Charles Haughey: Ireland’s Most Enigmatic Leader
Gary Murphy's new book paints a detailed picture
Note: this was originally written for a mostly American audience. Irish people can skim the first section. All facts are sourced from the book unless otherwise specified.
Haughey by Gary Murphy is one of the most erudite treatments of Irish politics in recent times. It is a 1,000 page extensively footnoted biography of Charles Haughey (pronounced “haw-hee”), one of the most controversial and influential politicians in Irish history.
First, a primer on Irish politics. Traditionally, there have been two large parties: Fianna Fáil (literally “soldiers of destiny” in Irish) and Fine Gael (“the tribe of the Irish”). Perhaps uniquely among Western nations, both major parties are vaguely right of centre and have virtually indistinguishable policies. They are only separate because of a historical disagreement about the treaty that granted Ireland’s independence in 1921; Fianna Fáil rejected the partition between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and Fine Gael more-or-less accepted it.
Having said this, there have been substantial differences in policy implementation between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in the demographics that vote for them, and in the politicians that represent them. This is essentially the motivating conflict of the book: Charles Haughey was a diehard Fianna Fáiler who viewed his party as the engine of Irish prosperity and social mobility. This looks very weird to outsiders that can’t tell the difference between his party and the one he’s fighting tooth-and-nail against.
Usually, neither of these parties can get a majority in parliament (the “Dáil”), and so they need to form coalitions with smaller parties. Currently, the third largest party is the left-wing and nationalist Sinn Féin (“ourselves”), and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are in a coalition government to prevent them from taking power. This is another respect in which Ireland is internationally unique: nationalism is associated with the left, and moderation with the right.
Another notable feature of the Irish political system is that specialist roles are given to ministers and not executive appointments. The president does not appoint ‘secretaries’, as happens in the US, but the governing coalition decides among itself who the ministers will be. This leads to a situation in which politicians with zero relevant experience are thrust into specialised roles. In one recent gaffe, the Minister for Health said that COVID-19 wouldn’t be as bad as people were expecting because of Ireland’s experience dealing with the previous eighteen coronaviruses. He described this incident as an “awful boo-boo”.
Although Ireland does have a president, the role is a formality required by the Irish constitution to approve the formation and dissolution of governments. The current president is an adorable old man who spends his time publishing poetry collections and playing with his dogs.
Political veterans like Charles Haughey may be ministers for three or more unrelated areas over their career. Here’s his relevant timeline:
Minister for Justice: 1961-1964
Minister for Agriculture: 1964-1966
Minister for Finance: 1966-1970
Minister for Social Welfare: 1977-1979
Minister for Health: 1977-1979
Minister for the Gaeltacht: 1987-1992
Haughey was also Taoiseach (equivalent to prime minister, pronounced “tea-shuck”) from 1979 to 1981, then again from 1982 to later in 1982, and from 1987 to 1992.
Haughey was among the three or four most influential figures in Irish politics ever. This was despite the fact that he was accused in 1970 of conspiring to smuggle weapons to the Irish Republican Army. How did he gain so much power? How did he come back from such a major scandal? Murphy begins the book with Haughey’s childhood and works his way through:
Haughey’s early life
While born in Mayo in the West of Ireland, Haughey grew up in Donnycarney, a working-class suburb in North Dublin. Dublin politics was at the time dominated by people from the much wealthier ‘South Side’. Haughey was keen to draw attention to this because of his meticulously crafted image as a humble everyman, which was at odds with his lavish spending and lifestyle.
Haughey studied at University College Dublin, where he met his future wife Maureen Lemass, daughter of future Taoiseach Seán Lemass. A common theme in Irish politics is political families, and Ireland is so small that many prominent individuals are related to each other. Lemass gave his son-in-law a leg up in politics, leading to a famous political moment in which he said to Haughey:
As Taoiseach it is my duty to offer you the post of parliamentary secretary, and as your father-in-law I am advising you not to take it.
