Haughey, by Gary Murphy, Gill, 608 pp, €27.99, ISBN: 978-0717193646
In April 2001, I joined that long line of frustrated supplicants who, over the years, both before and after me, had toiled up the long avenue leading to Abbeville in Kinsealy, north county Dublin, seeking the rarest of prizes, the elusive benediction of a Haughey interview on the 1970 Arms Crisis. No holds barred? Well, yes, some questions anyway. Ah! And this television programme you are making ‑ what will be in it? Oh, it will be helpful to Mr Haughey. Doctored evidence in 1970. Ah, indeed! So, come in anyway. Sit here in the study and tell Mr Haughey all about it. And so it goes; one hour later, an hour in which most of the talking has been done by yours truly, accompanied by much nodding and grunting from across the room from the Great Man, and occasional murmurs of “pantomime, pantomime!” one is being gently shown the door, clasping not an agreed interview, but little more than encouragement for the task ahead, and the firm assurance that “if O’Malley comes after you, you will have my full support”. And so, enigmatically, and always somewhat mysteriously, Charles J Haughey had repelled yet another effort to get him to explain, just once ‑ and yes, it would be for the very first time ‑ his part in the events leading to the crisis of 1970. The big interview, the revelatory memoir, it would never happen. Not for anybody. Charlie’s secrets would be taken to the grave, where they rest today.
Why there was this Great Silence from Kinsealy is not something which greatly exercises Gary Murphy in this exhaustive, and exhausting, tome of a biography, although he does chronicle many of the failed efforts to persuade Haughey to talk, before his passing in June 2006. Nor is there much pursuit of the true origins and nature of the great intra-Fianna Fáil family schism, Lynch v. Haughey, which overshadowed so much of both men’s careers. We learn early on, somewhat to our surprise, that relations between Haughey and Lynch were supposedly “damaged irreparably” from as early as 1965, five years before the Arms Crisis, by an ill-explained Budget squabble while Lemass was still taoiseach (Lynch was his finance minister, Haughey was in agriculture). The author’s approach does not allow space or time to explore the great, usually fraught, relationships of Haughey’s political career – with Lynch, with Garret FitzGerald, with Margaret Thatcher. For most of the book’s 630 pages, the approach is relentlessly chronological. We follow Haughey gamely through three long decades of political prominence and an equal amount of controversy. The book’s blurb promises much: “exclusive access to the Haughey archives”, it says, including “a reassessment of Charles Haughey’s life and legacy”. Further inducements to read follow: inside lies “a rich and nuanced portrait of a man of prodigious gifts, who, for all his flaws and many contradictions, came to define modern Ireland”. The book, we are told, is based on “unfettered access to Haughey’s personal archives, as well as extensive interviews with more than 80 of his peers, rivals, confidantes and relatives”. Mouth-watering or what?
Well, what indeed. A book like this has to be extremely dependent on its source material, the private papers of CJ Haughey, and who can know, in advance, the richness or otherwise of the material gathered within such a collection? The dear reader, of course, will come with a hunger for insights into that dark and agile mind; into, one might hope, some inner thoughts from the grim days leading to his criminal trial in 1970; or, further on, how he stomached the extraordinary humiliations visited on him by the McCracken and Moriarty Tribunals, thirty years later. Haughey had an epic career in Irish public life, and it came with some brilliant achievements. Consider its breadth: the man who, as minister for justice, helped smash the IRA’s border campaign in the early 1960s; who, less than ten years later, was sacked abruptly from the government, charged with criminal efforts to bolster the emergent Provisionals; who after a further ten, by 1980, had ousted Jack Lynch as taoiseach, a job he would hold intermittently through to 1991.
