Even ‘crooks’ like Haughey ‘can do good’, Kennedy Summer School hears
Former Fianna Fáil TD Conor Lenihan says former taoiseach did State a disservice
Charlie Haughey: very different, he acted differently and lived differently. Photograph: RTÉ screen grab
Charles J Haughey as a politician did the State a disservice but even crooks can sometimes do some good, the authors of two books on the controversial Fianna Fáil leader have said.
Journalist Peter Murtagh and former Fianna Fáil TD Conor Lenihan have outlined the contradictory qualities of this hugely controversial figure in Irish political life at the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross.
Mr Lenihan, who wrote Haughey, Prince of Power in 2015 referred to the former taoiseach’s valedictory speech in the Dáil where he quoted Shakespeare to say: “I have done the State some service.”
Mr Lenihan said: “He did the State some disservice. He was good for the country but bad for politics. But a crook can do good, as Lyndon B Johnson did in the US.”
Speaking to a large audience in St Michael’s Theatre, Mr Lenihan said that despite some like Conor Cruise O’Brien portraying him as a threat to democracy, Irish democracy was always very robust and able to contain Haughey.
Asked how Haughey would have got on with Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, Mr Lenihan said to audience laughter: “Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile. Mr Haughey would have got on fine with them.”
Mr Murtagh, the-author with Joe Joyce of The Boss, said Mr Haughey was an enormous figure not only in history but in the Irish psyche. He said that some of his predecessors as taoiseach seemed dull and grey, figures from “before colour was invented.”
He went on to say that none of them was questioned in relation to devotion to the State.
“None of them had a whiff of impropriety attaching to them. All were believed to be honest decent people.”
He said Haughey was very different, he acted differently and lived differently.
“He hid in plain sight. Was it a failure of journalism (not to investigate that fully)? He refused point blank to explain where his wealth came from. his wealth was vastly beyond anything he could accrue from a salary.”
Mr Lenihan said Mr Haughey “represented everything that people were refusing to speak about until then: sex, money and power.
“There was an oppressive relationship about all of those topics. He had all three of those . . . and a lifestyle way beyond the meagre existence of the 1960s.”
He said that despite his fearsome temper and his tendency to bully, Mr Haughey could be indecisive and tentative. He said that novelist Francis Stuart had said the problem with Haughey was that “he was not gangster enough”.
Mr Murtagh, who recently retired from The Irish Times, said there was broad agreement that he was a person of great talent, that he had a vision, and could articulate where he wanted to go. He said his legislative career was very impressive.
“Something happened. He became crooked and began behaving in an unethical and corrupt way,” he said.
Earlier, Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy gave a presentation on his series published last year on another former taoiseach Seán Lemass, based on 23 hours of previously unreleased recordings.
Lemass left behind no papers but the recordings, made by Dublin businessman Dermot Ryan between 1967 to 1969, amount to the only truly substantial biographical material on the Fianna Fáil politician, who was taoiseach from 1959 to 1965.
Mr McCreevy said Lemass did not go into depth about the period earlier than 1925, nor his role in the events from the 1916 Rising to the end of the civil war.
“Throughout his career refused to speak of the War of Independence,” said Mr McGreevy. “I don’t like talking about it because individuals were killed.”
The recordings begin at a time when Lemass and Eamon de Valera were involved in events that would lead to them departing from Sinn Féin and forming Fianna Fáil. He said Lemass was tiring of Sinn Féin, which was increasingly peopled by “all the cranks of the country, people making speeches in favour of vegetarianism and a single tax, all forms of cranks.”
Mr McGreevy said it was clear from the recordings that Lemass was getting increasingly frustrated with an ageing De Valera in the 1950s. He though he was “losing his grip and no longer the man he was”.
He said Lemass’s seven years as taoiseach were best remembered for two things: the economic success of the country and a rapprochement with Terence O’Neill, the prime minister of Northern Ireland.
He also said Lemass was overcome with emotion when John F Kennedy laid a wreath to the 1916 revolutionaries during his visit to Ireland. It was the moment when the Rising was given legitimacy by the leader of the most powerful democracy in the world.
“You would have to be alive in 1916 to appreciate that,” Mr Lemass told Dermot Ryan in the recording.