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Haughey by Gary Murphy: A scholarly but overly flattering portrait

Book review: Murphy is meticulous in sticking to evidence but at times his praise goes too far

Author: Gary Murphy
ISBN-13: 978-0717193646
Publisher: Gill Books
Guideline Price: €27.99

“The inconsistencies in Haughey’s own career,” Gary Murphy writes, “and the subsequent revelations about his finances after he left public life meant that pretty much anything could be said about him”. Murphy’s biography benefits, on the other hand, from a sober, research-led tone and from access to Haughey’s personal archives. As a professor of politics at Dublin City University, Murphy writes with skill and relish about the intricacies of Fianna Fáil’s constituency politics and about Haughey’s early efforts to get elected to the Dáil.

The problems in the book begin with a reference to Haughey driving a Jaguar in 1959. And then, in the same year, “he also began riding horses and joined the Ward Union Hunt”, and also bought Grangemore in Raheny, “a large Georgian house on forty-five acres of land”. It is unclear where the money came from. Is it possible that Haughey still had an income from his accountancy firm? Was it borrowed money? Or was he on the take as early as then? These are questions that are not addressed here. Later, when we read that “the Caribbean was a favourite destination for the Haugheys”, it is impossible not to ask who was paying for this.

Murphy makes a convincing case for Haughey as an energetic and progressive minister for justice from 1961 to 1963. But there are times when his praise goes too far. For example, he mentions Haughey’s “sangfroid” and “courage” while standing up to farmers’ protests when minister for agriculture. Others might remember Haughey’s response as unnecessarily arrogant and combative. When he writes that Frank Aiken “and other old guard types considered Haughey brash and arrogant”, he does not give us any reason why they might have thought this.

Because Murphy’s book is filled with carefully chosen detail from the archives, it will be a useful work for historians. In 1968, for example, he writes that after an accident, Haughey received a letter from the editor of the Sunday Independent “inquiring about his health and asking whether he would like any reference to him in the following Sunday’s paper”. This might help to explain Haughey’s profound irritation once the press ceased to be so obsequious.

Conspicuous consumption

Murphy’s account of the arms trial of 1970 lacks the sharp forensic tone of Michael Heney’s ground-breaking book, but it follows Heney’s conclusions closely, effectively exonerating Haughey.

“On the night of his acquittal,” Murphy writes, “Haughey hosted a large party”. Muiris MacConghail, the then head of RTÉ’s flagship current affairs programme, who was there, “was reported to be staggered by the number of senior members of the judiciary, senior gardaí, senior civil servants and heads of semi-state bodies who were there”.

“When he became Taoiseach,” Murphy writes, Haughey “owed AIB the staggering amount of over £1 million.” He offers us many images of Haughey’s conspicuous consumption, including a dinner in Boston in 1972 when he “ordered such a rare and expensive wine that the sommelier had felt he had better notify the restaurant’s owner”. Or: “as Haughey’s overdraft problems with AIB in the 1970s continued, his passion for horse racing and breeding, and the concomitant costs, continued unabated”. Or: “although Haughey’s financial position at the beginning of his relationship with [Terry] Keane remained extremely precarious, he started investigating the possibility of acquiring an off-shore island”.

This island offers Murphy an excuse for what must be the most cringe-making sentence of the season: “Inishvickillane, perhaps, was the one place where Haughey could be himself.” It is also good to know that Haughey viewed the addition of a swimming pool to Abbeville, the house he moved to in 1969, “as the best money he ever spent”.

There are occasions when Murphy loses the run of himself completely, as in his comment on a letter Haughey received in 1974 comparing him to Churchill. “The reference to Winston Churchill was apt. Churchill, like Haughey, had seen himself as the man destined to lead his people to greatness, was sustained in his lifestyle by wealthy supporters, complained of an ungrateful electorate, and of intellectual pygmies in his own party, and suffered bouts of melancholy and self-doubt. Haughey was the same in all respects.”

Bad luck years

Once Haughey becomes taoiseach, Murphy’s book becomes more sharply analytical. He is at his most astute when treating the years between 1979 and 1992. He makes clear that in Haughey’s first two short periods as taoiseach he suffered from bad luck and then created some more. Ministers he appointed would come back to haunt him; others were simply not up to the job. His refusal to back Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands war may have given satisfaction to some of his more diehard supporters, but it made no sense, nor did his handling of the economy, nor his rabid opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

In 1982, at a European summit, German chancellor Helmut Schmidt told Haughey that he would spend the weekend “with employers and trade unions to hammer out an agreement on the rates of pay and salaries appropriate for the coming year in the light of the economic situation anticipated”. When Haughey came back to power in 1987, supported by Fine Gael under Alan Dukes, he set about implementing this kind of partnership.

In January 1990, when Ireland took the presidency of the European Union, Haughey displayed skills as a diplomat and a facilitator, going on a tour of member states to prepare for a summit in Dublin in April, causing Thatcher to write to him: “Once again, you showed a very sure touch as chairman and I thought your final press conference was masterly.”

Murphy is meticulous in sticking to evidence and avoiding hearsay and rumour. He realises, however, that many matters were dealt with verbally, leaving no evidence at all. He writes about Haughey’s benefactors: “In fact, there was no evidence of any political impropriety by Haughey in relation to the monies he received.” Here he means tangible evidence that he can footnote. Who is to say, however, what was promised, what happened as nod and wink?

He also writes: “but there were huge dangers in Haughey’s dependence on large private donations and he did not seem to grasp the significance of this.”

Benefit to Dunne

Its significance did not escape the Moriarty tribunal, which noted that Haughey in 1987, just after he was elected taoiseach, arranged a meeting between one of his funders, Ben Dunne, and the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, Séamus Paircéir. “The terms of settlement,” Murphy writes, “offered by Paircéir to Dunne constituted a real and tangible benefit to Dunne, in that they gave him an option that he did not have before Haughey’s intervention.”

A few pages later, he writes: “Haughey certainly did not see it that way. He believed that in introducing Dunne to Paircéir he was in effect simply protecting the individual against bureaucratic indifference. This was something he did for all constituents.”

As Haughey gave evidence to the tribunal, Frank Dunlop wrote to him: “History will be kinder to you. In the police state in which we now live, truth, honour, service to the State and other attributes are swept aside.” But, as Murphy writes, “many more took the view that the [Moriarty] tribunal had reached the correct conclusion”.

Colm Tóibín’s latest novel is The Magician