Charles Haughey

Architect of Ireland's economic revival whose career was tarnished by allegations of corruption
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Charles James Haughey, politician: born Castlebar, Co Mayo 16 September 1925; called to the Irish Bar 1949; Member (Fianna Fáil), Dáil Eireann for Dublin North-East 1957-77, for Dublin North Central 1977-92; Minister for Justice 1961-64; Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries 1964-66; Minister for Finance 1966-70; Minister for Health and Social Welfare 1977-79; Leader of Fianna Fáil Party 1979-92; Taoiseach (Prime Minister) 1979-81, 1982, 1987-92; married 1951 Maureen Lemass (three sons, one daughter); died Kinsealy, Co Dublin 13 June 2006.

Throughout his long career in Irish politics Charles Haughey elicited at the same time adulation and outrage. Four times Taoiseach (prime minister), he courted glory and disaster equally through conduct that often suggested a preoccupation with grand appearances over solid convictions. Yet in his last two governments he redirected a lethargic state-dominated economy into a sustained export-led boom that halted decades of mass emigration.

Admirers felt his commitment and ambitions for Ireland dwarfed those of less imaginative rivals camped permanently on the high moral ground. But, unable as he was to resist regal living, his image increasingly became that of a "kept" politician.

Born in 1925, he was the third of the seven children of Johnny Haughey and Sarah McWilliams, both from County Londonderry. His father, an IRA veteran, later a commandant in the new Irish Army, quit the service in 1928, moved to Meath to farm, but developed multiple sclerosis. On a small income, they settled in north Dublin.

Excelling at his Catholic Christian Brothers school, Charles won a scholarship to University College Dublin, studying commerce. UCD's comfortable Fine Gael party bias fuelled a dislike of entrenched privilege and what he saw as Britain's malign influence. When Trinity College Dublin students hung Allied flags on VE Day 1945, their UCD contemporaries protested. Haughey set fire to a Union flag, prompting a minor riot.

Supporters claimed his motive was defence of Irish independence rather than anti-Britishness. But, as with the paying of respects to the German Ambassador on Hitler's death a few days later by the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil (FF) founder Eamon de Valera, the distinction could be so fine as to be almost invisible.

A keen sportsman, Haughey won a Dublin senior Gaelic football medal in 1945. He went out with Joan O'Farrell, later to marry the Fine Gael leader Garret Fitzgerald, and Maureen Lemass, the Taoiseach Sean Lemass's daughter, whom he married. He formed an accountancy firm in 1951 with Harry Boland, son of an FF minister, Haughey courting new clients while colleagues did the number-crunching. Business prospered and in 1960 he bought Grangemore, a large Victorian Dublin home with a 45-acre estate, for £50,000, selling it for £200,000 in 1969.

Charles Haughey's public career spanned five decades, from reaching the Dáil, the Irish parliament, in 1957 at the fourth attempt, until retirement in 1992. Early on he hired PR help to promote himself, then a novel tactic for a backbencher.

Made justice minister in 1961, he effectively abolished capital punishment. Introducing a succession act in 1964 unsettled conservative propertied interests, but rescued badly off female dependents. Putting the reforming Judge Brian Walsh into the Supreme Court revived individual rights dormant within the constitution.

Haughey acted decisively against violent republicanism. He opened the Special Criminal Court (then made up of army officers) to try IRA suspects. In February 1962 the IRA abandoned its five-year border offensive. Haughey's response was that the use of violence had contributed to "the perpetuation instead of the abolition of the border".

At Agriculture from 1964, he brought in farmers' dole but faced lengthy protests over milk prices. He now led a brash set of rising FF ministers associated with new money known as "the men in mohair suits", who partied enthusiastically at Dublin hotels. His senior adviser Martin Mansergh later wrote that they "did not hold much store by political correctness and did not retire early to bed".

His father-in-law's retirement in 1966 as Taoiseach saw FF split on a successor between the modernising Haughey and the traditionalist George Colley. Having declared his interest, Haughey stood aside, letting in the compromise candidate Jack Lynch, who named him finance minister.

Economic revival gave free rein to Haughey's progressive if not egalitarian inclinations - possibly influenced by his own upbringing on a Spartan council estate in Donnycarney, north Dublin. He brought in free public transport and television licences for pensioners along with concessions on fuel and telephone charges. Deserted wives' allowances and tax-free status for certain writers and artists followed.

