BOOK REVIEW / Hunter with a wolf in the stomach: 'Haughey: His Life and Unlucky Deeds' - Bruce Arnold: HarperCollins, 17.50 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE OLDER Greek tyrants sought reputation by encouraging the arts, and to perpetuate their name by splendid monuments. Charles J Haughey, until recently the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), encouraged the arts in like manner. He enhanced his reputation early by making Ireland a tax- free haven for writers, painters and musicians. During his rule, great and costly buildings were erected, not least a particularly grand prime ministerial one. Was Haughey a tyrant?

In the closing chapters of this absorbing book, Bruce Arnold describes an incident that may indicate an answer. Ireland, he writes, was clearly in trouble at the end of the Haughey years: 'Scandals were punctuating the life of the country with the dull thump of some underground sewage pump, flushing out the evidence of an unplumbed and immeasurable cesspool.' Haughey was irascible. When Don Lydon, a member of the Irish Senate, made a controversial speech on Northern Ireland, Haughey summoned him to his office, berated him and waved him away. Lydon, a professor of psychology, was unable to find the door in the panelled wall: 'Haughey looked up from his desk a couple of minutes later to find the forlorn senator still in his presence] 'What are you still doing here?' he demanded. 'I can't find the door, Taoiseach,' responded Lydon. 'Then why don't you jump out the fucking window?' snapped Haughey.'

Arnold limits such anecdotes to a minimum - wisely enough, since to have done otherwise would distract us from the powerfully disturbing central narrative. If revelations concerning the Taoiseach's less public pursuits are jejune and meagre, the skilful account of how Haughey rose and fell is adequate compensation. Here is a man who danced, drank and rode to hounds and, in his reach for power, did not bother to hide the wolf in his stomach; whose fastidiousness was, at best, fitful; who at times seemed incapable of sober reflection, and whose eccentric course and portentous glare disturbed the system and affrighted the land.

In its short history, the Irish Republic has not produced truly great political visionaries (de Valera's vision was clouded by the church thurible). It has produced people widely admired:

Garret FitzGerald, Mary Robinson, Desmond O'Malley, Conor Cruise O'Brien, to name but a few. But one cannot point to a leader of the foremost rank: a wit, a jurist, a statesman, an orator, a logician, someone with strong, cogent reasoning - a surprising vacuum, given the luminaries Ireland has propelled across other stages.

Yet Haughey probably will be remembered, if only for his outrageousness and secretiveness. Despite his strut and swagger, he remains, in Arnold's view, a man whose 'capacity for acquiring substantial wealth has never been explained satisfactorily'. He bought an island off the Kerry coast, forbidden to all but family and closest friends. He preferred platitudes to open argument. The wise, the good and the virtuous found themselves yielding to a person whom they saw as an upstart, a demagogue who took his country to market down shaded roads. Clever and well-educated, he nevertheless affected alternately to despise and disdain what he could not avoid enduring, such as criticism.

Haughey 'wanted what dictators want: absolute power', Arnold says. Having got his foot in the door by marrying the daughter of Sean Lemass, de Valera's Fianna Fail successor, he got his ministerial fingers burnt in a scheme to run arms to beleaguered Ulster Catholics. He split open his head by falling off his horse. In the end even his elbows let him down.

As business scandals mounted in 1991, there were fears that the Taoiseach, once indestructible, would be seen as an Irish Gylippus, a hero exposed by his own venality. Without evidence to support such a view, Haughey's party and the Irish people nevertheless finally looked up and gestured towards the window.