British diplomat spoke of ‘rough ride’ ahead after Haughey’s election as FF leader

British memo claimed there were ‘suspicions that at least two Deputies were bribed’ to vote for Haughey

Charles Haughey speaking to a press conference at Leinster House after his election as Fianna Fáil leader.  Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Charles Haughey speaking to a press conference at Leinster House after his election as Fianna Fáil leader. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

 

The election of Charlie Haughey as leader of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach in 1979 prompted fears amongst British diplomats that they were in for a “rough ride” due to his republican sentiments, newly-declassified papers reveal.

Mr Haughey was seen as “no friend of Britain”, according to the ambassador to Ireland at the time Robin Haydon, who said that “undesirable” characters from his past emerged following the election, and compared the new leader to former US president Richard Nixon due to the number of public relations men in his immediate circle.

Mr Haughey was elected as the leader of Fianna Fáil and subsequently became taoiseach in December 1979 following the resignation of Jack Lynch. Mr Hayden reported that there had been rumours of two Deputies being bribed to vote for Mr Haughey, and that he had run a campaign in the background to unseat Mr Lynch prior to the resignation.

The memo on the implications of Mr Haughey’s election for Britain is contained in series of files released by the National Archives in London.

Mr Haughey’s initial remarks on Northern Ireland following his election were described as “vigorous and unhesitant” by Mr Haydon after the new leader said a peaceful reunification was his primary priority. Mr Haughey also condemned IRA violence, suggesting that he needed republican votes to be elected but not necessarily once he was in office, said the ambassador.

“But republican rhetoric has its own dangers, and Northern unionists will not take kindly to a more provocative emphasis on reunification. Whether Mr Haughey will learn that such remarks are counterproductive remains to be seen. But if he continues in this vein, we are in for a rough ride,” said Mr Haydon in a memo.

Arms trial

Mr Haughey’s election surprised and shocked many people, Mr Haydon said. Opponents thought the arms trial, where he was accused and acquitted of conspiring to import guns for the IRA, would force the party to opt for a safer candidate. However, his election suggested that many saw him as the only chance of reviving Fianna Fáil’s declining fortunes.

“Many businessmen will be happy to see him in charge, though others are uneasy at his somewhat unsavoury reputation for money-making,” wrote the ambassador.

In another memo a few days after the election Mr Haydon said there was a lot of bitterness as a result, which had prompted division in Fianna Fáil.

“It is said that during the past few days a great deal of pressure was put on a number of Fianna Fáil Deputies to get them to vote for Haughey, and there have even been suspicions that at least two Deputies were bribed,” he wrote.

“Haughey’s victory has caused a number of undesirable figures from his past to emerge from the woodwork. Captain James Kelly and John Kelly, for example, both defendants in the arms trail, were in the gallery yesterday, as was Gerry Jones, a businessman who is one of Blaney’s closest supporters and who also stood by Haughey during his period in the wilderness. These people obviously think that their hour has come. I hope they are wrong.

‘No friend of Britain’

“In general Haughey’s history and background have shown him to be no friend of Britain. We must remember that he now wants to win the next election and it is this which will govern his action more than anything else. Similarly he is very adept in his handling of public relations: many of his closest advisers are public relations men (shades of Nixon!).”

In summing up the election of Mr Haughey, Mr Haydon quoted WB Yeats. “Yeats wrote, ‘all changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born’. I support the first sentiment but am doubtful about the second.”