Freeing writers and artists from income tax boosted Ireland's image as a civilised country friendly to culture (though in practice few were in the Frederick Forsyth bracket of best-sellers who regularly earned enough to be taxable). "He genuinely liked the Bohemian atmosphere of being around poets and painters," an acquaintance recalls.

Party funds were sought from emerging entrepreneurs through the so-called "Taca" business lunch club, which did no harm at all to donors' chances of securing public contracts. As one Haughey crony, the late education minister Donogh O'Malley, cheerfully put it, "When all other things are equal, we give it [business] to our people."

These were heady times for the Haugheys. In 1969 they acquired a 280-acre estate with a 10-bedroom Georgian mansion, Abbeville, at Kinsealy, north of Dublin, designed by James Gandon and once home of British Ascendancy politicians. They paid just £120,000 for the property, expensively refurbishing it. Racehorses, adjacent houses for his children, a yacht and a private Kerry island with new holiday home followed. A helicopter firm was set up for his son Ciaran, supported by associates of his father, as was a mining company headed by his eldest son, Conor.

Despite his abilities, mistrust of Haughey was rife. Gerry Boland in 1960 predicted he would "drag down the party [FF] in the mire". In 1967 his one-time class-mate George Colley, later finance minister, equated Haughey with "low standards in high places".

Multiple disasters struck him. After a 1968 car crash he almost died. He was then badly hurt in a riding accident on the morning of Budget Day 1970. Then came the Arms Trial, Ireland's greatest political crisis since Independence in 1922.

It arose from Dublin cabinet plans to aid nationalists in Northern Ireland after loyalist mobs and RUC "B Specials" besieged Catholic areas in August 1969. Haughey controlled funds for relief of distress with joint authority to prepare the Irish Army for "contingency" situations. Dublin allowed Derry men to receive arms training in Donegal; 500 rifles were moved to Dundalk by the Irish Army; in February 1970 the defence minister Jim Gibbons ordered army preparations for Northern engagement.

The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was told of the arms-importation plan by the Irish Special Branch (with whose surveillance the actual landing was aborted) in April 1970. Some alleged he knew in September 1969 that an army officer was preparing arms supplies for Catholics' defence, as demanded by mainstream figures including Gerry (later Lord) Fitt. Lynch was apparently set to ignore the matter until the leader of the Dáil Opposition, Fine Gael's Liam Cosgrave, intervened. How Cosgrave heard remains a mystery.

Haughey, recovering from his riding accident, saw Lynch in hospital. Refusing to resign, he was sacked, with the agriculture minister Neil Blaney. The local government minister Kevin Boland resigned in protest. Blaney and Boland wanted an interventionist policy sending Irish troops into Derry.

All this implied strong cabinet opposition to Lynch. Critics felt his caution, wary of Northern tensions spilling south, had added to the crisis. One camp saw Haughey and Blaney as protectors of beleaguered nationalists; the other held Lynch's move essential to law and order. The rift festered inside FF for two decades.

A sense of anarchy now gripped the country in the summer and early autumn of 1970, with daily rumours in the Dáil of imminent government collapse or a coup by Irish Army officers. Charged with conspiracy to illegally import weapons, Haughey denied knowing arms were involved in relief consignments. Acquitted, he invited Lynch to resign. In polls Lynch won 72 per cent backing; only 1 per cent of FF voters wanted Haughey as Taoiseach.

Not previously noted for ardent nationalism (interventions on Northern issues were mainly limited to party leaders), Haughey now carried "a whiff of sulphur" with him into the wilderness. He pursued a new power base, relentlessly touring the country and addressing strongly republican local FF activists. He rejected partition emphatically; Northern Ireland was, he maintained, "a failed political entity".

Documents uncovered by the RTE current affairs programme Prime Time in December 2001 showed there was in fact an Irish cabinet decision in 1970 authorising the distribution of arms if necessary to besieged nationalists in Northern Ireland. This directly conflicts with the version of events set out by the then dominant Lynch faction in Fianna Fáil and by Lynch supporters ever since. Some now believe the Irish commitment to the UN Charter required the suppression of any plans for incursions into a neighbouring state.

