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.
Despite his absence from Lynch’s cabinet, behind the scenes, Aiken acted as a voice of moderation, categorically objecting to the argument that the use of physical force represented Irish government policy. When the Arms Crisis erupted in May 1970, Aiken strongly advised Lynch to sack Haughey and Blaney and throw them out of Fianna Fáil. In a meeting with the taoiseach, in which Lynch supplied him with “files on the two” ministers, Aiken demanded that the whip be withdrawn from both men, instructing Lynch “you are the leader of the Irish people – not just the Fianna Fáil party”. Eventually Lynch did respond. Both Haughey and Blaney were sacked as ministers. However, Lynch refused to throw the two men out of the party.
In a further letter from May 1970 Aiken privately criticised Lynch for failing to expel Haughey and Blaney from the party. In a handwritten letter to the taoiseach, Aiken wrote that the “crisis of confidence in Fianna Fáil will not just fade away”. “Ireland and the Irish people,” Aiken lamented, “must go down in confusion before long” unless immediate action was taken against Haughey, Blaney and their anti-partitionist collaborators. Once again, however, Lynch did not act on Aiken’s advice.
It is within this context that one is able to understand why Aiken so adamantly refused to agree to Haughey’s ratification as a Fianna Fáil candidate at the 1973 general election. Aiken was a stern man of integrity, driven by the conviction of his beliefs. He was the antithesis to Haughey. Aiken could see the wrong path that Fianna Fáil would go down if Haughey was allowed to worm his way back into the higher echelons of the party. Yet, this is precisely what occurred. In January 1975, following considerable grass-roots pressure, Lynch reluctantly brought Haughey back to the opposition frontbench.
Outraged and bemused, in the last 10 years of his life, Aiken never attended a Fianna Fáil ard fheis or any other party event. These last years pained him greatly as he watched from afar as the Fianna Fáil organisation almost tore itself apart following Haughey’s appointment as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach in 1979. It was a sad end to Aiken’s lifelong commitment to Fianna Fáil. He spent the last years of his retirement at his home in Sandyford, Co Dublin. He died on May 18th, 1983, at the age of 85.
In a perverted footnote to the Aiken-Haughey relationship one last story should be recalled. On the day of Aiken’s funeral an Irish newspaper photographer requested that Frank Aiken jnr be photographed for a “historic photo” beside his late father lying in his coffin. Frank jnr, tired and emotional, reluctantly agreed and requested that the lid be removed from the coffin. All of a sudden Haughey appeared from nowhere requesting a photo with the late Frank Aiken. A distraught Frank jnr declined Haughey’s request and told him in no uncertain terms to leave immediately. According to Frank jnr the entire episode was inspired by Haughey.
Dr Stephen Kelly is a lecturer in modern history at Liverpool Hope University and co-editor with Bryce Evans of a new edited collection, Frank Aiken: Nationalist and Internationalist (Irish Academic Press, 2014).