After a life of comebacks and kick-backs, former Irish PM Haughey dies, aged 80

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The Independent Online

The former Irish prime minister Charles J Haughey died yesterday at the age of 80, leaving behind a reputation as one of the most divisive elements ever seen in Irish politics, inspiring fierce loyalty, but also fear and loathing.

His lengthy and extraordinary career, which included three terms as Taoiseach, was littered with political convulsion, numerous defeats and scarcely believable comebacks.

The many tributes paid to him yesterday studiously avoided criticism of his record, in line with the Irish tradition of refraining from speaking ill of the recently deceased.

He was in effect Ireland's Richard Nixon, constantly embroiled in heated disputes, constantly denying wrongdoing.

Like Nixon, his career ended ultimately in disgrace, and also like Nixon it looked at one stage as though his misdeeds would put him behind bars.

But he escaped the ignominy of prison, even though a legal tribunal continues to burrow into his murky world of bribery and corruption, tax evasion and illicit favours to big business.

His behaviour not only seared Dublin politics, but also had serious effects on the Northern Ireland Troubles and Anglo-Irish relations. His effect on Dublin politics was regarded by some observers as so baleful that it posed a threat to the country's political processes.

His activities brought allegations of gun-running for the IRA and of financial corruption on a massive scale. The truth about the first remains shrouded in mystery, but the second has been comprehensively established.

Like Nixon, he was involved in bugging the telephones of those he regarded as enemies, in his case journalists. Unlike Nixon he eventually, when cornered, admitted he was a crook, escaping jail by the skin of his teeth.

One of the most frequently heard comments about him in recent times is that Ireland will never see his like again: certainly that is the fervent hope of most in public and political life.

His eventual ruin had its seeds in an extraordinary character defect which led him to the unshakeable belief that he was an exceptional individual not bound by the rules of society and politics. His downfall lay in his breathtaking contempt for the norms.

His long career was punctuated by scandals, mysteries and allegations of wrongdoings and irregularities. And in addition to his misdeeds he brought a sinister tone to political life, exuding engefulness and even menace.

His party, Fianna Fail, had a history of flinty austerity and rectitude. Haughey changed all that in the 1960s, bringing a new strain of nastiness into Irish politics along with a culture of bribes, backhanders and shady relationships with businessmen.

As a result he was publicly disgraced several years ago when forced to admit to accepting millions from businessmen. In return he had personally intervened to cut their tax bills significantly. He needed such money to fund a fabulously extravagant life. He lived in a minor stately home at Kinsealy in north Dublin, kept expensive bloodstock, rode to hounds, favoured the finest champagne and filled his home wih a treasury of paintings and sculpture.

His shirts were hand-made by Charvet of Paris, he maintained a yacht, and owned a magnificently windswept island off Ireland's west coast. He also maintained a semi-public mistress who for years coquettishly alluded to their sexual and social exploits in a Dublin newspaper column.

The supreme irony was that he was simultaneously lecturing the Irish public that spending cuts were necessary because voters were living beyond their means.

His personal character meant that a powerful section of his party, Fianna Fail, the largest in the Irish Republic, never accepted his leadership. From early in his career the party was irrevocably split into pro-Haughey and anti-Haughey factions.

As a consequence his years as its leader were littered with generally unsuccessful internal "heaves" against him. These were accompanied by savage internal battles - contests which Haughey, with his legendarily ruthless in-fighting skills - generally won.

Fianna Fail has recovered from the years when this civil war raged within its ranks and today leads the Irish Republic's coalition government. But the shadow of Haughey will be long remembered in Ireland.

His reputation as a politician who was prepared to cut corners was actually an advantage for much of his career, with Irish voters admiring his roguish charm and his ability to get the job done. As a result many in Fianna Fail adored him as a strong and effective leader.

His conspicuous talent and preparedness to cut corners led on occasion to bold and often successful initiatives. His advocates say he was one of the architects of today's transformed Irish economy.

But the good in his career and character was, in the opinion of most, overshadowed by the bad and the ugly: he had a dark side, and it was very dark indeed.

He often made spectacularly bad calls, such as calling unnecessary elections which failed to deliver a majority. With his arms trial baggage he was a hate- figure for Ulster Unionists, while he and Margaret Thatcher were at daggers drawn, both over Anglo-Irish relations and his support for Argentina in the Falklands war. As a result Anglo-Irish relations were distinctly icy during his time in power.

Since his departure they have improved dramatically, paving the way for the peace process, while Unionists have felt able to establish much closer contacts with Dublin.

In recent years he was much troubled by a variety of illnesses, but in his dying days he took an active part in the planning of his funeral. He and his family asked for, and have been granted, a state funeral which is to take place in Dublin later this week.

The ceremony will mark the final departure of a man who for a lifetime was a magnet for turbulence, and was without doubt the most controversial Irish political figure of the last half-century.

A politician who divided opinion

"History will weigh up both the credit and the debit side more dispassionately than may be possible today but I have no doubt its ultimate judgement on Mr Haughey will be positive."

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern

"For 35 years Charlie Haughey played a highly significant, central and leading role in national politics. A proud man of considerable ability, charm, wit and intelligence, he was a skilled parliamentarian and an innovative legislator."

Irish President Mary McAleese

"He radiated an aura associated with a Renaissance potentate - with his immense wealth, his retinue of loyal retainers, his Florentine penchant for faction fighting, his patronage of the arts, his distinctive personality, at once crafty and conspiratorial, resilient and resourceful, imaginative yet insecure."

Historian JJ Lee in 1989

[He has] "an overweening ambition... a wish to dominate, even to own, the state."

Garret FitzGerald, leader of the opposition Fine Gael party, in 1979