Who did you say you were? Encounters with Charles Haughey

Stephen Collins, Joe Joyce, Peter Murtagh and Michael O’Regan on the late taoiseach’s volcanic temper, use of power, and taste for living on the edge

Party faithful: A jubilant Charles Haughey at a Fianna Fáil Ardfheis

Party faithful: A jubilant Charles Haughey at a Fianna Fáil Ardfheis

 

 

A VOLCANIC TEMPER
By Stephen Collins
 

In the spring of 1982, I was a junior reporter with The Evening Press newspaper when the first heave against Charlie Haughey’s leadership occurred. I was dispatched to the Dáil with instructions from my news editor to ask Haughey if he was going to resign that day.

More by accident than design, I found myself in his office on the fifth floor of Leinster House with a photographer. We got there on the pretext of taking a picture of him.

Haughey glared at me when I walked in and without any preliminaries I nervously blurted: “Are you resigning today, Mr Haughey?”

His reaction was one of instantaneous and overwhelming anger. “Would you f*ck off,” he shouted running straight at me. He backed me against the wall and grabbed my tie, repeating his admonition but this time spelling it out letter by letter. “That’s F.*.C.K. O.F.F.”

Speechless with shock, I made no reply but wondered if I should hit him back if he struck me. Luckily the photographer interposed himself between us and calmed Haughey down.

The experience of his volcanic temper was an eye opener and gave me an insight into how The Boss instilled terror as well as loyalty in his TDs.

One night almost a decade later we had a more friendly encounter which illustrated another aspect of his character.

Late in the evening at a function in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, when everybody was feeling jolly, I walked past Haughey’s table. He beckoned me over and pointed to a painting of the Restoration monarch Charles II on one of the walls.

“Master Collins, do you know who that is?” he asked, supplying the answer in case I didn’t know.

Haughey then proceeded to tell me that just the day before he had signed an order restoring fishing rights to the people in a part of Connemara that had been forfeit to the crown in the reign of Charles II.

“One Charles took them away; another Charles has given them back,” he said proudly. This image of himself as a kindly lord dispensing patronage to his people was another key aspect of his character.

 

HE ONLY HAD TO PUT HIS HAND OUT AND SAY ‘GIMME’
By Joe Joyce

It’s axiomatic that powerful companies can influence government policies through the funding of politicians and their parties. It’s less obvious how spineless powerful companies can be when faced with political power.

Thanks indirectly to Charlie Haughey, I discovered this for myself in the late 1980s while working as a freelance journalist for a multinational media organisation holding a reception in Dublin, at which a Fianna Fáil minister was to do the honours.

I got a call from one of their local executives a couple of days before the event. She was apologetic, but her head office had ordered that I be taken off the guest list.

The reason was that, some five years earlier, Peter Murtagh and I had written a book , The Boss, about Haughey’s 1982 government.

Head office thought that my presence might offend the Fianna Fáil minister and his leader, and somehow reflect badly on them.

You would think a media organisation was accustomed to dealing with politicians and governments of many hues. That it would care so much about possibly upsetting a politician – in a small country of little consequence to its overall business – by the presence of a freelance nonentity at a reception was something of an eye-opener.

It confirmed for me how supine and nervous powerful companies could be when they come up against politics. As we learned later, the then powerful AIB told barefaced lies to us and others to protect Haughey when he refused to repay a million-odd pounds he owed the bank in the early 1980s.

It also made it easier to understand how Haughey funded his chosen lifestyle, once the secret of his supposedly vaunted financial acumen was finally revealed. As long as he was in a powerful political position, he only had to put his hand out, metaphorically, to some rich and powerful people and say “gimme”.

 

‘AH, MONEYBAGS!’
By Peter Murtagh

One of my first encounters with Charles Haughey was in a corridor of Leinster House in March 1982. He had been re-elected as taoiseach following the February election.

Walking along the corridor towards the Dáil bar and restaurant was Haughey, strolling easily, and me, a 29-year-old relative novice at The Irish Times, trailing behind him.

I fell in beside him as he walked in that studied, stage-like manner, and asked him for an interview. “Who did you say you were?” he asked. I repeated my introduction.

He chastised me mildly for never having written anything good about him. (I don’t think I’d written anything much about him at all at that stage in his career or mine.)

Then he asked: “Who writes the editorials in The Irish Times?” Without waiting for an answer, he added: “They sound like they were written by an old woman in a bath, with the water going cold around her fanny.” Just then finance minister Ray MacSharry hoved into view at the other end of the corridor walking towards us.

“Ah, moneybags!” Haughey hailed him, as he strode off, arm raised, leaving me in his wake. It always struck me as strange that a taoiseach would speak in such terms to a reporter, someone he had no reason to trust would not rush off to print it.

But Charlie Haughey liked living on the edge. And the story, which I have told many times since, provoking much mirth among listeners, has somewhat entered the folklore that surrounds the man.

RESPECT FOR OFFICE
By Michael O’Regan

Dick Walsh, the late IrishTimes political editor, had a deep and abiding distrust of Haughey.

On a foreign trip in early 1980, not long after he became Taoiseach, Haughey gave a briefing to political correspondents.

Walsh asked a question, addressing him as “Mr Haughey.” In reply Haughey chided him saying: “Mr Walsh, I would have expectecd you to address me as Taoiseach, out of respect for my office if nothing else.”

To which Dick replied: “It is precisely because I do respect the office of Taoiseach that I am addressing you as Mr Haughey.”

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