The madcap Haughey adventure continued, replete with visionary schemes, financial scandals, secret and not-so-secret sexual affairs and tussles over the Falklands war with the Iron Lady herself. It all ended badly, of course, over phone-tapping allegations and amid incredible revelations that his lavish lifestyle had been made possible only through receipt of over £9m in personal donations in the years between 1979 and 1996. Haughey’s political legacy has always seemed persistently ambiguous. What was he? Perhaps, we might venture, a combined saint and sinner? The word “saint”, however, sits very uneasily in any description of the man. Could he ever be termed a great man, a statesman? Or, something rather less? Where might the verdict of history fall? While we continue to mull over this conflicted career, the chattering classes, the Irish political and journalistic world, and indeed the wider public, will approach the publication of a book such as this with more than a little expectation.
Alas, the news is not great. Where Gary Murphy’s work is exemplary, in dealing with such a controversial figure, is in providing fairness and balance. We see the two Charlies, and we can choose. And yet no one who reads this enormous volume, whatever their view of Charles J Haughey’s political achievements over three long decades, will doubt that what we are assessing here – to use one of the author’s own favourite adjectives – is a truly spectacular hypocrite. Not, however, that Murphy arrives at such a blunt conclusion. It might have been better if he had, because the impression arises inescapably from his own narrative. It is perhaps a tribute to his fair-minded and scrupulous approach that he refuses to stick in the knife. Even as evidence piles up on evidence, and the text juggles uneasily with the justification for the charge of hypocrisy, readers will find themselves way ahead of the author in terms of a verdict. Murphy presents the sums meticulously, addition here, subtraction there ‑ but he is strangely reluctant to add them up. There is a passage little over half-way through which reveals a disconcerting weakness in the analysis, and it is worth quoting at length:
Haughey had an uncanny ability to compartmentalize the various facets of his public and private lives. Within a month of becoming Taoiseach, he would go on television to tell the country it was living beyond its means, notwithstanding the fact that he was in serious, eye-watering debt. When he introduced family planning legislation for married couples, he was involved in an extra-marital affair … The reality was that he had an unparalleled ability to divorce [clearly no pun intended here] his private life from his political decisions. When the revelations about his financial and private lives became public decades later, he was widely reviled as a by-word for hypocrisy. Yet in real time, Haughey never saw it that way … The great advantage the public Haughey held was that he was able to keep the private Haughey out of his decision-making on public policy.
If this was an argument that Haughey was not a corrupt politician, it could be entertained (although the Moriarty Tribunal appeared to take a different view), but the charge here is of hypocrisy, and the defence is a total non-starter. Murphy irresistibly proves the case for the prosecution, but each time he does, he recoils from judgement. Consider Haughey’s position on the divorce referendum in June 1986. The move to legalise divorce was lost, with 63 per cent voting no. Fianna Fáil, out of office, took no official position, but most of its TDs were against. No one, says Murphy, was in any doubt about Haughey’s position; the man himself explicitly stated that his view was based on the importance of the family. Here is the book’s analysis:
Over a decade later, the revelation of his affair with Terry Keane led to allegations of hypocrisy. His critics said that Haughey was quite happy to espouse family values while condemning thousands of others to misery in loveless marriages. This is obviously true on one level, but on the other hand it is also clear that Haughey never intended to leave his own wife. He certainly had no interest in getting divorced and he did believe that the family unit was the best organisational structure for society. He was also reflecting the widespread anti-divorce view across Fianna Fáil. In that context he was never going to advocate a yes vote.
And so … what? It would seem hard to believe that this form of casuistry reflects Gary Murphy’s true views on Haughey’s conduct. Everything he himself details in this book only confirms that Charlie Haughey persistently applied double standards when it came to his public and personal life. What CJH prescribed for others, he did not prescribe for himself. The conduct this book describes is the very definition of hypocrisy. Murphy can see that as clearly as anyone, but he cannot get the final words out. Could it be that this is because he feels himself under some obligation to Haughey’s family, who had gifted him exclusive access to the personal papers of the former taoiseach? Whether because of this, or simply some nagging desire for fairness, he struggles throughout in trying to present a possible defence for conduct that so often appears simply indefensible.
