The Haughey factor: why Frank Aiken really retired from party politics
Jack Lynch’s decision to let Charles Haughey back into the fold led Aiken to walk away from the party he had served for 50 years
Frank Aiken as minister for external affairs at the United Nations
Frank Aiken with his family
Members of Jack Lynch’s first cabinet at Aras an Uachtarain in 1966. Frank Aiken is seated to President Eamon de Valera’s left, with Charles Haughey standing between the two. Photograph: Gordon Standing
On February 13th, 1973 Fianna Fáil leader Jack Lynch announced the sudden retirement of Frank Aiken from politics on the grounds of “doctors’ orders”. Aiken’s retirement marked the end of a glittering and controversial political career. For the previous 50 years he had represented his constituency of Louth as a member of Dáil Éireann. For 33 of those years he was a government minister and finally, tánaiste.
Yet, Aiken’s decision to step aside was not due to poor health or indeed old age. Rather, there was a more sinister explanation. In the run-up to the 1973 general election Aiken was informed that Charles J Haughey was to be ratified as a Fianna Fáil candidate. Aiken was incensed. He had long mistrusted Haughey, believing him to be a man of low moral character, manipulative, ostentatious and holding a ruthless ambition to become taoiseach. Haughey’s alleged involvement in the Arms Crisis (1969-1970), which had indirectly helped launch the nascent Provisional IRA, further fuelled Aiken’s mistrust of his former cabinet colleague.
Aiken, therefore, informed Lynch that he would not stand at the 1973 general election if Haughey was ratified as a Fianna Fáil candidate. Aiken also informed Lynch that he would write a letter to the newspapers explaining his reasons for resigning. Aiken’s demands, however, fell on deaf ears. On February 12th, Aiken learned that Haughey had been ratified and immediately withdrew his nomination. It was only after Lynch mobilised the services of Fianna Fáil stalwarts Seán MacEntee, George Colley, Paddy Smith and his close friend Joe Farrell that Aiken agreed not to publicly announce his reasons for retiring from public life.
Aiken’s opposition to Haughey first came to prominence during the mid- to late-1960s. During this period Haughey played a prominent role in Fianna Fáil’s burgeoning links with big business, especially the building industry. Under Seán Lemass’s premiership, the link between Fianna Fáil and business was institutionalised through the establishment of Taca, a fundraising organisation of 500 businessmen, who paid £100 per year and in return obtained privileged access to ministers and exclusive dinners in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin. In Aiken’s eyes, Taca was indicative of the party’s moral collapse. He was gravely concerned by accusations that some senior Fianna Fáil figures, including Haughey, had allegedly abused planning laws, with inside information lubricating the accumulation of substantial private fortunes.
Aiken’s concerns over the direction that Fianna Fáil was taking came to a head when Lemass announced his decision to retire as taoiseach in November 1966. He was caught off-guard by Lemass’s decision and was fearful for the future of Fianna Fáil if Haughey secured the party leadership. Aiken made it be known that he was in favour of rival candidate George Colley. At a gathering of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, on November 9th, 1966, a vote was taken on Lemass’s successor. Although Colley failed to secure sufficient votes to be crowned Fianna Fáil leader, Haughey, likewise, lacked adequate support from among his party colleagues. In an effort to avoid a split within the party it was decided that a compromise candidate, Jack Lynch, be appointed as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach. While Aiken was disappointed by the result he was relieved to have stopped Haughey gaining control of his beloved Fianna Fáil.
It was the events during the Arms Crisis that confirmed Aiken’s vehement dislike and mistrust of Haughey. Having “retired” as minister for external affairs in April 1969, Aiken’s steadying presence at the Irish cabinet table was acutely missed during the turbulent outbreak of the Troubles, particularly during mid-August 1969, when a cohort of Fianna Fáil ministers, led by Haughey, Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland, allegedly advocated sending the Irish Army into Northern Ireland.