Haughey: reassessing his controversial career

Haughey: reassessing his controversial career A moment of private introspection: Chares J. Haughey at home in Kinsealy, his north Dublin mansion.
Haughey by Gary Murphy (Gill Books, €27.99/£25.99)

The distinguished philosopher, Sir Anthony Kenny, wrote apropos of an encounter with Charles J. Haughey that “on no other occasion in my life has anyone, with a straight face, told me so many lies that he knew were lies, and that he knew I knew were lies”.

Many of Haughey’s contemporaries in public life and in the media shared Kenny’s view of him as shamelessly unprincipled, and this perception has been reinforced by the findings of the tribunals which inquired into his affairs after his resignation as Taoiseach in 1992.

Gary Murphy’s new biography of him recognises that, but argues nevertheless that he was more sinned against than sinning. Prof. Murphy accepts that Haughey’s “reputation is such that he can be accused of almost any misdeed from subverting the State from within to behaving like some sort of South American dictator”, but he suggests that “the reality is far more complex and nuanced” and so “it is time for a reassessment of Haughey”.

Prof. Murphy has spent eight years preparing this biography, which makes use of Haughey’s papers deposited in Dublin City University (where he is a professor of politics). Having access to these papers has enabled Prof. Murphy to present Haughey’s own perspective on the events of his controversial career, and he rarely challenges that perspective – even when it is patently obvious, and subsequent developments have confirmed, that Haughey was skating on thin ice.


An example of this is his treatment of the questions that Conor Cruise O’Brien raised about Haughey’s finances during the general election of 1969. Prof. Murphy dismisses O’Brien’s criticism as betraying “his [O’Brien’s] own patrician ignorance of the fact that large swathes of the Irish electorate were imbued with an unshakable reverence for wealth and cared little about its origins or propriety”. The tribunal revelations would show that O’Brien’s concerns were justified. It was, of course, Haughey – rather than O’Brien – who affected patrician airs and graces.

Charles Haughey’s childhood in northside Dublin was spartan, but he was a brilliant student and before entering politics he enjoyed a successful career as an accountant in the firm that he founded with his old school friend, Harry Boland, the son of a Fianna Fáil cabinet minister. In 1951 he married a daughter of Seán Lemass, another Fianna Fáil cabinet minister and the future Taoiseach.

He became a TD in 1957 – after three failed attempts to win a Dáil seat – and was in the cabinet as Minister for Justice by 1961. He later served as Minister for Agriculture, Minister for Finance and Minister for Health and Social Welfare, before becoming Taoiseach in 1979.

Prof. Murphy claims that there was much resentment within Fianna Fáil and elsewhere at the rise of someone of his humble origins. Maybe so, but the opposition to Haughey’s rise was largely a function of the doubts about his character that were commonplace long before the tribunal revelations. The most often quoted expression of these doubts was Garret FitzGerald’s comment in Dáil Éireann about Haughey’s “flawed pedigree” when he was first elected Taoiseach.

Social snobbery

Some, as Prof. Murphy notes, have characterised that comment as “social snobbery” – a slur on Haughey’s modest background.

The Dáil record is, however, clear about why FitzGerald had reservations about Haughey’s suitability for high political office. He stated that it was because Haughey’s “motives have been and are widely impugned, most notably but by no means exclusively, by people within his own party, people close to him who have observed his actions for many years and who have made their human, interim judgment on him.

“They and others, both in and out of public life, have attributed to him an overweening ambition which they do not see as a simple emanation of a desire to serve but rather as a wish to dominate, even to own the State.”

The most infamous episode in Haughey’s career is the arms crisis which led to his sacking as Minister for Finance in May 1970. He then stood trial twice on the charge of conspiracy to import arms illegally – arms which, it was alleged, would be passed to nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.

The first trial was abandoned when the judge withdrew because of criticism of his conduct of the trial. Haughey was acquitted at the end of the second trial, along with three other defendants – but the whiff of cordite attached to him forever afterwards.

He always refused to discuss the matter: as Prof. Murphy writes, nobody could “get the truth of the arms crisis and trials out of Haughey, or even Haughey’s version of it”. Sadly, the full truth will probably never be known. It is buried with Haughey and the other principal actors in the crisis.

Haughey died in 2006, aged 80. Prof. Murphy’s reassessment of this highly talented but flawed figure is deeply researched and well written, but it will not salvage Haughey’s reputation.