Cables provide a remarkable insight into a dramatic year in Irish politics

The year 1989, as shown by cables sent to the US embassy in Dublin, was a dramatic period in Irish politics that illustrated how unpredictable events can change the course of history.

The cables sent to Washington by the US embassy in Dublin provide a remarkable insight into how events in Dublin were viewed by professional diplomats with a ringside seat.

The year opened with Charles Haughey’s Fianna Fáil minority government looking remarkably secure.

Fine Gael support through the so-called “Tallaght strategy”, devised by its then-leader Alan Dukes, had enabled Haughey to pursue austerity policies which put the national finances on a sound footing.

Haughey’s reputation was transformed as a result of the policies he followed on the economy and also on Northern Ireland where he made full use of the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985, which he had denounced while in opposition.


Satisfaction ratings
Fianna Fáil was riding high in the polls and Haughey had satisfaction ratings of more than 60 per cent in the spring of 1989. A meeting with the charismatic and reforming Russian leader Mikail Gorbachev at Shannon in April 1989 boosted Haughey's image as a statesman and he was looking forward to making his mark during the Irish presidency of the EU in the first half of 1990.

There was an ongoing row over the closure of the sugar company plant in Thurles and questions were being asked about the cosy relationship between the Fianna Fáil leader and Larry Goodman’s beef processing operations. But they did not affect the government’s popularity.

On a personal level Haughey had suffered a serious health scare in the autumn of 1989, variously reported as a respiratory illness or kidney stones.

He spent some time in the Mater hospital but made light of the experience in public.

Then suddenly he threatened a general election when his government lost a vote on a private member’s motion urging compensation for haemophiliacs infected with HIV.

Successful official visit
Haughey had just returned from a successful official visit to Japan and even though the Dáil defeat had no direct implications for his government he decided to capitalise on his poll popularity and attempt to win an overall majority.

The subsequent election campaign turned into a bitter disappointment for Haughey with Fianna Fáil losing four seats.

Moreover, in order for the Fianna Fáil leader to retain power he was forced to enter a coalition with the Progressive Democrats, led by his mortal political enemy Des O’Malley.

The drama and uncertainty of those days is captured in the US embassy reports from Dublin which have been obtained under a Freedom of Information request.

The reports also provide vivid pen pictures of some of the leading characters in Irish politics at the time.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times