And here one comes to the greater problem the author encountered in this project: an absence in the papers of Haughey’s own best shot at explaining himself. Quite simply, the cupboard containing the papers proved to be pretty much bare. Not literally bare, because the book returns repeatedly to the great sheafs of what the magazine Private Eye is inclined to label, Soviet-style, arsliken correspondence, in which the Squire is assured, through every decade, of the regard in which he is held by innumerable highly placed public figures. But certainly bare in the sense that there seems to be in the papers very few of the personal insights, musings and explanations from Haughey that an expectant biographer would normally be hoping for. That Haughey failed to provide, even for posterity, some post hoc justification for the massive contradictions in his life, seems remarkable, and has left Murphy scrambling to fill the gap. Towards the end of the book we come across the slightly ludicrous spectacle of the ever-faithful retainer, Martin Mansergh, attempting to draft, for a putative unwritten Haughey autobiography, the explanation that Haughey himself could not ‑ or at least did not ‑ ever pen himself for the financial and other mis-steps in his life. The lack, in these many hundreds of pages, of Haughey’s own story ‑ call it an apologia, attempted vindication, or whatever, but told in his own words ‑ is particularily evident when it comes to the traumatic events of the 1970 Arms Crisis.
The year 1970 was a pivotal one in Haughey’s career. It set him back by roughly a decade in his political progress, and it created a schism with Jack Lynch that coloured the history of the Fianna Fáil party for many decades. Those who doubt that Haughey was essentially a victim in 1970, wronged by Lynch and much misunderstood and misrepresented by writers and commentators since, might consult my own recent investigation, entitled The Arms Crisis of 1970 – The Plot That Never Was (Head of Zeus, 2020). Gary Murphy does not seem to disagree, but his language is less than forthright. He was perhaps unfortunate that at a late stage in his own publishing process much new material and lines of analysis surrounding Haughey’s actions in 1970 suddenly became public. Be that as it may, the fact is his own volume, Haughey, the subject of this review, has very little fresh information or insight to add, and largely offers only a distillation, second-hand, of the new data and insights that emerged last year.
Charles Haughey’s papers, as Sean Haughey had advised this writer as far back as 2015, contain little of significance regarding the events of 1969/70. An exception might be some correspondence between Haughey and the former chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sean MacEoin, from 1979. This appears to support retrospectively the evidence from 1970/71 of the much-abused Colonel Michael Hefferon. MacEoin, although in a position where he could either vindicate or demolish his former director of intelligence, had been the original Dog That Was Not Allowed to Bark throughout the Arms Crisis. The correspondence quoted in Murphy’s book confirms that when the state failed to call MacEoin as a witness in the arms trials to debunk Hefferon’s claims, it was a clear signal that, although he was being publicly disavowed, Hefferon was telling the truth. But MacEoin apart, of Haughey himself there appears in the papers to be virtually nothing significant regarding the Arms Crisis. The long-standing question has been answered, and the answer is of no comfort to Gary Murphy. Charlie did indeed keep shtum to the end. In one way, we knew this was the case, but hope springs eternal. This book disposes of our hopes in that regard. So far as the recent research on the Arms Crisis is concerned, Murphy, while adding little to the narrative, appears to accept that, in broad terms, Haughey was not the guilty party in 1970. But his equivocal approach, as noted, leaves his position not entirely clear.
But why would Haughey choose never to explain himself? If not for his own time, then for future generations? Murphy does not evince much interest in this fascinating question, one which has for some time preoccupied this reviewer. There appear to me to be at least two possible reasons. Certainly, if one has not been entirely honest in one’s public utterances, including those delivered under oath – as Haughey had not ‑ the difficulty in subsequently making a clean breast of things is obvious. Jack Lynch had a similar problem. He had similar dishonesties to mull over, and made a similar decision to take the secrets to the graveyard. But the extra factor surely for both these men, was the Fianna Fáil factor. Both Lynch and Haughey were beholden to and dedicated to the one true Republican Party. The truth about the Arms Crisis, the full story, which must have been largely known to both of them, reflected poorly, to say the least, on Fianna Fáil. The criminal prosecution of John Kelly in particular, the Northern republican representative of the Defence Committees, was a shocking betrayal of Fianna Fáil’s core values. So too was the casting aside of the junior officer Captain James Kelly. Haughey himself, though he deeply resented being made Jack Lynch’s scapegoat, knew in his heart that he had been sacrificed, essentially, to keep Fianna Fáil in power. And even in later life, he knew that to tell the sordid truth about the government’s bungling of the whole affair could only add more damage to Fianna Fáil, the party which he had since come to lead, and which had provided the very oxygen for his whole political existence. So, silence became golden.