He ended up taking it.
At UCD Haughey met his nemesis, Garret FitzGerald. FitzGerald would become the leader of Fine Gael and Ireland’s most intellectual Taoiseach. His rivalry with Haughey in many ways defined Irish politics in the 70s and 80s. In one infamous incident, Haughey purportedly burned the Union Jack on VE Day in 1945 – though Murphy says the evidence for this is speculative at best. Still, the mere fact that people widely believed this was indicative of his reputation at UCD.
During the “Emergency” (what Irish people call World War II), Haughey became an officer in the Local Defence Forces, and he climbed to the rank of Lieutenant. He considered joining the army full time, following in his father’s footsteps, who was an Officer for the Free State Army. The Free State Army was strongly associated with Fine Gael, which caused some friction between his son and the rest of Fianna Fáil.
After university, Haughey studied at the King’s Inns, the only institution in Ireland where you can qualify to become a barrister. At its zenith of occupational licensing, applying to the King’s Inns required a letter of recommendation from a graduate of at least ten years. Haughey also qualified as an accountant and briefly ran a small accountancy firm with his friend Harry Boland, a professional basketball player (!) from one of Fianna Fáil’s most influential families. Whatever you think of him, it is impressive how much stuff Haughey did.
You get the sense that Haughey was born for politics. He was charismatic. He was intelligent and ethically unscrupulous. And most of all, he was persistent. After holding an inconsequential ‘local councillor’ position, Haughey was finally elected as a TD (Teachta Dála, or “member of the Dáil”) in 1957, on his fourth attempt.
One would assume that having thick skin is key to being a successful politician. But Haughey did not. Or rather, he was inordinately bothered by what he perceived as lies about him in the media. He was a furious and prolific letter-writer, who would complain to the newspapers or state broadcasting company at the slightest provocation. Indeed, the extensive collection of letters forms the record on which Murphy wrote this biography.
Many countries suffer from over-politicisation, where entertainment and other media that should be non-political take on a substantial bias. Historically, Ireland had a problem of under-politicisation, though this has changed in recent years. A poll conducted in Haughey’s early career found that 65% of people thought that politics was so complicated that “people like me” can’t understand what’s going on. People didn’t know what the parties stood for, and often just voted for what their parents voted for (“I don’t know the difference, but my dad says the Fianna Fáil crowd are alright”). This equilibrium of low voter turnout suited the two major parties just fine. Although Fine Gael was less often in power, a politically engaged populace would have upset the gentleman’s agreement that sustained the two-and-a-half party system.
Haughey had several health problems, some of which arose from his tendency to drive “fearfully fast”. His brothers advised him to pick up a sport to be more relatable to the people, and so he started horse-riding. In a memorable episode, the government’s announcement of its budget for the year was delayed because Haughey, as Minister for Finance, fell off his horse.
Haughey had several accomplishments from his ministerial roles. One of his proudest was that, in his 1969 budget as Minister for Finance, Haughey abolished income tax for artists. This was viewed as so interesting and revolutionary that he was even invited to give a talk about it at Harvard.
Haughey had various schemes to make things free for certain groups, including free electricity for pensioners. The scheme that survived was free public transport for the over-65s, which the Haughey family describes as one of his greatest legacies.
There are whiffs of Robert Moses in Haughey’s ability to penetrate the bureaucracy and get things done. He substantially sped up the construction of Beaumont hospital by (get this) exactly copying the design of another hospital. Meanwhile, a new children’s hospital in Dublin is set to become one of the most expensive buildings in the world.
One of the Irish legislative accomplishments most widely remembered from this time was the introduction of free secondary education in 1966, which Haughey was a keen supporter of. This was a plan that was being considered by the government, but it wasn’t put into motion until Minister for Education Donogh O’Malley announced it at a dinner in front of lots of journalists, hoping that the government would be too embarrassed to back out.
