Did ‘Charlie’ give us the real man? Yes, but he was more intelligent and more dangerous

Haughey expended huge energy achieving power and then did not know what to do with it

Charles Haughey greets Geraldine Kennedy at the 1983 Fianna Fáil ardfheis. She had earlier been advised that her security could not be guaranteed at the event. Photograph: Jack McManus

Charles Haughey greets Geraldine Kennedy at the 1983 Fianna Fáil ardfheis. She had earlier been advised that her security could not be guaranteed at the event. Photograph: Jack McManus

 

Charlie is the political thriller about contemporary Ireland. For anyone who lived through even some of the Haughey years –from the mid-1960s, 1970, the 1980s to 1992 and beyond into the McCracken and Moriarty tribunals – it was riveting to revisit the actions of the Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach through the three episodes.

It was more extraordinary for a political journalist who observed them to superimpose what we saw and knew then with what we have come to know now about the mistress and the money. If the RTÉ/Touchpaper/Element Pictures production succeeded in awakening the curiosity of a younger generation about the origins of the politics of their time – and it did – it will have done the State some service.

Was Charlie the movie the real Charles Haughey? Yes, the dominant and bigger part of him. The visible flawed side. He was flamboyant, bullying, simultaneously loyal and insincere, obsessed with power and with money. He craved the respectability that brown envelopes could not buy.

But Haughey was more than the Charlie whom we witnessed in the drama. He was a really substantial politician, more intelligent, charismatic and visionary than his portrayal. That was what made him so promising at first, and so menacing, threatening and dangerous to democracy in the end.

Yes, he would do practically anything to achieve and hold on to power. He was such a love/hate figure that he didn’t even have to do it himself; his supporters would interpret his best interests. He divided the nation.

The sad thing was that when such an able man achieved power, he was spent. He had used all of his energy to climb back up from the Arms Trial and, assisted by his most loyal political friend, PJ Mara, with 10 years on the chicken-and-chips circuit in Fianna Fáil cumainn all over the country, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with it when he succeeded Jack Lynch as taoiseach in December, 1980. Or if he did, he was compromised by the manner in which he achieved power.

For all of that, RTÉ has produced a first class film drama. Colin Teevan, the writer, is fair to him by and large. Charlie is the talk of the country.

Artistic licence

As a correspondent during the Haughey era, whose job it was to report facts and comment on them, it is hard for me to get my head around the artistic licence which should be accorded to “a drama based on real events”. I am not a film critic. Charlie is not a documentary.

The first episode, The Rise , was thrilling. It was a fair and accurate presentation of Haughey’s accession to power following the forced resignation of Jack Lynch. I remember running up and down the floors in the RDS covering the historic 1977 general election as the Dublin counts came in, phoning them to The Irish Times.

There was a television on one floor of the building where everyone observed what was happening nationally. Late in the evening, Mr Haughey was seated in front of me. P Flynn, with his long dangling arms, was elected on screen and Mr Haughey was ecstatic. “I don’t know what you are so happy about,” I said. “Jack Lynch is on his way to an historic 84 seats.”

“Now I know that I will be leader. They are all my people “ Haughey replied. “Then, you must give me your first interview,” I said.

“Yes, I will.”

The Rise was all about Haughey’s accession to power in December 1980 and what he did with it when he got it. It was generally representative of that time. It introduced the audience to the main characters and political events. It was enthralling.

What was fascinating for someone like me was the imposition of Des Traynor, the money racket and endless brown envelopes to finance the Taoiseach’s lifestyle and the introduction of his mistress, Terry Keane, in the background.

Aiden Gillen portrayed Charlie Haughey much better than Helen Mirren played the queen, and she won an Oscar. Haughey would be a hard character to act because he was so unique: difficult hairline, hooded eyes, triangular nose, small putty hands and individual tone of voice. Gillen grew more and more into the role with each episode. He was probably a bit too thin and tall but what could he do about that?

