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Charles Haughey: An Obituary

Joe Craig

16 June 2006

Charles Haughey, born in 1925, the former leader of Fianna Fail and Taoiseach on three occasions, died on 13th June at the age of eighty.  He was without doubt a powerful political figure for over three decades and the dominant one for much of that time.  His life has been inextricably tied to the development of the Irish State in a way like no other politician of recent times. His great rival, Garret Fitzgerald, said that his ‘overweening ambition’ led him to ‘wish to dominate, indeed to own, the State.’  To evaluate his life is inevitably to make a judgement on the Irish State itself.  So what is this judgement?


Three stories provide an insight into the man.

In 1986, in the midst of a referendum to establish the right of divorce in the Irish constitution he returned from a weekend in Paris with his mistress in order to broadcast a purely personal statement to the Irish people on his unshakeable belief in the family.

In 1989 he called an election after he refused to increase by £IR150,000 the amount of compensation to be paid to haemophiliacs who had contracted AIDS through contaminated blood products provided by the State.  In the very same month he secretly received the same amount of money from one of the wealthiest men in Ireland, Ben Dunne, in order to fund his lavish and extravagant lifestyle.

In the same year his Fianna Fail colleague Brian Lenihan was seriously ill and a fund raising campaign was organised to raise money to pay for an expensive liver transplant.  The majority of money raised was never spent for this purpose but was spent by Charles Haughey.  This expenditure included £IR15,000 for Chavet shirts in Paris and the same amount to settle bills at the expensive Le Coq Hardi restaurant in Dublin.

In building up his debts he threatened and bullied his bankers and in attempting to cover up his activities he lied and perjured himself. Though commentators have remarked on his charm and generosity he was essentially self-serving, and in serving himself there was nothing he would not do, even if it meant to demean himself in order to look the fool, such as under questioning in the Moriarty Tribunal – ‘well, I think it all goes back to the fact I know nothing . .  and I am sure I am right in my recollection that I know nothing.’  Even his other undoubted qualities of intelligence and ability became devalued by the objectives to which they were put.

But of course personal aggrandisement was not the only objective to which his talents were put.  He had, as he said when he was eventually forced to resign as Taoiseach for the last time in 1992, ‘done the state some service.’  And so he had, and this is why he is receiving a State funeral with a military escort and a large quotient of the pomp and circumstance that the Irish State can muster.


It explains the tone set by the media on the news of his death, one of tribute to a great Irish statesman, although in truth this has not defined the reaction of many establishment figures.  Of course the trade unions regretted his passing with only oblique references to his scandals, and big business, both personally and professionally, praised him and lamented his passing, but the recurring theme of other comment has been one reflecting ambiguity on the contradictions of the man and his role.

Of course we were treated to demands that we not speak ill of the dead, although again the forcefulness and widespread presentation of this as a sacred axiom seemed rather too novel and convenient.

Miriam Lord found herself ‘wrestling with the contradictions that was Charles J’ while Colm Tóibín remarked that ‘for everything you could say about him the opposite was also true.’  Daily Ireland headlined with ‘The Good, the Boss and the Ugly’ while the Irish Daily Star front paged with ‘Saint and Sinner’.  Bertie Ahern pronounced that ‘history will have to weigh up both the credit and the debit’ while Ruari Quinn said that ‘for every accolade that can be put on the credit side, sadly there is a debit side.’

Fintan O’Toole wrote that ‘he can only be defined by his contradictions: a patriot whose ultimate allegiance was not to Ireland but to the Cayman islands: a preacher of family values who kept an expensive mistress; a lover of power who allowed himself to become a kept man; a product of the Catholic lower middle class who spent millions of pounds of other people’s money in affecting the style of an Ascendancy gent; a man of the people who secretly sniggered at the people’s credulity; a charmer who liked to cultivate an air of menace . . .’ and so on.

While many stated their personal regard for the man but their strong opposition to his political record the opposite in fact is the case.  The most cutting remark of his adversary Garret Fitzgerald was not any political criticism but his disparagement that ‘he comes with a flawed pedigree’ which was particularly wounding because it condemned him not for his actions and not even for what he was but for what he could only ever have been.

Material basis

It would be tempting to reject all this talk of contradictions as the work of chattering classes with no fundamental class antagonism to Haughey’s politics, and the sniping as the work of embittered opponents who cannot for all that ignore his service to their joint cause.  O’Toole’s list of ‘contradictions’ in fact reads more as a chronicle of his hypocrisy, a particularly repellent vice since by revealing self knowledge of his venality he is deprived of any mitigation, his vices made that much more egregious.

But there is truth in the observation of the essential contradictions in his life and this is not primarily a matter of his personal character.  The contradictions of his personality rest easily on his political record and are almost symbiotically tied to the development of the State he wished ‘to dominate, indeed to own.’

He entered the Dail in 1957, in the decade in which the impossibility of a truly independent Ireland had been definitively established through massive emigration and balance of payments crises.  Only by opening itself up to the penetration of foreign capital could the Irish State belatedly join the post-war boom of west European capital.  The relative success of this strategy has been held as endorsement of the project of Irish nationalism but in truth it proved the opposite.

