Friday 23 August 2019

Haughey, the man, the myth and the arms trial

Charles Haughey quit in shame years ago but remains a star in the political firmament, writes Peter Cunningham

POWER PLAYER: Charles Haughey not only wanted to hold the reins, but enjoy all the trappings
POWER PLAYER: Charles Haughey not only wanted to hold the reins, but enjoy all the trappings

Peter Cunningham

Fifteen years ago I wrote a book called The Taoiseach and it became a bestseller, easily my most commercially successful novel. While I might, for a moment, believe that the book's success was down to my effortless prose and skilful plotting, the more likely explanation was its central character, who was based on the politician of his era: Charles J Haughey.

Fast forward to this year and my new novel, Acts Of Allegiance, has received extensive reviews and, crucially, features coverage.

That Haughey should figure in the book in the context of securing arms for Northern nationalists immediately engaged interviewers and book page editors.

A few weeks ago my fictional licence with the former Taoiseach even made the front pages of a national paper, when it was announced that a UK film production company was well advanced in its plans to make a TV mini-series based on The Taoiseach.

What is it about Charles J Haughey that he has come to occupy such a central position in modern Irish mythology? The three-time Taoiseach, who died in 2006, is still a figure of major interest in Ireland, even though it is 25 years since he held office. Haughey left politics in disgrace, accused of corruption, embezzlement and tax evasion, but still his name continues to evoke widespread attention, as I know.

A generation may have passed since Haughey held power, but his myth endures.

This enduring fascination with Haughey reflects his dominance of Irish politics for more than 30 years, from the early 1960s. That domination was achieved though intelligence, persistence and ruthlessness, all common enough characteristics for the average politician. But Haughey was far from average.

He came into the political arena with something seldom seen in Irish politics - style. He looked good. He dressed well. He had professional qualifications - he was both a barrister and a chartered accountant. He liked the good things in life and was not afraid to be seen enjoying them. People thought: if he can do this for himself, then maybe he can do it for me as well.

Haughey's public persona - that of a bon viveur with a magic touch - was carried seamlessly into international politics.

In place of our traditional cap-in-hand approach to the great nations, particularly to the British, we now had a leader who behaved as their equal. Haughey stood up to leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, who was intensely disliked here.

At an Anglo-Irish summit in 1980, Charlie presented the Iron Lady with a silver teapot - a gift that was at once generous, stylish and deeply patronising. The teapot seemed to say, when we've done with our business here today, missus, you go home and make the tea. In Ireland, a country steeped in patriarchy, Haughey was an instant hero.

As is the case with most myths, the reality underpinning it was multi-layered in the making. Charlie swaggered on to the political stage like the local lad who has made it big, and thumbed his nose at the establishment.

He did not suffer fools and, in the process, made us gasp at his audacity. But he was also a rogue, a man apart, who refused to play by the rules on his way to get what he wanted. In a country whose history sets it at odds with authority, this was no great drawback.

What Charlie wanted was not just power, which he wielded like a Bourbon king, but all the dividends that come with it. In his case, these included a Gandon-designed mansion set in 250 acres of parkland, race horses, a private island, a mistress, handmade shirts, vintage wines, a yacht.

In 1979, when his salary as Taoiseach was a mere £15,000, Charlie lived a life of legendary affluence without the remotest explanation of how this was possible.

These circumstances, far from alienating him from his supporters, only further endeared him, for they saw in him someone who had fooled the system and got away with it.

Charlie had always been a hardworking minister. As early as 1961 he introduced a Succession Act that protected the rights of bereaved spouses and children, and an Adoption Act. He abolished capital punishment. He became a patron to artists and writers, granting them special tax status. He understood the need for a financial district and helped the International Financial Services Centre - the IFSC - to be born. He passed legislation that allowed Irish people to have access to contraceptives.

At the same time, despite Ireland's deep economic problems, he was nefariously living the good life and benefiting from offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.

He secretly granted Irish nationality - passports - to wealthy Middle Eastern potentates in exchange for cash. He also siphoned off for himself funds intended to pay for a liver transplant for his lifelong friend and colleague Brian Lenihan.

And then there was the arms trial. At a time when our own wars were still vivid memories, it was sensational that Haughey, the Minister for Finance, was arrested on charges of illegally importing weapons to foment rebellion in the North.

It also cemented notions of his reputation as the hero who had gambled all for his country, and lost.

Any other politician, despite being acquitted, would have slunk away and never been heard of again. But Haughey returned from political exile triumphant in the mid-1970s, his best days ahead of him.

I never met him, but I saw him once, at the races, after a good lunch, florid of face, laughing, surrounded by acolytes.

In the novel Acts of Allegiance I wrote a scene which places Haughey at the races in Paris in 1969, plotting to import arms for the emerging Provisional IRA.

It is far from fanciful. Novels exist to explore what may indeed have happened.

Pleasantly surprised at the continuing Hollywood interest in the mini-series - and the Irish media's fascination with it - I asked the executive producer how he saw the projected six-part drama unfolding.

He described it as "a uniquely Irish story of how power, intrigue, ego and money can combine to both elevate but also to destroy those with the greatest ambition". I would venture to say that such a story is not just Irish, but universal.

All political careers are said to end in failure, and Charlie's was no different.

His flagrant disregard for laws or ethics finally caught up with him, as he must have known it would.

And yet, he is still the object of widespread allure for many who lived their dreams vicariously through his actions. Charlie the man and the myth have become one and the same.

Acts of Allegiance by Peter Cunningham is published by Sandstone Press

Sunday Independent

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