Charles Haughey’s childhood was marked by the illness and financial tribulations of his Derry born father, a retired army Officer and IRA veteran, Johnny Haughey.
Johnny Haughey was on the run in the South Derry countryside for much on 1920/1 and this may have permanently damaged his health.
He took part in the IRA Ambush at Swatragh on 5 June 1921, in which the 28 year old Catholic member of the RIC from Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, Michael Burke, was killed.
Johnny Haughey went on the serve as an officer in the Free State Army, but seems not to have been politically involved beyond that. His wife, Sarah, had to bear an extra burden of caring for him when he contracted multiple sclerosis.
Charles Haughey was a good student, won a scholarship to UCD and had qualified as both an accountant and a barrister by the age of 24, quite a feat. He also represented Dublin in the minor hurling All Ireland final. His hurling career ended, when he was suspended for a year for striking a linesman, when playing when for Parnells.
This book is useful in reminding readers of his early career, his struggle to be elected to the Dail, and his nationwide role in party reorganisation.
He was effective, as Minister for Justice, in enacting some of the large backlog of partially prepared legislation in the Department , notably the Succession Act, which gave greater protection to widows. He also reformed the Civil Liability Act, which, among other things, recognized that unborn children might be injured, and thus be entitled to redress after birth. In this, he was more enlightened, and had a larger vision of human rights, than has the present generation.
His avoidable confrontation with the farmers in 1966 is covered rather cursorily. Things got so bad that outgoing Taoiseach, Sean Lemass had to intervene to bring this row to a diplomatic conclusion.
Gary Murphy claims that, in this book, he is making what he calls a “reassessment” of Charles Haughey, on the basis of his unprecedented access to Haughey’s private papers.
The facts of Mr Haugheys later career, and of his totally inappropriate financial dependency on donors to maintain an artificially extravagant public lifestyle, are so well known that this “reassessment” is unlikely to change opinions. Readers will just be better informed of the facts.
Apart from some private jottings, which Haughey left in his papers, about his attitude to Northern Ireland and the Arms Trial, the private papers reveal relatively little that is illuminating about Haughey himself, or his private thoughts.
The private papers are full of letters of enthusiastic praise from correspondents on the occasion of his various promotions as a Minister, and of his survivals of party heaves against him.
Surprisingly for such a partisan figure, many of these letters he received came from senior civil servants and judges, people one might have been expected would maintain greater professional distance.
The fact that such people felt moved to write to him throws light on the persona that Charles Haughey had deliberately cultivated. His persona was designed to mesmerize and hold people in thrall, and thus to enhance his power. In his manner and comportment, he cultivated mystery, awe, and to a great degree, fear.
He wanted to be seen as the uncommon man, not as the common man.
His exotic , and mysteriously financed, extravagant lifestyle, was part his attempt to cultivate awe and a consequent degree of fear.
As Donald Trump once said to the author , Bob Woodward;
“Real power is….. I don’t want to use the word….. fear”.
This fear was an important instrument in Mr Haughey’s political repertoire. The author says Haughey “could be extremely dismissive of his political colleagues”, but adds , rather dubiously, that he was never rude to his civil servants.
From long before his own election to the Dail, Haughey had cultivated a relationship with the grassroots members of Fianna Fail all over the country, by attending Cumann functions and addressing meetings. He later harnessed this relationship to browbeat some TDs into voting for him.
He also was a master of symbolic language, of uncertain content.
He claimed adherence to Fianna Fail’s “republicanism”, without ever defining what that meant, in terms of day to day politics in the here and now.
By focussing on the distant dream, he kept everyone happy.
He believed the” British had no more right to be in the 6 counties than in the 26”, as if the problem was the British, rather than the unionists. After his acquittal in the Arms Trial, he claimed to have a “fundamental difference” on Northern policy with Jack Lynch, but never elaborated on what that was. The author does not probe this.
The author describes Haugheys views on Northern Ireland as “naive”, believing, it seems, that all that was needed was to persuade the British to leave, and all would be well.
When it comes to Mr Haughey’s economic record, the author does not dig very deep at all. He claims Haughey was an “instinctive Keynesian”. The author does not reflect on what ”Keynesianism” could credibly mean, in a small open economy, where any debt fuelled stimulus would quickly leave the country in the form of extra imports.
When Haughey became Taoiseach in 1979, he was warned that the solvency of the state was at risk as a result of increases in spending and reductions in the tax base, that had occurred since 1977 and before.
In the meantime, international interest rates had been deliberately hiked by Paul Volker of the Federal Reserve, in what proved to be a successful , but very painful , attempt to drive inflation out of the international system.
As a small country, but a big borrower for day to day spending, Ireland was very vulnerable indeed in 1979, when Mr Haughey inherited Jack Lynch’s large parliamentary majority, and could have done something about it.
Maurice Doyle of the Department of Finance, one of his regular congratulatory correspondents, warned Haughey that the country was already at stage 2 on a 5 stage route to economic disintegration.
Haughey then made an eloquent television broadcast warning that the country was living beyond its means, and hinting that he would take imminent action. But, notwithstanding his large parliamentary majority, his government did nothing.
Haughey pursued the illusion of an understanding with unions and employers, rather than putting the government’s own financial house in order first, by tax increases and spending reductions.
He acted as his own Minister for Finance, sidelining the real Ministers for Finance, Michael O Kennedy and Gene Fitzgerald.
In January 1981, he produced a budget that pretended to curb nominal spending, without taking any of the necessary policy decisions, and which artificially inflated 1981 revenue, by bringing forward revenue from 1982 ( adding to the 1982 problem).
As Opposition spokesman at the time, I informed the Dail of the phoniness of these budget numbers and described the budget as one of “drift and expediency”.
Shortly after this budget, Mr Haughey, who had a large overall majority, and could have continued in office for another year, to deal with the financial crisis, called General Election. He lost it, and Fianna Fail was never again to regain the overall parliamentary majority that he had failed to use, and then prematurely cast away.
His government was replaced by a Fine Gael/Labour government which, unlike the Haughey government, was in a minority in the Dail.
That new government had no choice, minority or not, to tackle to financial problem it had inherited head on, and I am proud to say , it did so.
But because of the lack of a parliamentary majority, this led to the country having to endure three General Elections in a row, something which could have been avoided if the Haughey government, which did have a majority in the Dail, had done its job between 1979 and 1981.
When he returned to office in 1987, with the insurance provided by the support of Fine Gael and Alan Dukes Tallaght strategy, his government eventually made the economies he could have made in the 1979/81 period. The task was eased by the fact that international interest rates had fallen in the meantime, which reduced government spending on debt service. But he then cast that insurance aside, by calling a wholly unnecessary General Election in 1989, a mistake that he paid for later.
In second order things, Charles Haughey was a very imaginative policy maker. But on the big things, he often dodged responsibility, and showed a degree of timidity that sat very uneasily beside his carefully cultivated public image.
This 637 page book is more than a biography. It is a fairly full political history of Ireland, from the 1950’s to 1990, as seen from the perspective of Ireland’s then largest party, Fianna Fail.