Friday 23 August 2019

'Michael told me to jump into his car and keep my head down ...'

As the last member of the so-called 'Gang of 22' still in the Dail, Willie O'Dea gives his impressions of the TV mini series Charlie

Willie O'Dea, TD. Photo: Tom Burke
Willie O'Dea, TD. Photo: Tom Burke

Willie O'Dea

When I was asked what I thought of RTE's Charlie mini-series I realised that, though I had seen the first two episodes, I hadn't really watched them.

What I mean by this is that I wasn't watching them in the same way as others have. As someone who was around for most of what is dramatised, I was seeing the programme through the prism of my own experiences.

Some of what I saw brought back such memories that I found myself reminiscing and missing much of what followed, while other parts were so inaccurate and concocted as to lose my attention.

That said, I think I can offer a unique perspective on Charlie as the last member of the so-called Gang of 22 still in the Dail and in active politics.

Sadly, many of the 22 have passed on, including George Colley, Jim Gibbons, Seamus Brennan, Joe Walsh, Pearse Wyse and Sylvie Barrett. While others, such as David Andrews, Ben Briscoe, Charlie McCreevy, Mary Harney, Martin O'Donoghue, Bobby Molloy and my former constituency colleague Des O'Malley have moved away from active politics.

Turning first to what the drama gets right, it does capture the deep divisions and tense atmosphere of the time. In terms of specifics; it is right about the surveillance of O'Malley's house to see who was coming and going. I know, because I experienced it - though I wasn't that intimidated by it.

Shortly after my election to the Dail, O'Malley invited me to a meeting at his home. I travelled by train from Limerick late in the evening and took a taxi from Heuston Station to O'Malley's house in Rathmines.

As I reached his front gate, I spotted two guys getting out of a car and coming towards me from the shadows. They didn't engage me, they just came sufficiently close to make out who I was. As a newly-elected TD, I was clearly unfamiliar to them: perhaps they needed to check me off their list before reporting back to their bosses. That tense atmosphere did sadly erupt into actual nastiness a few times; not least on the night of the McCreevy vote of no confidence, when Jim Gibbons was knocked to the ground and attacked.

The meeting had gone on until the early hours of the morning. There were a lot of very irate, angry and drunk people around Leinster House, both inside the building and outside the gates. They were waiting to hear the result and to vent their ire at those of us who had opposed Haughey.

I managed to evade their particular attentions thanks to the intervention of a staunch Haughey supporter: the late Michael Barrett, TD. Michael represented Haughey's neighbouring constituency. He was a man whose loyalty to Haughey could not be questioned by anyone, not least the inebriated and boisterous throng gathered outside the gates of Leinster House.

Michael, spotting that I was heading on foot towards the gate and through the mob to grab a taxi, told me to jump into his car and keep my head down. He drove through the gates amid cheers and applause, all the while keeping the fact from the mob that he was hiding a renegade in the footwell of his front passenger seat.

When it comes to the inaccuracies, the list is a long one. While some can fairly be excused for reasons of dramatic licence; others are less forgiveable.

The most glaring of these is the barely one-dimensional portrayal of the late Brian Lenihan Snr. While he was deeply loyal, perhaps to a fault, he was no one's bag carrier.

Lenihan was a much cleverer and brighter man than the man portrayed on screen. He was intelligent, articulate and erudite with a strong social democratic ethos.

The depiction of him as the bumbling acolyte is all the more tragic and unfair given the Othello quote Brian chose to end the foreword to his 1991 book For the Record: "He that filches from me my good name, robs me of that, which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed".

The other glaring inaccuracy concerns Charlie Haughey himself. Not his portrayal. Aidan Gillen captures Haughey's flair, charisma, intelligence and personality. The problem is the suggestion that Haughey did nothing right. That is not true.

His legacy as Taoiseach is considerable. The establishment of the National Treasury Management Agency, the development of Temple Bar and the formation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art alone are significant achievements, not to mention his foresight in successfully turning Dermot Desmond's proposal for an International Financial Services Centre into reality.

The Charlie Haughey I experienced was a man of great contrasts. He was a very clever guy and a very hard worker, but he was also conniving and divisive. He was focused on getting power, but I don't think he was absolutely certain what he wanted to do with it when he had it. That is what makes the Charlie drama a tragedy.

Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City

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