How Populism Works: Charles J Haughey and the Perils of Walking on Water- Part two: the Chief


In the first part of these two articles, I noted that Charles Haughey had risen to power on the back of unscrupulous populism. I also noted that he had only one abiding political principle: himself. His 13 years as party leader, and three spells as taoiseach, would amply illustrate that. Haughey didn’t so much rewrite the rule book as simply not bother with it. In some ways, all he did is what had been done before, just more flagrantly, ruthlessly and, it must be said, stylishly. Opportunity came knocking, and Charlie seized what he could.

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Haughey was certainly not the first Fianna Fáil leader to play fast and loose with the public finances. Indeed, they had won in 1977 on a platform that promised goodies for all: the abolition of the rates (local taxes), car tax and the wealth tax the Fine Gael government had introduced. The authors of those policies were, in fact, Haughey’s great rivals George Colley (seen above, in 1982, between Haughey and Brian Lenihan) and Desmond O’Malley. Upon becoming taoiseach, Haughey roundly declared that Ireland had been living beyond its means, and then went on to make matters worse by increasing spending and paying for it by borrowing. In the 1981 election, he promised more spending, and lower taxes. His second, short-lived, minority government in 1982 lavished money to try and win support. The independent TD for North Dublin, Tony Gregory, exacted £100m for his constituency; Monsignor James Horan won a promise of £10m to build Knock Airport. It was to no avail: Gregory (with Haughey, below) withdrew his support when Haughey finally moved to tackle the financial black hole facing his government. Then, in opposition, he opposed many of the policies to tackle that black hole that he would have actually carried out. In 1987, he campaigned against spending cuts, especially on health. Within days of returning to power, he adopted the policies as his own.


In short, Haughey’s relationship with the truth was, at best, an on and off affair. So was his approach to policy and principle. In opposition, he had opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and the New Ireland Forum Report that preceded it, playing the populist republican card; upon returning to government, he accepted it. Fianna Fáil had always declared it would never form a coalition government; in 1989, as his minority government floundered, he went into coalition.

For someone who was taoiseach three times, and who could be said to have won two elections, Haughey’s electoral record looks less impressive when subjected to scrutiny. Fianna Fáil had a justifiable claim to be seen as Ireland’s natural party of government. From its first victory in 1932, it had been the only party capable of winning an outright majority.  Haughey lost that majority in 1981, and never won it back. From its first victory in 1932, until Haughey became leader, Fianna Fáil had won 12 of 15 general elections. Haughey could claim to have won three out of five. However, his victories in 1982, 1987 and 1989 all were, in fact, hung parliaments. For all his charisma, and talent, he remained a bitterly divisive figure, distrusted by a majority of voters.

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Haughey didn’t only divide his country, but his party too. When he failed to win an overall majority in February 1982, there were moves to challenge his leadership. In the end, when Haughey managed to form a minority government the challenger, Des O’Malley (left), backed by George Colley, stayed his hand. Then, in the October, the Kildare TD Charlie McCreevy moved a vote of no confidence in Haughey: O’Malley resigned from the cabinet, announcing his intention to vote against his leader. A bitter and intense 15-hour meeting of the parliamentary party ensued. Haughey’s supporters put pressure on their TDs: if they voted against Charlie, their careers would be over. Haughey managed to secure an open vote rather than a secret ballot: thus, any who voted against him faced the ire of Haughey and his henchmen, as well as their local parties (most of whom were fiercely loyal to the Chief). Haughey won by 58 votes to 22. In the teeth of phone tapping scandal (see below) and after losing the second election of 1982, O’Malley challenged again: this time Haughey won by 40 votes to 33. He had kept control of Fianna Fáil.

He proved to be anything but a gracious winner. One Fianna Fáil TD, Jim Gibbons, who had opposed Haughey was beaten up by drunken Haughey supporters after the vote. According to O’Malley, the gardai (police) were ‘discouraged’ from investigating the assault. When O’Malley himself opposed the party line over the New Ireland Forum, Haughey had the whip removed from him; when he supported a government bill to liberalise the law on contraception, Haughey had him kicked out of the party altogether.


Haughey was also willing to play fast and loose with the constitution. In 1982, the Garret Fitzgerald’s government failed to get their budget passed by the Dáil. Fitzgerald went to see the president to seek a dissolution. Haughey tried to persuade President Hillery (above, with Haughey), an old Fianna Fáil colleague, to let him form a government. Haughey’s henchman, Brian Lenihan, made phone calls. When Haughey failed to get a call through to the president, he told Hillery’s aide that Haughey would soon be taoiseach and that he intended to ‘roast your fucking arse if you don’t put me through immediately’. Hillery called the election anyway: neither would forget, nor forgive.


Chickens would come home to roost in the early ‘nineties. Having been kicked out of Fianna Fáil, O’Malley formed a new party, the Progressive Democrats (right): three Fianna Fáil TDs joined him. In the 1987 election, they won 14 seats, mostly from Fine Gael. In 1989, they were reduced to six seats, but Haughey had lost four. Haughey was then forced to form a coalition with O’Malley’s party. In doing so, Haughey would adopt most of the PD’s policies (as would Fine Gael after them). Ireland was about to become the Celtic Tiger.

