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Irish capitalismís scapegoat 

TV Review: Haughey, RTE

by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght

28 January 2015

To begin with a confession; this writer once swigged whiskey from Charles Haughey's flask when it was offered him (redistribution of liquor). In addition, he was on friendly terms with the late Chairman of the local  Fianna Fail Cumann. Readers are entitled to feel that this debars him from giving an unbiased review of the recent television trilogy, Charlie and its account of Mr Haughey's period as leader of what was then Ireland's biggest political party.

Certainly, any criticism must acknowledge the success of the presentation. It cannot be denied that Aiden Gillen is too tall and good looking to take the title role, but he has the mannerisms and the voice. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor seems to be even more accurate as Haughey's loyal publicity man, P.J.Mara, though the writer cannot swear to it; Mara worked behind the scenes. In any case, there was a real question mark as to whether Vaughan-Lawlor was wearing a wig or whether he was able to grow his hair in time after playing the bald "Nidge". Lucy Cohu's Terry Keane is good, too, but was she really Haughey's Lady MacBeth? He doesn't seem to have needed one.

Of the others, Peter Gowan is the worst cast as George Colley. He looks like a brother to Sean Doherty. The real Colley was much smoother, and looked more smartly dressed than Haughey. By reputation he was not Charvet-shirted, but he was slim enough to wear his suits better.

The weakness lies in the script and in its concentration on Haughey's years as Taoiseach. Though this treatment avoids the issue of the arms trial, the Charlie Haughey story cannot be understood without consideration, at least, of his early political career. Even before the said trial, these years had established his dual reputation as the most able figure in Irish politics (following his father-in-law, Sean Lemass) and as an individual committed to achieving power for its own sake, regardless of what he would do with it. This view is expressed at the end of the second part of the trilogy when Haghey is confronted by Tony Gregory. (Incidentally, Tony was not the holy fool depicted in the series; his problem was that he found that he was too good at the parliamentary game, and played it as a left wing independent, rather than seeking to build a nationwide left wing party.) In the sequence, Haughey is asked why he failed to use his talents to benefit the people. He reels off a list of his reforms (free transport for pensioners, free toothbrushes, etc). Gregory remarks that they don?t add up to the vision needed to remodel Ireland. The Taoiseach describes his own vision of Dublin as a business paradise (In effect, an imperial metropolis), When Gregory asks, in effect, "What about the people"?, Haughey drops the poetics and admits that his vision is of winning the impending general election.

Whether this meeting ever occurred, it reflects the popular perception of Haughey's politics. It was based in part on his position as representative of two different political currents: the old republican Fianna Failers and the new rich. Each served his purpose: the republicans for numbers, the plutocrats for his grubstake. Yet it may not have been simple ambition. This dual approach was central to the vision of Haughey's father-in-law, Sean Lemass. The younger man asserted his role as heir apparent by pushing the logic of that vision beyond Lemass' limits. In 1957, he led a rebellion against Sean Macentee, Lemass? leading rival, and head of the more clericalist wing of Fianna Fail; ironically, it was to get the party's Dail nomination of Noel Browne, later one of Haughey's most bitter critics. Lemass seems to have believed it possible to win Unionist hearts and minds; Haughey's "northern fenian" background taught him otherwise and led him into the position in which he had to be acquitted for importing arms for the republican insurgents. Lemass had the frugal tastes of his shop keeping ancestors; his parvenue son in law flaunted more money than he had and encouraged business to look to Fianna Fail and himself as sound investments. In the absence of any serious political labour movement, this, coupled with hand-outs, state and private, made him top of the poll and then party leader. 

The problem was that the alliance that he had fashioned was less stable than those of Fine Gael-Labour coalitions. His republican followers were not interested in constitutional bourgeois economics, as was shown in the fate of Kevin Boland's Aontach Eireann. The twenty-six county business community would have been happy enough leaving Ireland partitioned, were it not for the disruption caused by the armed struggle after 1969.

Insofar as there was anything to be termed Haugheyism it was the politics of a juggler keeping balls in the air together. So, too, it became the politics of manoeuvre, and, of course, strokes, fragile achievements liable to be destroyed at the next turn of the political wheel. Teapot diplomacy with Thatcher was flushed down the plughole by Haughey's own exaggeration of its significance, as well as Lenihan's, as shown in the series. His first attempt to initiate an austerity programme was negated, not just by his cabinet members, but by his backbench deputies fearing for their seats in the coming election. His most enlightened economic initiative was the move to develop the beef trade and reduce agricultural dependence on the wasteful export of cattle on the hoof and this was betrayed by the actions of his allies in the beef trade. His most lasting legacy remains less than he dreamt. He initiated the cross-class industrial partnership that formalises the trade union leaders disciplining their members and, as the series showed, he initiated the peace process that has formalised Sinn Fein's disciplining its followers in a Lebanised six county unit. The contradictions, of Irish society remain political and economic, as they will do under any capitalist strategy. In the last resort, whatever about the people of Ireland as a whole, Charles J.Haughey did the capitalists of Ireland some service. 

Yet many of those who would uphold capitalist interests as readily as Charlie see him as the Prince of Darkness. This can be expected of his open political opponents; whether he is hated by Fine Gael more or less than de Valera is uncertain.  What is certain is that the hostility extends well beyond the organised political opposition. Why it does so is worth examination.
 
Four main charges are levied against Charles Haughey. The first is that he would do anything to achieve power for its own ends. This is pinpointed in the scene mentioned with Tony Gregory, but it appears often enough elsewhere to be the theme of the series. The writer has dealt with this. It remains to be added only that the lack of ambition beyond the fact of office can be seen far more obviously in such simon pure taoisigh as Jack Lynch and the present holder of the post, as well as more flawed figures as Bertie Ahern, in his later ministries, and Brian Cowan.