In the nineteen seventies and especially the eighties this project collapsed and the fragile basis of the Irish State was once again exposed.  The Fianna Fail government elected in 1977 with a huge majority was the last to promise a Keynesian type reforming capitalism that could confidently claim to increase the living standards of the Irish people.  This fitted perfectly with the populism of Fianna Fail and its personification in Charles Haughey.

The exaggerated weakness of the Irish economy caused by world-wide capitalist crisis blew away this Fianna Fail populism extremely quickly and it soon became clear that there was no room for real substance to Fianna Fail’s populism, even if Haughey, now leader of Fianna Fail, railed against the monetarism of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition of the mid-eighties.  When in government in 1987 all the criticisms of the previous government were exposed for the rhetoric they were when Alan Dukes’ Tallaght strategy of support for Haughey’s policies revealed the essential consensus at the heart of the establishment.

For nearly a decade this establishment had sought to solve the economic crisis afflicting the Irish State, evidenced again in rising emigration and burgeoning national debt, at the expense of the working class.  It was not however the support of his purported political opponents which allowed this strategy to succeed but the leadership of the trade union bureaucracy who successfully introduced the first of many social partnership deals.

This led to massive cuts in social spending from which the health service for example, has never recovered, just at the time when Haughey was receiving huge amounts of money from rich friends to finance his ostentatious lifestyle.  He did this while preaching belt tightening to the Irish people.  In achieving this feat his best personal friends were in big business while his best political friends were bureaucrats in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

The North

The second area in which presumptions to independence clashed against reality, exposing the rhetoric and policy of Fianna Fail and Charles Haughey, was the national question.

Though born of Northern republican parents he made his ministerial name by introducing special military courts to mop up the IRA border campaign of the late fifties and early sixties.  Fianna Fail’s republicanism could withstand such puny challenges from the ‘real’ republicans but within a decade a much stronger test, from a struggle that deliberately eschewed traditional republican methods, threw this into chaos.

The demand for civil rights based on mass political action blew the Northern State wide open, provoking sectarian pogroms on the Catholic minority.  The Southern State, the defenders of this minority, was called upon to turn rhetoric into reality.  It responded in the person of Taoiseach Jack Lynch who promised it would not stand (idly) by.  The trial of Haughey and others on charges of attempting to smuggle guns to Northern nationalists so they could defend themselves earned Haughey a reputation for living up to this republican rhetoric.

But the truth once more revealed contradictions at the heart of the Southern State and personified in Haughey.  The arms trial revealed not an attempt to resolve national division and oppression by figures in Fianna Fail but an attempt at containing the contradictions contained in the national question inside the North.

Fianna Fail could not openly abandon the nationalist minority in the North without calling into question the State’s legitimacy.  It now appears that the plot Haughey was involved in was known to those at the top of the Irish State.  Some agreed that the best way to incubate the problem was to buy off the resistance in the North by exchanging guns for a commitment to corral the problem within the six counties.  Others thought that even this was too big a risk and the plot was exposed; for both however the overriding priority was to defend the twenty six county State, not to complete the national revolution.

For Irish nationalism, at the point of crisis, it became clear that ‘what we have we hold’ became the guiding maxim.  The greatest victory for Irish nationalism was the already existing State and however weak and puny it was, it was to be protected from any risk at all costs.  All the republican rhetoric would just have to go.

It was Haughey’s mistake as far as many in the Southern establishment were concerned that he periodically continued with this rhetoric, describing the Northern State as a failed political entity and opposing the Anglo-Irish Agreement.  But this was just rhetoric.  He stood against the demands of the hunger strikers in 1981; his opposition to the Falklands war could be entertained because it was ineffectual, and when it counted, when he became Taoiseach in 1987, he supported and worked the Anglo-Irish Agreement

The people

The contradictions at the heart of Irish capitalism have been played out through the person of Charles Haughey.  His greed and corruption an expression of the grasping role of Irish capital dependent on more powerful capitalisms just as Haughey’s parasitism fed off his big business friends.  His lifestyle was dependent on debt just as that of the Celtic Tiger is increasingly dependent firstly on the rising debt of US imperialism and now increasingly on domestic credit.

Of course the parallels are not exact, but if he did some service to the State, as he said he did, and the State did some service to him - by allowing him to escape justice - they reflected each other beautifully.

Some have been angry that he has received a State funeral, paid for by the taxpayer but organised by him for his self-regarding purposes.  As these lines are written the funeral service has just taken place, full of rank hypocrisy and the hypocrites who spout it – politicians, big business and trade union bureaucrats all in one place, self righteous cant spouted from the alter in front of those who know best its deception.

But between them and the empty seats of the community hall next door with its big screen, and the small crowds outside the church at Donneycarney, lies the vast gulf between the rich and powerful and the plain people of Ireland.  By giving the disgraced politician a State funeral the State has shown that everything that was rotten about Haughey is also rotten about the State he served so well.


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