Thursday, June 15, 2006

The country craft of Charlie Haughey

Country Craft
An Irish joke

Q. What's the difference between Charlie Haughey and an Aran jumper?
A. One's a country craft.

Charlie Haughey is dead. Haughey, the one not a country craft, pretty much ruled Olde Irelande pre Tiger. Now he is dead at 80. Charles J. Haughey, or Haw hee as the British media learnt to call him, was a trained economist turned three times prime minister who ‘mastered his every brief.’ A politician and a crook like all of them. And a millionaire with an astute eye for the property market. He was a crafty cunt indeed. My apologies for use of the vulgarity. But obscenity it isn’t. Use of the word "cunt" here is a reflection of some clever ruse the Irish instinctive would be proud of in themselves, but recognise when it is done better by someone else. “Cute hoor” is another way of saying it.

Charles Haughey could certainly do it better than most. He will be buried with full Irish state honours on Friday. The Taoiseach Bertie Ahearn, his successor as leader of Fianna Fail, will deliver the funeral oration. Bertie will be sure to mention the good bits. And they were many. In his third term of office, he economically presided over an Irish perestroika. He was a strange breed with the ability to turn conventional wisdoms upside down. He attempted to implement “Irish solutions to Irish problems” (contraceptives could be provided legally under prescription to married couples.) He bought arms and he bought an island. But his people loved him. Giant screens will be installed outside Donnycarney church in North Dublin for the funeral. The church will be open on Thursday between 11.30am and 4pm so that members of the public can pay their respect.

Respect. Not something Haughey was ever short of during the tumultuous years of his government. Thatcher hated him but she could do business better with the taciturn Haughey than the trivia-obsessed Garret Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the man who kept him out of power between 1982 and 1987 and the alter-ego of Haughey. Fitzgerald was a doctor of economics and the leader of Fine Gael, the main opposition. There was a family slant. Haughey’s father was a staunch Fine Gaeler. There was even a personal slant. Haughey once dated Fitzgerald’s wife Joan O’Farrell.

Haughey was born in Castlebar, Co. Mayo on the 16th of September in 1925. So was B.B. King. King, of course, wasn’t born in Co. Mayo. But Haughey shouldn’t have been either. His parents were Catholics on the run from Northern Ireland. The family farm in Co Derry was burned in a sectarian attack. The Haugheys were disliked not only by Protestants by also by a significant Catholic population because Sean Haughey (Charlie's father) fought on the side of the Free State in the civil war. This war was the fulcrum of Irish politics. The main Irish political parties ignored social indicators as a reason for voting. They either aligned themselves as Free-Staters (Fine Gael) or Republicans (Fianna Fail). Though a nominal left voted Labour, neither Marx nor Adam Smith had a look in the decision of allegiance.

When the Republican leader De Valera came in from the cold in the late 1920s and decided he no longer wanted to be seen as a terrorist, he decided to install his version of Ireland by political means. He set up Fianna Fail “The Soldiers of the Fianna” Fianna is a complex term that can mean Ireland or Destiny. Fianna Fail are now aligned in the EU group known as the Union for Europe of the Nations. Other parties in this group such as the Danish Folksparti or the Italian Alleanza Nationale are either nationalist or euro-sceptic. In a sense Fianna Fail is neither. Fianna Fail is a populist chameleon. Edward George De Valera dominated the party until shortly before his death in 1975. In 1966 De Valera retained the presidency at an election but disliked his young campaign manager, the then government minister for Agriculture Charles Haughey.

Haughey graduated from Trinity College Dublin with an economics degree. He worked as an accountant and started his move into politics. He ignored his father’s Free Stater credentials. Instead he formed an alliance with one of Ireland’s patrician Fianna Fail families. In 1951, he married Maureen Lemass daughter of future Irish Taoiseach Sean Lemass. He was elected for Fianna Fail at the fourth attempt in for the seat of North Dublin six years later. His father-in-law offered him patronage with his first ministry role in 1961 as Minister for Justice. He became very busy in the role. He introduced legislation such as the Succession Act to protect the inheritance rights of wives, and the Extradition Act to remove the protection of criminals. Haughey also reactivated the Special Criminal Court and helped to defeat the IRA’s ill-fated border campaign of 1962.

