Ireland's old Machiavelli keeps mum on cash scandal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
At his palatial mansion in north Dublin, the former taoiseach Charles Haughey was observing a vow of silence yesterday over suggestions in a magazine that he was the Fianna Fail politician who received more than pounds 1m in secret payments from the supermarket executive Ben Dunne.

The revelation that fat cheques from Mr Dunne went across the political spectrum is turning into the biggest and most compelling political intrigue in Ireland for years.

Although no definitive statement was forthcoming from either the retired politician or his solicitors, a source close to the former party leader said he was strongly denying that he was the recipient.

Every conversation in Ireland this week has seemed to begin with "Well, who is it?" or a triumphant "Did you hear who it is?". Excitement was such that when the actor John Hurt walked into a Dublin pub popular with press and politicians, no one batted an eyelid. Moments later, when the reporter who broke the payments scandal entered, the bar erupted in cheering.

The idea that one of the holy mysteries of Irish life, the source of Charles Haughey's considerable wealth, was taking another turn turned a glowing ember into a bushfire of frenzied speculation.

Agreeing that Mr Haughey was being dogged by "innuendo and rumour", the present Fianna Fail opposition leader, Bertie Ahern, said only publication of the accountants' report's behind the payments scandal could halt the rumours.

Price Waterhouse was called in to investigate how the family-owned supermarket and drapery group had been run by Mr Dunne soon after he was replaced by his elder sister Margaret Heffernan in 1993. The unpublished report is alleged to disclose payments to politicians, a newspaper executive and senior business figures by Mr Dunne, who was ousted from the chairman's seat after a cocaine-and-drinks scandal in 1992 involving a Florida call- girl.

It had been widely known before that that Mr Dunne was fond of high- stakes gambling with other millionaires. On golf courses he would bet thousands on each hole.

As state lawyers and the Dunnes' advisers last night resumed discussions, government sources said the family "were adopting a very constructive and realistic attitude" to publication.

Confidence in Irish politicians has rarely been at such a low ebb. After the transport minister, Michael Lowry, quit last weekend following allegations that he received pounds 208,000 from Mr Dunne, Mr Ahern told the Dail: "We cannot allow political lynchings or mob justice, or to have ministers sink beneath the waves of media hysteria and feeding frenzy."

The Taoiseach, John Bruton, early yesterday confirmed his Fine Gael party obtained pounds 180,000 in contributions from Mr Dunne from 1987, but denied they were in return for promises of influence over policy decisions.

Mr Haughey, 71, held agriculture, finance, health and social welfare ministries before becoming premier in 1979. Along the way, the Irish public came to associate him with a lavish lifestyle and spending money. How, Dubliners wondered, could someone in public office acquire a 250-acre estate in north Dublin complete with one of the capital's finest 18th century private houses and glorious gardens? (He later added a stud farm and wildlife reserve.)

How could he afford a yacht, his own island off Kerry and a holiday home there? How could he fund top-class race horses, fine restaurants and enjoy the company of attractive women?

He had married well, to Maureen Lemass, daughter of an earlier taoiseach. Mr Haughey had rumoured links to Dublin property developers. People marvelled at how he sustained his lifestyle on a paltry Dail salary.

Mr Haughey's ascent was delayed by the drama of the 1970 arms trial, which left "the whiff of gunpowder" on his image, though he was acquitted of gun-running.

In 1988 it emerged that a visiting Saudi prince had bestowed a pounds 150,000 diamond necklace and ear-rings on Mrs Haughey which were not left in state hands as protocol required. In the 1989 election an extravagantly funded campaign (locals reported "a river of Guinness ran through Dublin North-East") failed to get Mr Haughey's youngest child Sean into the Dail. He made it in 1992, his third attempt.

Once-sympathetic commentators accused him of a "Me Fein" (myself alone) mentality. Mr Haughey sketches in popular radio satire dwelling on the sexual legend as much as the great statesman, were now accompanied by The Godfather theme music. (Mr Haughey was portrayed with unnerving effect by Dermot Morgan, now Channel 4's "Father Ted".)

Public cynicism refused to go away. Mr Haughey's character in itself became a national issue which divided the voters. In elections canvassers for his party were rebuffed with the words "I wouldn't give him the itch if I thought he would get warm on a cold day scratching himself". His party's patience finally ran out and in January 1992 it bade him farewell.

Mr Haughey left the Dail that November, seemingly happy in patrician retirement, sailing around the Irish coast, riding his horse along Portmarnock Strand, and fund-raising for Ireland's National Gallery. That peace has now been shattered.

He survived so many "heaves" against his leadership that supporters once paraded with wry placards reading "Vilification Once Again", a play on the Republican anthem "A Nation Once Again". Under siege this week, it is a fair bet the man himself is now uttering those very words.

Hamish McRae, page 23