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Beyond the blind faithful, or those who knew nothing, there weren’t many in Ireland who really believed in Haughey’s honesty; most believed that he was, at the very least, financially dodgy. He lied, he chopped and changed policies like his expensive handmade shirts, he often spouted rubbish; but always seemed to get away with it, and his supporters didn’t seem to care. In part, that was down to Haughey’s (less than wholly deserved) reputation as a winner. It was also a consequence of the hold he had over the party machine. He could destroy careers, too: ‘big fellas’ can be very dangerous bed fellows.


Then, there was his undoubted charisma, and the popular touch. I got to see this close up. One year, after the annual commemoration address at the grave of the old republican Wolfe Tone. He breezed into our local pub, shaking the hands of local Fianna Fáilers. He knew them by face and name, and he knew something about them and their families. You could see the socks being charmed off them, as well as the qualms. Well, if he makes a sly few quid here and there, don’t we all?

And they did. If Charlie was at it, financially speaking, so was everyone else. In some ways, ‘twas ever thus. The gombeen man, the shady wheeler-dealer profiting at everyone else’s expense, was a staple of Irish life. The backstairs deal was a staple too. Many relied on the process to get planning permission for the endless new bungalows that ‘70s and ‘80s Ireland threw up. Similarly, not paying taxes, and the creative acquisition of farm subsidies, was woven into the fabric of Irish life. Mostly, this was pretty small beer, though it all added up. When the government finally got serious about tax evasion and offered a tax amnesty, my dad and almost all his friends in our small hamlet coughed something up.

What was sauce for the geese, was the gravy train for the big boys. There were highly successful businessmen, such as Ben Dunne (more anon). But in the Ireland of the Haughey era, most of all it was property developers. Then there was Fianna Fáil, and then there was Haughey. There was a very good reason why Fianna Fáil were opposed to state funding of political parties. From the ‘sixties on, the links between the party, business and big property were close, and the cash came rolling in.


By the later ‘eighties, Haughey must have believed he walked on financial and political water. His lavish lifestyle was evident to all: racehorses, a private yacht, a Georgian mansion and an island off Co Kerry. There had been scandals since the arms trial. In 1982, it emerged that the government had illegally tapped journalist’s phones, looking for inside information on his rivals: Haughey denied all knowledge. Most notoriously, earlier that year, a well-known Dublin chancer called Malcom MacArthur murdered two people. A few days after the murders, he was seen chatting with the attorney general and garda commissioner (the equivalent of chief of police). When MacArthur was identified as the murderer, the subsequent manhunt ended with his arrest at the attorney general’s home. It turned out that MacArthur had been staying with him for some weeks. To make matters even worse, the government tried to cover up the fact. When the truth finally came to light, Haughey described it as ‘a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance’ (below, he is seen entering that press conference). One of his most trenchant critics, Conor Cruise O’Brien coined the acronym GUBU (for ‘grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre, unbelievable’): it stuck.


Haughey’s final undoing came once he fell from power. The beginning of the end was entering a coalition that left him reliant on the support of Dessie O’Malley. Whilst Haughey could still count on the loyalty of much, or part, of his own party, if push came to shove then O’Malley would certainly shove. In light of that, Haughey’s enemies and rivals in Fianna Fáil would scent blood, if blood was there was to be.


Then there was the 1990 presidential election. Until then, the presidency (which held no real power) had been something of a rest home for retired party hacks and grandees, like President Hillery who retired that year. Haughey was looking to continue that tradition. Brian Lenihan was one of his longest serving henchmen, and at this time tánaiste (deputy). Ireland was, however, changing. The Labour Party chose a former member of the Seanad (the Irish senate, its upper house) as its candidate. Mary Robinson (above, with Haughey) was a lawyer, with a long and impressive track record in campaigning for women’s rights, access to contraception and gay rights (homosexuality was still illegal in 1990). She was also known to be sympathetic to Northern Irish Unionists. In the end, Robinson won. A new, more liberal Ireland was on the rise. Haughey’s politics was past its sell-by date.

So was Haughey. Lenihan was a popular figure in the party. However, during the presidential election, more details about Lenihan’s attempts to force President Hillery to let Haughey form a government, back in 1982, came out. After, O’Malley demanded that Lenihan resign. Lenihan refused, and Haughey was forced to sack him. Many of the party faithful resented this.

Haughey’s rivals now scented blood. The minister of finance, Albert Reynolds, made it known that he would run for the party leadership if Haughey resigned; then one of Reynold’s supporters put down a motion of no confidence in Haughey. Haughey won the vote comfortably enough, by 55-22. With his characteristic lack of magnanimity, he purged his rivals, dismissing Reynolds and his supporters from the cabinet.

His position was, in fact, further weakened. Worse was to come. A new minister of defence was forced to resign before he actually took up the post, when a photograph emerged of him celebrating when the courts refused to extradite an escaped terrorist prisoner to the UK. Then, the minister responsible for the 1982 phone-tapping scandal claimed that Haughey had known about it all along. Finally, O’Malley pounced. Allowed to resign as if of his own volition, Haughey finally left office in 1992, to be succeeded by Reynolds.