As Minister for Justice, Haughey spearheaded the Succession Act, which safeguarded the rights of widows and children upon the death of the father. Before this, property in rural Ireland passed from eldest son to eldest son, and even wealthy women could be left destitute upon being widowed. Although it was passed under his successor, Haughey viewed the Act as essentially his.
It’s common for political leaders to manipulate the electoral system to their advantage. Fianna Fáil sort of tried to do this, with failed referendums to switch Ireland to a first past the post voting system in 1958 and 1968. This was understood to be a brazen attempt to ensure strong Fianna Fáil majorities in the medium-term. Haughey was mostly ambivalent about this, but went along with it because of his undying love for the party.
Ireland has since the end of the Second World War used a single transferable vote system. This has a mixed reputation among voting experts, but its relevant effect is that it leads to many different parties and independents, and, by extension, greater parochialism. I can’t overstate just how parochial politics in Ireland can be. Politicians frequently rise to the national level on the basis of minor local issues. One candidate ran in my constituency on the basis of getting an X-ray machine for one town’s health centre. It also means politicians have much less incentive to be nasty to each other than under first past the post. At one point, Garret FitzGerald described Haughey as having a “flawed pedigree”, and this insult was so devastating that Haughey was still mad about it twenty years later.
Haughey was considered a liberal element within Fianna Fáil on family planning because he supported the right for married couples to use contraception by prescription. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1979, and condoms could not be purchased by unmarried people until 1985. Politics and culture in Ireland were dominated by the Catholic Church, and they still have substantial influence in education, despite Ireland no longer being a particularly religious country.
In a 1973 Supreme Court ruling, the existing basis for outlawing contraception was deemed unconstitutional. Contraception was still inaccessible, but the government was concerned that the flimsy legal basis for this would be overturned by the European Court of Human Rights. Most Irish people and the Dáil supported new legislation to reintroduce restrictions, but no one wanted to be responsible for it. In 1979, Haughey, as Minister for Health, passed a convoluted family planning bill designed to satisfy various interest groups. Couples could now obtain contraception via prescription.
At this point, it perhaps will not surprise you to learn that Haughey had a 27-year-long extramarital affair with the socialite Terry Keane. However, he had no interest in ending his marriage, and it appears as though he didn’t speak about it with his wife even a single time.
The Arms Crisis
The most controversial episode in Haughey’s life was the ‘Arms Crisis’, in which he and the Minister for Agriculture Neil Blaney were arrested for allegedly conspiring to smuggle weapons to the IRA in Northern Ireland.
The context here is that, in 1969, the euphemistically-named Troubles broke out. These began after civil rights protests in Northern Ireland spiralled into riots and sectarianism, with a heavy-handed response by the British government. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (primarily drawn from local Protestants) and army (drawn from mainland Britain) were biased in favour of the Protestants, at times rather brutally oppressing the Catholic population. The Irish government felt they had to do something about this, but it was unclear what. Ireland has been neutral in all wars since World War I, and its army was small and poorly equipped (there were nonetheless Irish troops stationed along the border). Haughey was given discretionary funds to help Northern Catholics in whatever way he could.
This led to whispers within Fianna Fáil (the republican party) about importing arms to Northern Irish republicans. It’s debatable how serious they were about this, but a series of ambiguous phone calls led to army intelligence officer Jack Kelly, and Haughey’s brother Jock, travelling to London to arrange the purchase of weapons. They returned to Ireland after fearing they had been found out, as indeed happened. Blaney looks like the more guilty party here, and Haughey claimed that he thought the money would go to civilian use only (there were many refugees fleeing across the border).
Murphy’s view is that Haughey can’t have been fully aware of what was going on, because that would be an implausible degree of self-sabotage. More likely is that there was wrongdoing throughout some segment of Fianna Fáil, and the Taoiseach Jack Lynch wanted to end this suspicion by scapegoating Haughey and Blaney. It’s still unclear exactly what happened, in part because Haughey refused to answer questions about it.
