Tuesday 16 July 2019

Whatever you might think, Charlie Haughey did the State some service

Despite all his faults, when one looks around there are many good things which bear Charlie Haughey's imprint

Charlie Haughey at his home Abbeville
Charlie Haughey at his home Abbeville

Martin Mansergh

Most political leaders fade into history when they retire. Charles Haughey, who left office 23 years ago, continues to be a source of fascination.

During his 12 years as leader, people loved him or loathed him. In the November 1982 election - after mounting scandals ever since known as GUBU - he and Fianna Fail, going into opposition, still managed to win 45pc of the popular vote. His period as leader was marked by many dramas; unsurprisingly, writers and artists have been tempted to write plays and novels either explicitly based on him or featuring a thinly-disguised fictional character. And now there is a TV series, Charlie. The real Charlie had many facets to his personality, so it is not that simple a task.

It is too easy for anyone familiar at first hand with the people and events being dramatised to be critical, especially whenever it deviates from remembered reality. Any drama is for entertainment as well as instruction. Especially in a drama limited to three episodes, both the story and the number of characters have to be compressed.

Of course, dramatic licence is taken, and dialogue and situations have to be invented to fill gaps in the sources. Charlie is not a crude hatchet job, and it does not in a major way distort the events that it portrays or at least the received version of them. It is for a younger audience, as well as for the adults who lived through those times. Aidan Gillen does quite a good personation of Charles Haughey.

For the record, rather than as dramatic criticism, some differences from reality should be pointed out. Abbeville - the Haughey family home in Kinsealy, which was rescued from dilapidation - is a big house with some important architectural features designed by noted architect James Gandon. While comfortable, it was never palatial. A lot of government work was done there.

For example, it held weekly Saturday morning meetings to prepare for the 1990 EC Presidency, a briefing for Mr Haughey's meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev - whom he admired above all his contemporaries - and informal meetings with visiting statesmen.

I spent many Saturday mornings in his study, in the dining room, and in the office downstairs working on his speeches, over which he took inordinate care, sometimes finishing with a homely lunch cooked and served in the kitchen by Mrs Haughey. I do not know what celebration he had after being elected Fianna Fail leader and Taoiseach in December 1979, but it is unlikely in mid-winter to have been outdoors in the style of The Great Gatsby.

No one in real life could run a government on the basis of constant friction and confrontation. The Government Secretary Dermot Nally was never afraid to speak his mind politely or, at any rate, to pass over little notes of advice. He was an anchor of stability in troubled times.

Having worked as a civil servant with both George Colley and Des O'Malley, I am quite certain that they behaved professionally in their encounters in government with Mr Haughey. It is a matter of record that Haughey and O'Malley worked well together during the FF-PD Coalition of 1989-92, and that O'Malley regretted the end of that collaboration.

French President Francois Mitterrand did visit Inishvickillane, but the gourmet scene in which he makes Mr Haughey eat a rare bird delicacy is surely transposed from Mitterrand's own last supper with close intimates, a few days before he died of cancer in January 1996.

While some balance is attempted - despite the temptation to concentrate on the sensational - it is against a context where, since the tribunal revelations, few people have been prepared to put in a good word for CJ Haughey, still less defend him.

He has been erased from Fianna Fail's roll of honour (don't laugh), along with a lot of other people, as has happened to a successor, Bertie Ahern. "I know thee not, old man," as Shakespeare's Henry V said to Falstaff. But Haughey was never Falstaff, but more the stage villain, Richard III.

Like Richard, but less bloodily, he bumped off (metaphorically-speaking) a large number of political rivals, some of whom came back to haunt him at his doom.

Haughey belonged to a generation that wanted to escape from frugal living, and to make Ireland a country like America, with lots of wealthy people. His mistake was to try and emulate the living style of Ireland's few really successful entrepreneurs, even though one of his first decisions was to cancel plans for an official residence.

The complications of his private life, which Brian Lenihan Snr warned him were not appropriate for a Taoiseach, probably exacerbated his financial difficulties. There were huge dangers in his dependence on large private donations, as pointed out in the McCracken Report. Rightly the Oireachtas moved to regulate that whole area. He never anticipated that he would be found out by accident.

Despite all this, when one looks around, there are so many good things that bear Haughey's imprint. The free travel pass encourages pensioners to stay mobile. The International Financial Services Centre, Dermot Desmond's vision which he fast-tracked in 1987, employs many thousands more people than originally envisaged. Temple Bar attracts thousands of tourists. He backed Knock Airport against the metropolitan knockers. We have a genuinely world-class equestrian industry after 40 years of the stallion fee exemption. He was the first Taoiseach to take arts and culture and the environment seriously.

There is a far longer list of initiatives that he adopted, but none of this is nearly as exciting television as the skulduggery of political battles. Irish democracy remains resilient.

By the time Haughey retired, Ireland, with the help of social partnership and EU Structural Funds - both of which he helped negotiate - was on a path towards parity with average EU living standards, and the peace process was beginning to take shape in the undergrowth.


Martin Mansergh is a former adviser to Charles Haughey and a former Fianna Fail TD for Tipperary South

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