How Populism Works: Charles J Haughey and the Perils of Walking on Water- Part one: Rise and Fall, and Rise


I want to write about a politician who made himself the central political figure in his lifetime. He had charisma, the popular touch, and his ambition knew no bounds; he even had a splendid mane of sometimes unruly hair. He was the darling of his party, who knew exactly how to tickle exactly the right place on the membership’s funny bone. He was the chancer’s chancer, playing fast and loose throughout his career with fact, policy, law, the public finances and his personal life. More than once his career, rocked by scandal, seemed over, but he bounced back.

And he became prime minister.

Nothing ever stuck. Back in September 1985, whilst leader of the opposition, whilst sailing to his privately owned island off the coast of Co Kerry, his private yacht came close to the rocks and he had to be saved by the local lifeboat crew. Later, standing the lads a round of drinks or two, he was asked about how he managed to escape from the stricken vessel: he turned his interlocutor, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye and quipped, ‘I walked on water’.


Welcome to the life and times of a figure once loved by some, followed by others holding their noses and putting aside their principles, and detested in equal measure. A man who turned a once dominant party into a party of minority government and uneasy deals. Yes, it is Charles J Haughey: Irish taoiseach (prime minister) from 1978-81, 1982, and 1987-92, and leader of Ireland’s most successful political party, Fianna Fáil, from 1979-92. It was quite some ride.

Haughey first became active in politics whilst studying Commerce at University College, Dublin. Trinity College, Dublin’s other major university, was still predominantly Protestant, so UCD was in many ways the forcing house of the new generation of Irish politicians born after independence: a contemporary of Haughey’s was his great opponent, future taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Garret Fitzgerald.

Politics in Ireland has always tended to be something of a family business: Fitzgerald’s father was minister of external affairs in the Free State government. Haughey was not born into the purple, though his father had been in the IRA, and then the Free State army. However, he would make up for that soon enough.

PA-1408667-310x415He was undoubtedly able. After taking a first, he qualified as an account and lawyer, establishing his own firm. Within two years of having entered the Dáil (the Irish parliament) in 1957, he was in government. He rose fast: in the Ministry of Justice, becoming minister in 1961, he was a great success. After a less happy spell at Agriculture, he organised the campaign to re-elect de Valera, Fianna Fáil’s founder and elder statesman, to the presidency in 1966. He became minister of finance. Haughey was clearly destined for the top.

charles-haughey-anne-robinson-390x285He posed, with some justice, as a moderniser. As minister of justice he introduced a wave of reforms: an Adoption Act reformed an archaic legal process, a Succession Act safeguarded the inheritances of wives and children, he abolished capital punishment. He was part of a new generation of Irish politics, and played up to that image. As minister of agriculture, he came into conflict with the National Farmers’ Association: after a protest march of some 30,000 descended upon Dublin, Haughey refused to meet them. After that, his modernising instincts were tempered by hard Irish political realities.

His success was not down to ability alone. In the Ireland of the ‘forties and ‘fifties, nothing happened without the right contacts. Haughey had already shown a gift for making them. He set up his accountancy firm with Harry Boland, son of a senior Fianna Fáil politician. At UCD, he met and then went on to marry Maureen, daughter of Seán Lemass (left), who would go on to succeed Eamon de Valera as leader of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach. He gathered round him a circle, notably including his future tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Brian Lenihan.

haughey lemass lynchHe was also something of a master of the dark arts. In 1966, Lemass retired. Haughey  was a candidate for the leadership, as were his fellow Young Turks, George Colley and Neil Blaney. All three were, in their own way, divisive. Lemass looked for a compromise candidate, and settled on his minister of finance, Jack Lynch (seen above with Lemass and Haughey) . Realising that he couldn’t win, Haughey took his father-in-law’s advice and stood aside. His reward was the Ministry of Finance.


There he showed what would be another trait. Pensioners were given free travel on public transport and cheap electricity. Fiscal prudence came very much second to a happy dollop of populism. The path to the top was still very much open.


Then it all came crashing down. The return of large-scale violence to the north, and the plight of northern Catholics, stirred atavistic memories in southern politics. Though Fianna Fáil had long since abandoned anything except a rhetorical republicanism, the Troubles brought bthe republican corpse to life. Haughey was not averse to republican gestures, which went down well with many Fianna Fáilers. As a student, in 1945, he was one of group of UCD students who had symbolically burned the union flag outside Trinity on VE-day. As minister of justice, he had shown his republican colours by passing an Extradition Act, all but preventing extradition to the UK for IRA men. This was at a time when the IRA were pursuing a renewed campaign of violence, which had begun in 1956, the so-called Border War. He also showed his distance from the IRA, though, by setting up Special Criminal Courts to try IRA men in the republic: those courts did a great deal to end the IRA campaign of violence that had begun in 1956.

By 1969, Protestant attacks on Catholics in the north had put serious pressure of the government to do something. The government was divided. Some, such as Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland (Harry’s brother), wanted the government to intervene in some way. Others, such as George Colley, were staunchly opposed. As a compromise, Lynch was persuaded to provide funds for the relief of northern Catholics: as minister of finance, Haughey would administer the money.

What happened next has remained controversial ever since, but there is little doubt that at least half the money, under Haughey’s sole control, was actually set aside to buy guns for the north. Special Branch knew; they also knew that Haughey had met the IRA’s Chief of Staff.  When Lynch was told, he did nothing (Haughey claimed it had been a chance meeting). So, Special Branch told the leader of the opposition, who gave Lynch an ultimatum. Haughey and Blaney were sacked; Boland resigned, claiming (perhaps with some justice) that Lynch knew about the plan. Haughey and Blaney were put on trial, alongside an Irish Army intelligence officer, a Belfast republican leader and a Belgian businessman. The first trial collapsed, they were found not guilty in the second (Haughey and Blaney are pictured after their acquittal, below).

haughey blaney arms

However, it looked as if his political career was over, at least his ministerial one. Blaney became an independent TD; Boland left and formed a new party, fading into obscurity. Not Haughey. As a backbencher, he stayed loyal, publicly at least. It was in these years that he added another string to his bow. The farmers’ protests in 1966 had shown that Haughey lacked a following in the wider party in the country. He now sought to remedy that. Over the next five years, he travelled up and down the country, getting to know backbenchers, and local party men and women. Aside from his natural charisma, he also had charm in spades. He also had the uncommon knack of remembering names and personal details. He now became known simply as Charlie. The Fianna Fáil base loved him. By the time the party lost office in 1975, a weakened Lynch was forced to recall him to the front bench.

As opposition spokesman, and then as minister for health in 1977, he returned to his earlier reforming ways. He introduced Ireland’s first anti-smoking campaign. His Family Planning Bill legalised contraception (though only when prescribed by a doctor). Haughey was back.


He was back at the right time. Lynch’s authority was unravelling and, by December 1979, his time was up. In the leadership election that followed, all but one member of the cabinet supported Haughey’s opponent, an old rival he had been at UCD with, George Colley. But, Haughey’s time spent schmoozing the party in the country paid dividends.  Haughey won by 44 votes to 38: the backbenches were with him. Haughey had achieved his life’s ambition and, in the process, staged one of the great political comebacks. In doing so, he illustrated a political truth. Populism could trump probity in politics. Lies, illegality and corruption were by no means an obstacle in all circumstances. Intrigue had its day. Haughey stood for just one thing in politics, and that one thing had triumphed: Charles J Haughey.


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