By October 1970, all charges were dropped.
The soul of Fianna Fáil
Many leaders frame themselves as being against the elites. They do this even when they are themselves elites. Haughey did this to some extent, but it was of limited relevance because Ireland doesn’t really have an elite. I cannot stress to you how un-professionalised the Irish political class is. In a given year, as much as a fifth of the Dáil might be former teachers, and some of these people will go back to teaching after leaving office. The current Taoiseach used to be a secondary school teacher, and the one before that was a doctor. The pond is too small for there to be more than a very small number of career politicians in the same way there are in other countries.
Insofar as Haughey was countering the elites, it was the older, more established wing of Fianna Fáil. Jack Lynch, who preceded Haughey as Taoiseach, earmarked George Colley to take over from him, and when Haughey defeated Colley in the leadership contest in 1979, it was a big upset. Commentators described the leadership contest as a battle for the soul of Fianna Fáil. The message from Haughey was clear: I am the soul of Fianna Fáil.
Ireland: Neoliberal poster boy
Every ten years, Ireland switches from being Europe’s economic basket case to an international model to be emulated. Since independence, Ireland had been a semi-socialist country. It was not billed as such. The strong protectionism and prevalence of state-owned enterprises were motivated by fierce nationalism and a desire to maintain Ireland’s agrarian culture rather than an ideological commitment to socialism.
This began to change in 1958 with the publication of civil servant T.K. Whitaker’s Economic Development plan. This led to significant liberalisation in the Irish economy spearheaded by the Seán Lemass government (economist Tyler Cowen is a fan). Economic liberalisation worked spectacularly well. It was this success that allowed Haughey to paint an image of himself as being the figure who dragged Ireland, kicking and screaming, into modernity.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not highly ideological parties. They primarily stand for winning elections. Depending on the year, Haughey was a progressive Keynesian or a fiscal conservative. His vision was of a state that could create wealth, the “Irish way”. Arguably, Haughey’s greatest accomplishment was as a fiscal conservative, implementing the 1987-1989 ‘Tallaght Strategy’. This involved substantial cuts to taxes and public expenditure and is widely regarded as having rescued Ireland from a grim recession. The strategy actually came more from Fine Gael, but the two parties were then on the same page economically. Although these cuts no doubt had large costs, public spending was at the time out of control, having risen in twenty years from less than 30% to 55% of GNP.
Haughey’s controversies were unrivalled in 20th century Irish politics.
The strangest scandal occured when Haughey’s friend and Attorney General Patrick Connolly was found to be harbouring a man wanted for a series of grizzly murders. Haughey described the incident as “grotesque”, “unbelievable”, “bizarre”, and “unprecedented”, leading to the briefly popular acronym GUBU. My mother fondly recounted to me when she and her friends would describe anything outrageous as “totally GUBU”. Murphy’s view is that this was just an incredibly bizarre coincidence. Some of the details are lost to time.
Haughey’s first financial scandal involved the sale of his house at Grangemore in County Kildare for vastly more than he bought it. It was alleged that he benefited from insider trading because of information he had as Minister for Finance about the land being rezoned (he was cleared of all charges). Ireland has an infamously byzantine land use system, which combines an American-style zoning system with British-style planning permission. Many political scandals from this era relate to the bribery that was required to get certain buildings built, and the leakage of information about the rezoning of land. The brown envelope filled with cash is a cliché in Ireland.
His more consequential financial scandal was revealed by the McCracken and later the Moriarty tribunals, beginning in 1997. The largest single issue was the illegal donation of £1.3 million to Haughey from Ben Dunne, owner of the Dunnes Stores department store chain. A further £7.8 million came from other sources. Ireland has strict campaign financing rules, and, while the initial verdict was that Haughey did not exchange any political favours for the money he received, it turns out he probably did.