Had he been more gracious with his rivals when he was in office, they might have moved to protect him when he left it. They did not.


The largest retail group in Ireland at the time was Dunnes stores. Its founder, Ben Dunne, had died in 1983, and it was now owned by his five children. The man who really ran the show was his youngest son, Ben Dunne jnr (above). As is so often the case, the heir liked the high life. Unfortunately, that all came crashing down in a Florida golf resort (no, not that one) in 1992. Attempts to hush things up failed, and a nation revelled in a story that involved cocaine, call girls, psychotic violence and Ireland’s leading businessman being found tied to a pole. Perhaps the only people who weren’t laughing were the rest of the Dunne family. Three of the other siblings now wanted control. The result of that long and very bitter lawsuit would see Ben Dunne come crashing down.

Haughey would be brought down with him. It emerged that, over many years, Dunne had been secretly slipping Haughey cash, to help fund Charlie’s extravagant lifestyle. Investigations revealed that between 1987 and 1992,the scale of those subventions came to £1.3m. Tales of Dunne turning up at Haughey’s door with £100,000 in cash ‘for the big fella’ got a nation wondering. What Dunne got in return only partially came out, but there were some decent guesses. One might have been gratitude: in 1981, a dissident IRA group had kidnapped Dunne; seven days later, he was released. The Gardaí and Special Branch froze the Dunne bank accounts to prevent them paying a ransom. It would later emerge that a ransom was paid, of £1.5m; subsequently, it would be alleged that Haughey, taoiseach at the time, illegally authorised the payment. In 1988, the Dunne family had a £38m tax bill overturned by the Revenue Appeals Commission: Haughey was taoiseach once again.

In 1997, a Fine Gael government appointed the McCracken Tribunal, to investigate illegal payments to members of the Irish parliament. It revealed that Haughey’s fixer, Des Traynor, had squirreled away £38m in in the Cayman Islands, on behalf of a few leading Irish politicians. By 1997, Traynor was dead, and his British partner had burned all his files. But, after months of obstructing justice, Haughey’s house of cards was done for.

He was never tried for obstructing justice, ironically because some ill-advised remarks by the new leader of the Progressive Democrats, tánaiste Mary Kenney. However, Kenny was deputy to a new Fianna Fáil taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who was desperate to distance himself from Haughey. He set up the Moriarty Tribunal to look into the financial affairs of Haughey, along with another notoriously corrupt Fianna Fáil politician, Michael Lowry.

Now, the full extent of Haughey’s corruption was revealed. He had received, between 1979 and 1986, some £8m in donations from businessmen: some of those were personal, others were meant for the party but were diverted into his pocket. When he’d become taoiseach, Allied Irish Bank had wiped his £1m debt from its books. In 1989, a campaign had raised £270,000 to pay for Brian Lenihan’s liver transplant. It cost £70,000; Haughey pocketed the rest. A Saudi businessman had paid Haughey £50,000 to ensure that he got Irish citizenship. Most of all, they got something on Dunne and Haughey: Haughey had intervened to help get Dunne off a £22.5m capital gains tax bill.

A decent proportion of the subsequent condemnation was hypocritical. Many of those who rushed to throw the first stone had sinned aplenty. Haughey and Lowry were hardly the only prominent politicians in Ireland to be bent: it’s just they were more bent, and they got caught. At the same time, the holier than thou image of the Irish church was unravelling (and the true horrors of is past began to emerge). In 1992, Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway was found to have fathered a child, and to have supported the mother and boy by misusing church funds (whilst having no relationship with the boy at all).  Haughey was by no means alone, but the key point held: he was as bent as they come, and then some.

Haughey’s defenders would say he left a positive legacy, that he was the father of a modernised, Celtic Tiger Ireland. There is a small measure of truth in there somewhere. His real legacy though was venal. Populism came a ready packed with a disregard of the national interest if it did not coincide with his own: if he did some good things, it wasn’t necessarily intentional. He had a blatant contempt for truth, for the rule of law and for constitutional norms. He was vindictive towards those who opposed him, and careless of the sycophants he lorded it over.

These two articles began with his 1985 boat accident and his quip about his survival, ‘I walked on water’. Thank God, he couldn’t keep it up and when he sank, he sank deep. Nonetheless, perhaps we shouldn’t give the almighty too much credit. At the time, the great Irish writer Hugh Leonard used to pen a weekly column in the Sunday Independent. As the end of 1985 came, as in every year, that column was in the form of a spoof end of year awards ceremony. The Irish are great swearers, as are many Irish writers with them. My favourite Irish swear word is gobshite. Haughey, who was the particular target of Leonard’s spleen (and he had plenty of spleen), won the annual Gobshite of the Year Award on a regular basis.  However, the 1985 column, in the year of Charlie’s boating accident, made the following award:

Gobshite of the Year: God (missed opportunity).

And we all knew exactly what he meant.

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