His work got him a promotion to Agriculture. The farmers are a powerful force in Irish politics and Haughey was not as successful here. But his battles with farmers raised his profile and made him a very public figure. In 1966 his father-in-law Sean Lemass retired and Haughey applied for his job. Lemass advised him to bide his time and support Jack Lynch instead. Lynch rewarded Haughey by giving him the Ministry of Finance. Here he used his accountancy background and economic training to good effect. He presided over popular budgets with increased spending in an economic boom.
Northern Ireland was to burst its way back into the spotlight in 1969 with the start of the Troubles and the British Army on the street.

Members of the ruling Fianna Fail party wanted to support the Nationalist population in the North. They decided to arm the IRA in secret and a front organisation sent money to a Northern Irish aid agency. Haughey and Neil Blaney were the government ministers on the committee to make it happen. The scheme to import weapons was leaked to the opposition, Liam Cosgrave. Cosgrave exposed the scandal and Haughey and Blaney had to go to save the government. The scapegoats went to trial in 1970 but were acquitted of illegally acquiring weapons. It didn’t save the government in 1973 when Fine Gael took power. Haughey served his time in banishment and got back on the front bench of the opposition in 1975. The country forgave Fianna Fail its sins and Lynch won a landslide election in 1977. Haughey was now installed as the Minister for Health. The power behind the throne in this brief was the Roman Catholic Church. The church controlled Ireland's schools and hospitals. Haughey took them on in 1977 by slyly legalising contraceptives by prescription. He called it “an Irish solution to an Irish problem” but in truth it was a Haughey solution to a Haughey problem. Meanwhile Lynch was in political trouble with the economy in decline. Over in Health, Haughey’s hands were clean. He was in a good position to profit when Lynch resigned in 1979. The cabinet supported George Colley to replace Lynch but the back benches voted for Haughey. Charles Haughey was elected leader of the party and Taoiseach on 11 December 1979 exactly ten years after he was hung out to dry for the Arms Crisis.

Haughey inherited Lynch’s economic woes. The oil crisis had hit resource-poor Ireland. Haughey couldn’t do enough to stop it and was beaten at the polls by Fitzgerald’s Fine Gael in 1981. Though Haughey had a brief hiatus in power again a year later, his margin was knife-edge and lost a second election after the death of a Fianna Fail TD. The economy continued to spin out of control through the eighties until Fitzgerald lost the 1987 election. Fitzgerald ruled long enough to pass important social legislation but by the end of his watch Ireland was in danger of intervention from the IMF. Haughey was prime minister for the third time in 1987. In 1989, another tight election saw Haughey cling on to power at a price. The election had forced Fianna Fail into something they had never done before: form a coalition. Haughey formed an alliance with the Progressive Democrats, a new party not constrained by the bitter history of the Irish Civil war. The Progressive Democrats (PDs) were Ireland’s first free market Liberal Party and was founded by an ex-Fianna Fail renegade Desmond O’Malley. While this arrangement saved power for Haughey, it was too much for Fianna Fail traditionalists who saw him betraying their tradition. In 1990, Ireland was the head of the EU and Haughey served as chair with much distinction. While he basked in the role of world statesman, the knives were sharpening for him at home. His aura of invincibility slipped as a series of scandals embroiled his ministry. One of his ex-ministers Sean Doherty went public and stated Haughey had authorised him to conduct phone tapping. With a –gate just waiting to be put at the end of this scandal, the PDs pulled out of the government. Haughey resigned. His final speech to the Dáil echoed Othello: "I have done the state some service, and they know it, no more of that."

In retirement he was dogged by investigations and allegations. A tribunal under Justice Michael Moriarty looked at whether Haughey may have received “unethical payments” between 1979 and 1996. The tribunal never got anywhere. It was suspended in 2004 pending a High Court hearing that is now unlikely to happen. Those that followed Haughey, Albert Reynolds and now Bertie Ahern, have reaped the success of the Irish economic recovery. Ireland is now a vastly different place that the past of Haughey’s time. But he was the first quintessential modern politician in Ireland. He was driven by desire not by dogma.

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