Return to Recent Articles menu
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.
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.
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.
Return to top of page