With Irish EU entry in 1973, billions in Brussels aid improved infrastructure and rural incomes, but inadvertently precipitated over a decade of prodigal state spending. Haughey's career coincided with a rigidly conformist society's giving way to an educated European democracy, ending de Valera's pursuit of an avowedly Catholic society. His generation had grown up to fear gardai (police). Haughey recalled: "In my day if a guard said to you, 'Fuck off', you fucked off as quick as you could." His close friends were similarly self-made men: car dealers, developers and solicitors.

Recalled to cabinet at Health after FF regained power in 1977, he expanded free hospital services and cut cigarette consumption by curtailing advertising. His relations with the Catholic Church were pragmatic. Acknowledging public demand, his "Irish solution to an Irish problem" permitted limited contraception (condoms were outlawed in 1935), on prescription for married couples only.

Haughey's appreciation of female company became popular legend. Even a lifelong lesbian admitted, "He has the ability to make you feel you're the only woman in the room." A sculpture of a bull was conspicuous in his office. His lover for 27 years, the high-living fashion and gossip columnist Terry (Teresa) Keane, estranged wife of a prominent judge, became a celebrity. Haughey featured in her column simply as "Sweetie". She made the liaison public in the press in 1999, photos and all, to pre-empt a rival's book. Details of furtive trysts in borrowed houses, island trips and Paris and New York weekends had Ireland riveted, even if it was not all news.

Haughey replaced Lynch as FF leader and Taoiseach in 1979 amid dark rumours. Suspicions lingered that President Patrick Hillery's 1979 problems over an alleged affair, flatly denied, with an unnamed Italian woman had emanated from black propaganda manufactured to lever Lynch in as his replacement and Haughey in as Taoiseach. Hillery later gave some credence to this theory. These events coincided with Haughey's worsening personal debt problems. Hillery held on, but Lynch soon quit after two by-election defeats.

Character doubts kept resurfacing. Opposing his election as premier in 1979, Garret Fitzgerald of Fine Gael spoke of his "flawed pedigree". A voter, asked if he backed Haughey, famously replied, "I wouldn't give him the itch if I thought he'd get warm on a cold day scratching himself."

The first Haughey-led government (December 1979 to June 1981) saw an initially hopeful phase of Dublin-London co-operation, assisted by Haughey's gift of a Georgian silver teapot. But progress stalled as Margaret Thatcher shied at the extent of Haughey's plans to move the constitutional furniture. After discreet efforts to resolve IRA hunger strikes collapsed, London went its own way, with disastrous results. But co-operation begun there would later, after the anger sparked by Thatcher's obdurate 1984 "Out, Out, Out" reaction to the New Ireland Forum, consolidate into an eventually viable process.

Haughey's second government (February to November 1982) was near-catastrophic, dogged by "GUBUs", Haughey's own description ("grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented") of when a murderer was caught staying in the attorney general's flat. Journalists' phones were tapped, party dissidents were threatened, there was political interference in the gardai, and Haughey's constituency agent (promptly nicknamed "Pat O'Connor, Pat O'Connor") was caught double-voting. Haughey was roasted in London for not backing Britain's Falklands invasion, a stance echoing de Valera's rigid Second World War neutrality.

In the early Eighties pressures closed in. Haughey's sons were roughed up by republicans critical of his withholding support for IRA hunger-strikers. Debts mounted and party enemies, including former Lynch supporters, three times sought his removal. His colourful spokesman P.J. Mara demanded unity, invoking the old Italian Fascist slogan "Uno duce, una voce", then adding, "In other words there'll be no more nibbling at my leader's bum." The pro-FF daily Irish Press prematurely published Haughey's political obituary. Henceforth headline writers nicknamed him "Houdini".

At the New Ireland Forum (created to bolster the constitutional nationalism against Sinn Fein's threat) Haughey rigidly stuck to reunification as his only Northern remedy. But back in power in 1987 he operated the more pragmatic Anglo-Irish Agreement. Sensing Sinn Fein might yet enter the democratic fold, he also quietly fostered third-party contacts to encourage an IRA ceasefire, a prize delivered to his successor Albert Reynolds in August 1994.