Haughey’s donations had something to do with the extensive borrowing with which he financed his luxurious lifestyle. Upon becoming Taoiseach for the first time in 1979, he was £1 million in debt to Anglo Irish Bank. At one point, he purchased a private island when he was already £600,000 in debt. Large amounts of his debt were written off, so it is mysterious why the bank kept giving him loans that they knew he couldn’t repay. One suspects foul play.
In the most despicable incident, Haughey transferred £200,000 from a fund to pay for his friend Brian Lenihan’s liver transplant into his personal bank account. Haughey described this fundraising as the “most compassionate thing I have ever done in my life”. Lenihan was Fianna Fáil’s candidate for president in 1990, but, during the campaign, it was discovered that he and others had attempted to pressure the president to refuse a dissolution of the Dáil requested by Garret FitzGerald (the president being explicitly political is a big constitutional no-no). Lenihan initially admitted to this, then changed his story, saying that on “mature recollection” he did not make the phone call. Under pressure from the Progressive Democrats, Fianna Fáil’s coalition partner, Haughey sacked Lenihan.
“The cat with the nine lives is gone”
Haughey’s downfall began with his decision to call an election in summer 1988 while he was Taoiseach in an attempt to gain a majority for Fianna Fáil. This was generally regarded as a bad move by everyone involved, and, sure enough, Fianna Fáil lost several seats from it. It became clear that Haughey was finally finished when it was revealed in 1992 that his Minister for Justice Seán Doherty had illegally tapped journalists’ phones ten years previously. The stated purpose of this was to prevent leaks of sensitive government information, which would have been allowed if it was approved by a judge, but Doherty sought no such authorisation. Doherty went back and forth about whether Haughey knew about his plan, depending on which groups he was trying to gain clout with. A government report concluded that Haughey didn’t know about the tappings, but it remains a live controversy today.
Upon learning of Haughey’s resignation, Bertie Ahern, the Minister for Finance, declared that “The cat with the nine lives is gone”. The Great Survivor of Irish politics was finally finished. Until his death in 2006, his life would be ravaged by revelations of one scandal after another.
I am probably the first person to take this lesson from Murphy’s book, but my conclusion is that effective altruism should be investing more of its efforts into policy in small countries. The competition in politics is disproportionately less than in larger nations. Ireland may be a hundred times less influential than America. But it is way more than a hundred times easier to become the Taoiseach of Ireland than the President of America. Ireland’s most selective university is Trinity College, yet neither Haughey nor FitzGerald went there, and they didn’t suffer one iota as a result. Neither did most TDs. This is in stark contrast to the dominance of Oxbridge in the UK and the Ivy League in America. Ireland gives lots of second chances.
Small countries can be a policy sandbox for the rest of the world. Haughey had a number of international admirers and had some interaction with the American political system, particularly Ted Kennedy and the other ‘Four Horsemen’ in Congress that represented Irish-American interests. Ireland is an international model for economic liberalisation. Deng Xiaoping’s economic policy was influenced by a delegation that he sent to the Shannon special economic zone, not far from where my father grew up.
Ideas diffuse quickly among Irish elites because there are so few of them. The pivot to the Tallaght Strategy in 1987 was rapid, and there are many examples of single thinkers or newspapers having a big influence. Small countries have many more legislators per capita, who are correspondingly more accessible. Anyone can walk into the office of their local TD, though approximately no one uses this opportunity to make an intellectually rigorous argument about how to achieve some policy goal. The structure of international institutions is such that smaller nations have a disproportionate influence; Ireland is relatively influential in the EU and UN.
Gary Murphy has come to know Charles Haughey about as well as it is possible to know a man that he never met. I can’t especially recommend his book, unless you are really into Irish political history. But if you are, it’s a delight. Ireland is a nation obsessed with its history, probably excessively so. My grandmother would talk your ear off about Haughey’s scandals, some thirty years later.
There are many good books about Irish history. This is one of them.