Returning to the Murphy magnum opus, while there are shortcomings, many of them, in fairness, not of the author’s making, there is much to be said in its favour. It has an epic feel, and only in describing some of the early years is it ever less than interesting. The writing style is direct, accessible and effective. Haughey was responsible for many inspirational schemes, including the exemption of artists from income tax, the setting up of the Financial Services Centre, the National Treasury Management Agency, and the fostering of social partnership with the trade unions, and he gets full credit here. In addition, the interviews Murphy conducted with the Haughey family and with a long list of public servants who knew Haughey and worked with him add greatly to the depth of the story and compensate in part for the thinness of the actual papers. Throughout, it is clear that Charlie was always the smartest boy in the class; it is just unfortunate, from the historian’s point of view, that he never felt it necessary to set down the rationale for his many daring gambits.
Was he corrupt? One cannot tell from this work. We do see that he was certainly capable of dishonesty, even under oath – whatever about his probable perjury during the 1970 arms trial, twenty-seven years later he misled both the McCracken Tribunal and his own legal team right up to the door of the court, denying until the eleventh hour that Ben Dunne had ever given him money. Gary Murphy’s book reminds us of the bad odour left by Haughey’s apparent trousering of much of the money he helped raise for his old friend Brian Lenihan’s medical treatment in 1989 and similarly shows us the cruel way he attempted to dispatch his long-time mistress Terry Keane when she became a potential liability towards the end. These are stories that do the man no favours. With Haughey mute, in terms of explaining himself, Murphy, unfortunately, again finds himself driven to weasel words in trying to explain why, at one of their regular but secret lunches at Le Coq Hardi restaurant, Haughey sought to return to her all correspondence and mementoes from their relationship. Keane was greatly upset; she saw this as an attempt to erase her from his life. Having none of it, she, quite rightly, got her retaliation in first. Murphy appears to feel the spurned mistress had misconstrued Haughey’s intention over the returned mementoes, and makes this, irony-free, observation: “it is more likely that Haughey was in fact putting his affairs in order”. The Keane relationship, we are informed, was just one of the “many lives of Charles Haughey”; to understand it, and his way or ending it, we get the by now familiar refrain: “at heart, Haughey was able to compartmentalise the different strands in his life”. Which brings us to another such “strand”, the Squire’s long-suffering, ever-loyal spouse, Maureen, daughter of Seán Lemass. She may be the hidden heroine in this biography, and in the life it describes. Her interview, and those of her children, were clearly invaluable to Gary Murphy, although unfortunately they are only referenced generally in the end notes, and there are few, if any, direct quotations. We have little difficulty in believing that the financial revelations towards the end of Haughey’s life, and the facts about the Keane affair, left his family “shattered”. Maureen stayed loyal to the end, all through the Keane hurricane and the rest.
Meanwhile Murphy tells his readers that his aim throughout the book has been to provide a balanced assessment, and in this regard, his view was that Haughey had at times succeeded magnificently and at others failed deeply. Right to the end, he does the accounting meticulously on both sides of the balance sheet but will not offer judgement on the man himself. He might, on his own evidence, have concluded that this was a venal man, in essence a small man with notions, a phoney in so many respects, a politician with the common touch but who was selfish, cruel and dishonest in his affairs, a man of strong personality but poor character, a leader who fundamentally lacked any ethical view of public life. But he does not.
Michael Heney is the author of The Arms Crisis of 1970: The Plot that Never Was, published by Head of Zeus.