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Charles Haughey

The only thing that Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher agreed on over the decade that they were in power was that the European Parliament should under no circumstances have any more powers. They agreed that such an idea was ludicrous and that the Brussels mandarins were completely losing the run of themselves.

The new biography of Charles J Haughey is a monumental achievement.

Written by Professor Gary Murphy, it is a fair and balanced assessment of the man and his times benefitting from access to Haughey’s papers in Dublin City University.

Haughey was not a popular man in my house when I was growing up. He sacked my father on becoming Taoiseach in 1979 and continued to exclude him from every cabinet and ministerial roster on each subsequent occasion that he was elected Taoiseach. A friend of mine knew Haughey through sailing circles and heard him say, “that f***er Andrews will never be in any cabinet of mine”.

The biography therefore gave me the opportunity with the benefit of the passing of time to reassess Haughey’s contribution to modern Ireland.

I have to admit that I experienced a new-found admiration for his achievements. I wasn’t aware of his intellectual ability. He came first in a cohort of 500 pre-teens applying to Dublin Corporation for a scholarship. He also came top of his Leaving Cert class, aced his University exams again coming first at year-end from time to time. According to contemporaries, he was falling down with brains.

As a Minister in the 1960s and as Taoiseach after 1987, he can be fairly credited with some of the most radical innovations in public policy in the history of the State.

The Guardianship of Infants Act 1964, the Succession Act 1965, free public transport for pensioners, Aosdana, the IFSC and most important of all, the beginnings of economic recovery after 1987 are just some of the substantial things for which Haughey deserves credit.

Of course, the other side of the balance sheet features his personal financial affairs. The problem with all of that is twofold. It put him at constant risk of being compromised in his exercise of his public duties. The Moriarty Tribunal concluded that he had in fact made public policy decisions based on financial contributions from individuals including Ben Dunne. Such payments were by definition corrupt.

Also it created a negative culture in Fianna Fail about the way in which financial donations were handled by individual members of the Parliamentary Party. This impacted the behaviour of many others throughout the party including the likes of Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke. This is a culture which has been eradicated but from which we have not fully recovered.

Compared with the almost monastic approach to personal gain and high living of the revolutionary generation, this was a severe change of approach. Haughey wrongly assumed that he could vacuum-seal his private life.

My grandfather wrote of his fellow revolutionaries in the 1920s that “we disapproved of any one who took an interest in food. We ate our meals with the same spirit of detachment with which we dressed and shaved each day”. What he would have thought of Haughey and Mitterand feasting on Ortolon can be imagined.

What I really enjoyed about this biography is that it was done on a grand scale. Professor Murphy worked on it for 8 years. If you are a fan of political biographies, there aren’t that many Irish politicians or historical figures that merit such scale - most political lives wouldn’t fill a dust-jacket.

The feverish politics of the 70s and 80s prohibited any dispassionate analysis of the events of that time. He was right about many things and wrong about quite a few as well - particularly on the European Parliament.

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