It took me time to come to terms with PJ Mara, played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, as Haughey’s loyal spokesman. He certainly was overrepresented in his power and influence in the first episode. I don’t think he had any formal role in the Dáil at all between 1979 and 1981 when Brendan O’Donnell was Haughey’s private secretary and Eoin Patton his PR manager. The infamous Frank Dunlop was government press secretary and dealt with me about Haughey’s first interview.

Misrepresentations

There were two characters who were grossly misrepresented in the drama: George Colley and Dermot Nally.

Mr Colley, a gentleman, and probably too refined to beat Haughey in the bid for votes in the leadership battle, was presented as a culchie backbencher. He was the one who insisted on having a veto on the new taoiseach’s appointments to Justice and Defence because, rightly in retrospect, he believed that he could not be trusted. Mr Nally, who was a learned, diplomatic, reserved public servant, a sort of [former Irish UN ambassador] Noel Dorr-type, would never have told a taoiseach to “fuck off”. He was deeply respected by the whole public service.

The second episode, GUBU, was so fast-moving that even I had to pause to reconstruct events. It was all about 1982: the Gregory deal, the phone-tapping of Bruce Arnold and myself, the planted trees in the Dublin West by-election, the attorney general/Malcolm McArthur affair. And Seán Doherty saying: “Have no fear, have no fear, the Doc is here.”

You would get out of the bed in the morning and never know what the day would bring. 1982 was the year of intimidation and fear when grown men and Mary Harney in Fianna Fail were watched and bullied. Some of their livelihoods were threatened if they did not support the leader. To his many supporters, and they were always in the majority, he was “the Boss”.

What is remarkable about the film drama about Charles Haughey’s career is that the three episodes are so different. The final episode last night covered the period 1989-1992, the first Fianna Fáil coalition in the history of the State with arch-enemy Desmond O’Malley of the Progressive Democrats. O’Malley, Albert Reynolds and Seán Doherty are the dominant characters in a fairly correct representation of the trials and tribulations to beset this Government.

The Taoiseach writes a Fianna Fáil party leader’s allowance cheque to his mistress. There’s a big controversy about export credit insurance, which was to lead on to the Beef Tribunal. Haughey fires his loyal friend Brian Lenihan for the calls he made to President Hillery, on his suggestion, requesting that the Dáil not be dissolved on the fall of John Bruton’s “little shoes” budget in 1982.

But, I wonder whether Dr Martin Mansergh was really able to present a copy of the Government statement to be issued on the declaration of a ceasefire to Haughey before he left office in 1992?

It all happened in the fast lane. Anyone who didn’t live in that time would need background briefings on context. But once again, it was fascinating. The Seán Doherty, later Brian Lenihan and Bertie Ahern characters were amazingly true to form.

Gibbons assaulted

Making the maximum allowance for dramatic licence, however, there are a few factual and sequencing issues in Charlie. Jim Gibbons was kicked to the ground on the plinth outside Leinster House by a cumann member after the 10-hour parliamentary party meeting . Des O’Malley wasn’t there, never mind wielding a sword. The ushers asked Charlie McCreevy, who had opposed Haughey, to leave through the back door of Leinster House on that tense occasion. He told them that he would walk in and out through the front door of the Dáil to which he was elected.

PJ Mara wasn’t always the nice guy presented. He advised me that I should not attend the 1983 Fianna Fáil ard fheis in the RDS in Dublin because the party could not guarantee my security. My response was that I was a journalist covering politics in Dáil Éireann. Fianna Fáil was the biggest party and, in a democratic state I had a right to cover their annual conference. I attended. I noted the Nazi salutes from the audiences and I thank colleagues for accompanying me to and from the door of the ladies’ toilet.

As for the Geraldine Kennedy in Charlie, she was grand. I never imagined that I was a Charlie Bird character running around with a microphone shouting “Mr Haughey, Mr Haughey …” in a high-pitched voice. I had a flat South Tipperary accent and I met him mainly at press briefings and conferences. I must have been the composite journalist for the series because there were so many others in the political correspondents room and outside it who also asked the awkward questions. I was informed by Element Pictures on December 3rd last that I was being depicted as a character in the drama. Geraldine Kennedy is a former editor of The Irish Times

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