Sean Doherty

Politician who betrayed Charles Haughey

Seán Doherty, politician: born Cootehall, Co Roscommon 29 June 1944; TD (Fianna Fáil) for Roscommon-Leitry 1977-89, 1992-2002; Minister for Justice 1982; married (four daughters); died Letterkenny, Co Donegal 7 June 2005.

The Irish politician Seán Doherty enjoyed in the words of the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern "a career that had its full share of controversy". This was if anything an understatement, since he was at the centre of some of the most sensational events of modern political history in the Irish Republic. While he had great roguish charm he also had many roguish habits, using his position as Justice Minister to exercise political interference in policing under cover of spurious "state security" considerations.

His career was closely bound up with that of the disgraced former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who first promoted him but then later allowed him to take the rap for their joint wrongdoing. At first loyal to a fault and then increasingly disgruntled, an embittered Doherty finally blew the whistle with a revelation which ended Haughey's career and led to his resignation as Taoiseach.

Doherty started out as a policeman, serving first on the beat and then in the Special Branch. Then he left the force and quickly built up a strong base in the Fianna Fáil party in his native County Roscommon. He was widely regarded as an intelligent and astute man who none the less did whatever Haughey instructed him to do. Advancement quickly followed so that by 1982 Haughey had made him Minister for Justice after just a few years in the Dáil.

The early 1980s were a fevered time in Irish politics, with continuing internal Fianna Fáil "heaves" to depose Haughey. The almost paranoid Haughey camp radiated a distinct air of menace, one Dublin journalist recalling being told by the Minister for Justice: "I know all about your family, all about you."

Doherty was involved in a number of shady episodes in which police and security powers were used for party-political advantage. But the biggest problem for himself and Haughey came when it was disclosed that Doherty had signed warrants for police to tap the telephones of two senior political journalists, Bruce Arnold of the Irish Independent and Geraldine Kennedy, now Editor of the Irish Times. Haughey denied all knowledge of this and for 10 years Doherty loyally maintained he had acted alone. But in 1992, increasingly embittered and feeling abandoned, Doherty went on television to say that Haughey knew all about the phone-tapping. He added that he had personally handed Haughey transcripts of phone calls. Haughey stuck to blanket denials but few believed him and he was forced to resign from office and from politics. The journalists later received compensation, a judge saying their right to privacy had been infringed "consciously, deliberately and without justification".

In his later career Doherty achieved a limited political comeback, unexpectedly impressing many with his parliamentary contributions. But his association with the murky 1980s never faded, and he resigned from politics in 2002.

As is often the case in Irish politics, disapproval at a national level stood in contrast to scarcely undiminished admiration in his own heartland. This week the landlord of one of his local pubs told a local paper: "In Roscommon he was a saint, even if they thought he was a bit of a divil in other parts of the country."

David McKittrick

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