My countrymen are disgracing themselves again. Charlie Haughey, the former Fianna Fail leader and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has died, in his bed, of cancer, at the ripe old age of 80. As one of the most corrupt politicians in the short history of the Irish state (which means he came top of a high-quality field), he ought to have died in gaol. But that’s not what rattles me; it’s the unctuous drivel that prominent Irishmen and women are spouting today. Listening to them, you’d think that it was some weird combination of Spinoza and Nelson Mandela who had passed away. Listen, for example, to what the country’s leading sky pilots have been saying:
The Primate of All-Ireland, Dr Seán Brady, said Mr Haughey was an able and talented politician who did much to promote the interests of Ireland and her people.
Dr Brady said Mr Haughey was a reforming politician who had considerable success in introducing measures to take care of the less well-off and disadvantaged in our society.
He said Mr Haughey will also be remembered for pioneering public utility allowance schemes and free transport for the elderly.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, said Mr Haughey was a man who engaged the people of Ireland over the last 40 years on the public stage.
Archbishop Martin said that these days following the death of the former Taoiseach were not ones for writing history books. He said a full and balanced analysis of Mr Haughey’s impact on Irish life would take time and careful consideration….
John Hume, the Nobel laureate, said:
Peace and justice in the North of Ireland was always at the top of the agenda for Charles Haughey and when I started to talk to Gerry Adams, he strongly supported me. He worked very closely with me in preparation for the whole movement to get lasting peace and an end to violence with the Downing Street Declaration and he fully briefed his successor Albert Reynolds.
The former Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, Garrett Fitzgerald said that Haughey was:
a man of formidable political skills. Despite their public political differences, their relationship was always marked by courtesy and absence of personal antagonism.
It gets worse. Haughey is to be given a State Funeral on Friday, and the current Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader, Bertie Ahern, is to give the oration at the graveside. I look forward to the solemn tones of the RTE commentators as the cortege passes various landmarks in Haughey’s rapacious career. The local branch of Allied Irish Banks, for example, which tried to call in Haughey’s six-figure overdraft and were told to get stuffed. (Deciding that it rather hoped to do further business in Ireland, the bank wrote off the debt.) Will there be a respectful pause when the procession reaches a branch of Dunne’s Stores, one of whose family directors (Ben) handed over colossal sums of money to Haughey in brown envelopes? And what of the numerous housing estates built on green belt land mysteriously rezoned for development after being purchased by Haughey and his mates? And will the cortege stop briefly at the polling station where Haughey’s election agent was caught voting twice (and later prosecuted for that offence)?
Compassionate souls will say that one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, especially on the day of decease, and in general I agree. In which case, the right thing to have done today would have been to note Haughey’s passing, express condolences to his family and leave it at that. But for the State to honour so conspiciously a man who so comprehensively polluted Irish political life beggars belief. And it leads one to wonder what’s really going on.
Part of the problem with Haughey is that everybody knew he was bent — but nobody ever dared to say anything. It was only when Ben Dunne spilt the beans after being arrested for possession of drugs while on a junket to Florida that the whole can of worms was levered open. I remember once being on holiday in Dingle many years ago. Haughey had bought Inishvickillane — a beautiful, uninhabited island in the Blaskets off the Kerry coast — and was building a house on it. The problem with Inishvickillane is that it is largely inaccessible from the sea, so most of the building materials were airlifted in by helicopter. As I watched the aerial comings and goings I started to estimate the costs of the operation. At that time helicopter charter costs were something like £200 an hour. I looked up Charlie’s ministerial salary — it was, I think, about £60,000 a year. Eventually I said to a local onlooker: “How can Charlie afford this?” He looked at me, smiled slyly, and said “Aw sure, you know Charlie”.
And that, of course, was part of the problem. Everyone knew what Charlie was like. There was widespread tacit acceptance that the planning system — largely controlled by Fianna Fail — was comprehensively corrupt. Worse than that — there was a kind of cynical admiration of the brazenness of the Haughey clique — as Conor Cruise O’Brien discovered to his cost when he ran for election in the late 1960s.
O’Brien had held the Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities in New York University during most of the 1960s and was at that time a classic liberal intellectual. (He had, for example, been arrested during protests against the Vietnam war.) But he eventually decided that his country needed him and returned home to run for the Dail (the Irish Parliament). He ran against Haughey as a Labour candidate in the latter’s North Dublin constituency. (Under Ireland’s proportional representation system, there are multi-member constituencies.) During the campaign, O’Brien discovered that some farmland that Haughey had purchased in the locality had, mysteriously, been re-zoned for housing development, increasing its value tenfold. O’Brien fulminated against this apparent abuse of power and obviously calculated that in so doing he would damage Haughey. But he was wrong. Haughey was returned with a considerably increased majority. It was if the electorate was saying “Sure, he’s corrupt, but good luck to him.”
So why the sudden attack of amnesia brough on by Haughey’s demise? Could it be that it’s just too embarrassing for the proud jockeys of the Celtic Tiger to admit that, in the not very distant past, their country was a rotten little borough off the mainland of Europe, run by a corrupt bunch of shysters who were the direct political ancestors of our own dear Euro-friendly Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern? Better to emphasise the positive aspects of Charlie — for example his ‘contribution’ to the peace process — than to dwell on these sordid realities. To me, it smacks of the famous attempt to find something good to say about Mussolini: that at least he made the trains run on time.
* Footnote: ‘An’ is the definite article in Irish.