With the IRA heavily re-armed by Libya, progress had seemed unlikely. Haughey's relations with London soured over non-extradition of terrorist suspects such as Father Patrick Ryan, security forces' behaviour in Northern Ireland, and a London minister held to have invited the murder of the Belfast Catholic solicitor Pat Finucane. Haughey, a red rag to Unionists, never won the trust of the UUP leader James Molyneaux.

Haughey's baleful laser stare and volcanic temper were famous. A FF senator, called for a dressing-down (after breaking a cardinal rule that only Haughey as leader could determine or comment on Northern Ireland policy), made to leave. A couple of minutes later Haughey looked up, saw he was still there, and asked why. Amid all the wood panelling the poor man could not find the door. Haughey bellowed: "Then why don't you jump out the fucking window."

With FF never united behind him, a split came in 1986 led by the former justice minister Des O'Malley, over his leader's capitulation to divisive Catholic dogma in opposing openly available contraception. Haughey never won an overall Dáil majority in five general elections as leader. But, as the Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald's inept economic management compounded recession with extra taxation, Haughey's opposition star recovered.

Even rivals accept Haughey's 1987-92 government was dynamic, building Ireland's resurgence on new pillars of financial services, electronics, software, tourism and pharmaceuticals. He traded tax cuts for wage controls from unions in an enduring pact that brought stability, curbing inflation and interest rates. He also lowered spending and runaway overseas debt, guided by the no-nonsense finance minister Ray MacSharry.

Luring foreign investment with low corporation tax and cheap labour underpinned Ireland's boom from the early 1990s. Haughey set up a new low-tax haven, Dublin's International Financial Services Centre, creating thousands of jobs. Tax incentives fuelled a building upsurge, confirming him as an effective administrator with a keen business sense.

Haughey secured EU aid for transport and a series of major Irish heritage projects, turning inner Dublin's old Temple Bar quarter into a tourist area, averting its demolition for a vast bus station. He had the 1684 Royal Hospital (a replica of Les Invalides in Paris) restored to become the Irish Museum of Modern Art. He pushed for important Celtic artefacts held abroad to be returned. A favoured project was the major expansion of Ireland's National Gallery, initiated under his premiership.

Though leader of a business-inclined right-of-centre party, initially supported by small farmers and urban labour, he mainly admired pragmatists of the centre left: Delors, Mitterrand, Hawke, Schmidt and Gorbachev. Another small leader with grand ambitions, Napoleon Bonaparte, also fascinated him.

His authority declined after a mishandled 1989 election and a coalition deal that alienated senior FF ministers opposed to sharing power with O'Malley's new Progressive Democrats. Critics felt Haughey delayed difficult decisions until they became crises, though ill-health may have played a part. In 1989 a serious respiratory disease had close friends at his bedside amid fears for his life.

In November 1990, as the price of retaining power, he jettisoned the popular if bumbling Brian Lenihan, then pursuing the presidency later won by Mary Robinson after a public gaffe. Dublin papers spoke of "political cannibalism". Editorials cited a "me fein" (myself alone) mentality whereby Haughey set his own interest above all else. Support declined further as he spurned retirement, remarking whimsically, "Some Chinese leaders go on into their eighties . . ."

His craving for public approbation was clear at FF party events and beyond. During the 1990 Irish EU presidency he revelled in an aura of regal authority at Dublin Castle summits. After the Irish soccer team's final 1990 World Cup, coinciding with the end of the presidency, he made an embarrassing lap of honour around Rome's Olympic Stadium.

In April 1990 Haughey became involved in post-Berlin Wall diplomacy, helping clear the way for German reunification by convening a special summit in Dublin which formally delivered EU approval, despite Margaret Thatcher's voluble reservations. Relations with Thatcher had not significantly improved. At a 1989 Rhodes summit Thatcher's camp intimated he would be getting a "handbagging" over extradition difficulties. Haughey let it be known there would be no meeting "for reasons of personal convenience".

Haughey was now being satirised in a now legendary radio portrayal by the late Dermot Morgan (subsequently C4's "Father Ted"). One moment the bilious Morgan/Haughey was being worshipped at Sunday mass by adoring Cork City shawlies shrieking, "I have an affliction, CJ! Cure me, CJ!" The next he was growling about the uncultured English: "What are they? A nation of nobodies driving round the Midlands on Sunday afternoons in their Austin Allegros looking for Texas Homecare."