The idea of Haughey as totally unprincipled reinforced the accusation that he was aspiring to be an Irish  Mussolini ("My programme is simple: to govern Italy.") The second part of the trilogy gives ample evidence for this, the phone tapping, the threat to Bruce Arnold, the loyalty oath, the brutal attack on Jim Gibbons. It makes for good drama, and it is true. Yet it is form rather than substance. There is no evidence that Haughey orchestrated the physical assault. The phone tapping was investigated, but only in a manner to inculpate Fianna Fail, and in a way that "proved" that such actions were justifiable if done through proper channels. Indeed, the charge against him is precisely that he did such things the wrong way. This does not stop the liberal (more accurately, the neo-liberal) media from going to town. Geraldine Kennedy records seeing Fascist salutes at a Haughey Ard Fheis. Peter Murtagh writes of the climate of fear that existed at the time. This writer did not feel the weather. He can say truthfully that he never feared a Haughey election victory as much as he feared the return of the Cosgrave coalition in 1977. There could be seen and felt real abuse of power. When, in the programme, Des O'Malley asked Haughey to look into why his new Minister for Justice left the Special Branch, it was easy to remember that that departure occurred before the heavy gang. If Haughey threatened journalists, Cruise O'Brien had done so before him. If Lenihan tried (and failed) to call Aras an Uachtaran, Patrick Donegan called the previous President a "thundering disgrace". Fascist salutes at a Fianna Fail Ard Fheis were preceded by a Fine Gael Ard Fheis applauding wildly their Taoiseach's sneers at civil rights. That party's Minister for Justice declared that prisoners had no rights at all. Of course, this view is biased: the writer was and is a subversive trying in a small way to turn Ireland into  Britain's Cuba. Nonetheless, few of those who saw Haughey as a threat to civil liberties had shown much interest in examining the threat posed by Cosgrave and his ministers. As a result, insofar as they were able to criticise themselves or indeed take their accusations seriously, they could have seen themselves as the anti-hero of Martin Niemoller's parable; after the forces of the state had come for trade unionists, Communists and Jews without him protesting, they came for me and there was no one left to protest.
 
Though Haughey's threat to human rights was exaggerated, it was given credibility by his style. The most able person in Irish bourgeois politics, he showed no patience with the other players. Though open and affable to family, personal friends and, in a patronising way, to the people generally from whom he had sprung, as a politician, he treated his fellows with contempt. This comes through very clearly in the series.  In the first part of the trilogy, he criticises Brian Lenihan for wanting to be popular too much; had he sought popularity, he says, he wouldn?t have got to be Taoiseach. Nonetheless, as Taoiseach, he could have learnt from Lenihan's example. Again, this coldness seems to have been developed from his rise to power, particularly in his early years, when he was not only from an impoverished background (most of his contemporaries were at least petit bourgeois) but also the son of a detective of the Saorstat C.I.D.during the civil war. (By comparison, Colley was both the son of a Fianna Fail T.D. and the nephew of an Anti-Treatyite martyr.) Suspicion and aggression had become habits when he reached the top. Once there, it was natural for him to behave like a Machiavellian potentate, "the Boss", "Il Doge", "Il Duce". The story of him entertaining his ministers in a restaurant ("And what about the vegetables? Oh, they'll order for themselves.", adapted from a Spitting Image sketch of Mrs Thatcher) was near the bone. In the end, the "Country and Western" group that had been among his most loyal supporters threatened to join his long-term critics of the Progressive Democrats in withdrawing support from him and he jumped before he could be pushed. His enemies were correct in seeing that his type of leadership could be maintained only in a dictatorship. Nonetheless, he could not go that far. 

Also arising from his early career was the fact of the fourth charge against him, that of personal corruption. The need to keep a family and advance to the political top caused major problems even for Sean Lemass son-in-law. Des Traynor and his friends offered him a Faustian bargain in the shape of a personal trust fund financed by anonymous backers.  Though probably illegal, if not then, than later, this provided a satisfactory solution for an ambitious business-friendly politician. What Traynor and his pals did not foresee was that Haughey's "needs" grew with his wealth. Abbeyville, Inishvickillaune, the yacht, the hunt, the trappings of an early capitalist  prince in a late capitalist age, all added to the people of Donnycarney's admiration of the local boy who seemed to have "made good" and all provided Traynor with new headaches such as could have contributed to his relatively early death. The screen writers treat this aspect of Haughey's life too mildly. Although it was heralded in the press beforehand the series does not show its subject's descent into the sewer in his rifling of the trust fund set up to finance the medical fees of Brian Lenihan, possibly the nearest person he had to a friend in Irish politics. Only two things can be said for Haughey against the charges, and they are less for an acquittal than in mitigation of sentence. Firstly, it has to be proved that any specific businessman got any benefit from his handout. Secondly, it is doubtful whether such practices debased Irish politics to the extent that has been claimed. At the end of part two, Mara tells Haughey that he has four years "to make people want to be like you". He was not quite as successful in this as he and Haughey hoped. In the last resort, the neo-liberal propaganda of the Progressive Democrats, and the actions of their ally, Charlie McCreevy made more people want to be like Charlie Haughey with the results that continue today.

The career of Charles J.Haughey caricatured Irish capitalism. Many of those as committed as he to that social order could see its blemishes more clearly in him. It was easier for them to consider him as rogue element within the system to be opposed as such. Yet these opponents could not suppress a suspicion that his blemishes were exaggerations rather than complete misrepresentations: a criticism of capitalism as much as of himself. It is for this they hated him.


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