it be nice to have a leader who managed to have both?

drobbins@independent.ie @dpmrobbins

Irish Independent

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