With Ireland glued to its radios during the broadcasts (tapes were despatched weekly to all Irish embassies abroad) by 1991 it was clear this satire was reinforcing Haughey's sense of public invincibility. When FF plotters met that autumn in a Dublin hotel to prepare his downfall, one present, Padraig Flynn (later an EU Commissioner), signed a visitors' book, "With friends, making history", as if Mao himself were in their sights. Once again they failed.

Haughey eventually quit at the end of January 1992 after his former justice minister Seán Doherty implicated him in the 1982 phone-tapping affair. Haughey still denied involvement, but his unconvinced junior coalition partners forced him out. He was replaced as Fianna Fáil leader and as Taoiseach by Albert Reynolds.

Since the Sixties the mystery of Haughey's wealth had caused endless speculation. By the 1980s his household outgoings exceeded £300,000 a year. He dined at haute cuisine restaurants, kept a cellar of classic wines, and had silk shirts made to order at Charvet in Paris. He even had an in-house pub installed. How could a limited Dáil salary support a life style on a par with that of minor European royalty?

The truth only emerged in 1996 when a row within the Dunnes Stores supermarket family dynasty (sparked by a Florida cocaine, drink and call-girl scandal involving their chief executive Ben Dunne) exposed gifts of £1.3m to Haughey. Dunne once handed him bank drafts for £210,000 saying, "Here's something for yourself", Haughey replying, "Thanks a million, big fella." The tax status conferred on the Dunnes' family trust attracted particular media scrutiny.

It emerged that Haughey's friend the late banker and businessman Des Traynor had long been garnering secret donations for him. These were lodged offshore in so-called Ansbacher deposits, accounts held by a Cayman Islands bank Traynor founded, linked to an Irish bank he managed. By 1989 these held at least £38m on behalf of several wealthy Irish businessmen.

Haughey was revealed to have had a seven-figure overdraft while telling the nation on television in 1980 to tighten their belts. He had settled his £1.14m debt with Allied Irish Banks for just £750,000. Bank memos said Haughey "became quite vicious" when pressed for payment. He had been lucky; had the bank moved earlier to recover all its cash he could have been bankrupted and forced out of politics. A perceptive columnist would later conclude that Haughey's fearsome defence of his power was driven by his need for large amounts of cash, which would cease to be available if he were deposed.

These discoveries, after Haughey's retirement, prompted successive tribunals of inquiry. At first he denied everything: "My work was my life. There was no room for an extravagant life style," he claimed. Left-wing demonstrators threw pennies at him and demanded his imprisonment. When he was charged with obstructing one tribunal, his trial was abandoned after public comments by a deputy premier were ruled prejudicial.

But the tribunals uncovered widespread bribes to rezone land from farming to residential use, enriching several politicians. Certain donations to FF were lodged into the Opposition Leader's account controlled by Haughey, including £140,000 from a building-society chief. Matching sums later withdrawn were used by Haughey personally.

Tribunal interest was drawn to a fund, overseen by Haughey, which raised £200,000 for the foreign minister Brian Lenihan's 1989 liver transplant in the United States. Mark Kavanagh, whose firm Hardwicke jointly built the docklands IFSC, gave £100,000 on election day in 1989, a quarter earmarked for Lenihan. But, when Lenihan's £80,000 medical bills were paid, another £120,000 from the fund appeared unaccounted for.

A sting in the tail came with tax demands. The £1.6m undisclosed gifts from Ben Dunne, with interest and penalties, prompted a tax settlement in 2000 of £1,009,435, raised through selling a small parcel of Haughey land. Eventually, in 2003, having sold Abbeville for €45m (£31m) but retained the right to live in the house, Haughey paid €5m in a final tax settlement.

To the end he remained controversial. The Moriarty Tribunal investigating payments to politicians still continues, but long hampered by the limited testimony of Haughey, said even in 2000 to be terminally ill with prostate cancer.

On resigning as Taoiseach in 1992 he had quoted Shakespeare's Othello: "I have done the state some service; they know't. No more of that." Leaving such a farewell, he did not expect to be making unsavoury headlines years afterwards. Charles Haughey was perhaps Ireland's most able modern leader and an architect of its economic revival. But the millions in secret donations left voters wondering whether the state had served Haughey more than Haughey had served it.

Alan Murdoch