Charles Haughey was on top of the political world in the spring of 1989. A cable from US ambassador Margaret Heckler to secretary of state James Baker at the beginning of March commented on the successful Fianna Fáil ardfheis the previous weekend.
“The Fianna Fáil annual conference held on the weekend of 24-26 February was a celebration of two years in power. The resolution holding pride of place called on the conference ‘to congratulate the taoiseach (the Irish chief of government), Charles J Haughey, on his leadership of our country and party’. Needless to say it passed with roars of approval,” Heckler wrote.
“In truth Charles Haughey and his party have good reasons to feel exuberant. Their domination of the Irish parliament is such that there is no threat on the perceivable horizon to their remaining in power into the second half of 1990 (or longer if Haughey so decides) . . .”
She told Baker the opposition parties were in disarray. “The two major opposition parties, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats, can find no leverage to attack the Government’s program. Their various points of difference are marginal at best, reducing their opposition to little more than claims that they could do the whole thing better . . .
“What complicates the future ever further is the bitter enmity of Fine Gael for the Progressive Democrats. Although the PDs have tried to patch things up lately, the Fine Gael leader Dukes told the ambassador he has no intention of throwing a life-line to the faltering PDs who he expects to self-destruct at the next election . . .”
Terms of admiration
The ambassador reported that such was Haughey's performance over the previous six months, that even his opponents had begun to speak of him in new admiring terms.
“His handling of the row with Prime Minister Thatcher over the Fr Ryan extradition case, the very model of moderation with firmness, brought Haughey bipartisan praise. Gone are the sharp edges, as remarkably revealed in his presidential address, the measured statesmanlike tones of which were in strong contrast to the stridently partisan speech of Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes at his party conference.
“Some are suggesting that his serious illness last fall – from which he has still not fully recovered – brought home to Haughey that this may be his last chance to make his place in Irish history and that he has determined to rise above his hitherto dominant image as the ultimate political Boss. Whatever may be the reason, Haughey is now clearly decided to seek solutions not confrontation.”
A cable to the secretary of state a few days later, in advance of Haughey’s St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House, reinforces the point and said Haughey would arrive in Washington “in firm control of the political situation in Ireland. An election is unlikely in the near future and Haughey is turning his attention to his first Irish EC presidency during which he hopes to travel to Moscow. The only cloud on Haughey’s horizon is his health. He has not recovered fully from a severe respiratory infection last fall and will consult a specialist during his Washington trip.”
White House objectives
The cable listed Haughey's three principal objectives for his Washington meetings as briefing president George Bush and Baker on the Dublin view of the Northern Ireland problem and Anglo-Irish relations; pushing for preferential treatment under the 1986 Tax Act for Ireland; and boosting efforts to reform US immigration law.
“It is a common belief in Dublin that the state department is Anglophile and has little time for the Irish view on Northern Ireland. There is a fear the new administration is similarly inclined, Thus Haughey sought an early opportunity to outline Irish views to the new administration and to urge sympathetic understanding.”
A follow-up cable the same month pointed out how well Haughey and his minority government were faring in the opinion polls and the difficulties faced by the opposition parties, with Fine Gael hamstrung by its support for the Fianna Fáil minority government in the Tallaght strategy.
“But the party feeling the greatest chagrin at present must certainly be the Progressive Democrats. The party was formed by dissident Fianna Fáil deputies and others, all with personal reasons to detest Charles Haughey, and it was the PDs who, in the 1986/97 period forced the rewriting of the Irish political agenda with fiscal retrenchment as essential to economic recovery replacing improvement of the general welfare at the top of the list . . .
“And now the Progressive Democrats must endure the sight of a Fianna Fáil government, whose populist spending policies in the 1970s and early 1980s were so largely responsible for the near bankruptcy of the Irish government, rising ever higher in public support through implementing the very policies the Progressive Democrats first urged. And, worse even than the thought that the Fianna Fáil success is based on the sort of political opportunism which led the Progressive Democrat founders to detest Haughey, is the reality that Fianna Fáil’s popular success has been largely at their expense . . .
“The political pundits are already gathering at the PDs grave . . . Rumours are rife concerning the intentions of those considered at risk, with a number rumoured already angling to move to Fine Gael. The rumour has the virtue of plausibility . . .”
Heckler concluded that “even if the PDs at the end of the day do not prove to have fulfilled their stated intention to ‘break the mould’ of Irish politics, they did succeed in forcing the Irish body politic to face up to its fiscal responsibilities”.
Caution to the winds
Despite Heckler's confident prediction that 1989 would not be an election year, just two months later, Haughey, angered by a Dáil defeat on a private members motion on compensation for haemophiliacs just after he arrived home from a successful official visit to Japan, decided to throw caution to the winds and threatened to dissolve the Dáil. The cables take up the story.
“Irish attorney general John Murray [now a Supreme Court judge] dined with ambassador Heckler the night of Haughey’s return. Three times he was called to the phone by the prime minister’s office to discuss the possibility of going to the country. Murray told the ambassador there is an overwhelming sentiment in cabinet to go to the polls quickly but there is a recognition the haemophilia issue is not a good basis to dissolve the Assembly. Murray believes Haughey will call a snap election within the next few weeks.”
In a personal comment at the end of the message, the ambassador wrote:
“If Haughey decides to go, the most likely date is June 15th to correspond with the European elections.”
Heckler was proved right by subsequent events – Haughey delayed the announcement to June 15th. The embassy cable giving the background to the dissolution of the Dáil was also prescient in its assessment of how the election campaign would unfold.
Despite the high poll approval ratings before the campaign began, Fianna Fáil got the same share of the vote as it had two years earlier but lost four seats, ending up with 77, six short of a majority. The PDs entered an election pact with Fine Gael but lost eight of their 14 seats. However the six held by the party was precisely the number required to put Fianna Fáil back in power.
In a message on June 30th, the embassy reported the new Dáil had met the previous day in an atmosphere of high drama when Haughey failed to be re-elected as taoiseach.
Over the following two weeks, there were intensive negotiations involving all of the parties but, ultimately, Fianna Fáil struck a deal with the PDs to enter coalition for the first time. The price was acceptance of the PD tax-cutting agenda and, more importantly, the yielding of two cabinet posts and a powerful junior ministry to the smaller party. With the backing of the PDs, Haughey was re-elected taoiseach on July 15th.
Heckler dispatched a message to the secretary of state immediately after Haughey was elected on July 15th and before he announced his cabinet.
“Haughey was re-elected prime minister this afternoon by a vote of 84-79 with the six votes of the PDs supplying the margin of victory . . . It is clear that the real victors are the PDs following this afternoon’s vote. [Dessie] O’Malley fully briefed the ambassador on the extent of his victory. Against all prognostications by the pundits, O’Malley not only forced Haughey to be the first ever Fianna Fáil prime minister to lead his party into a coalition but also forced him to concede two seats at the cabinet table plus a junior minister position to the PDs, despite their having only six deputies against 77 for Fianna Fáil.
Anger at 'renegades'
"The PD negotiators had the strong argument that a sole PD minister would be isolated and hence ineffective (O'Malley was personally apprehensive about being alone in a Haughey cabinet of yes men). Against this was the rising tide of Fianna Fáil rank and file anger at seeing the renegade PDs rewarded above those who had remained loyal to the party. In the end, and literally at the 11th hour before the parliament came into session this afternoon, Haughey conceded. O'Malley will go to industry and commerce (a job he has held before), Bobby Molloy to energy and Mary Harney will get an enhanced junior ministership in environment.
“These are all powerful positions of particular value to the PDs and their principled stance of governmental rectitude,” Heckler reported. “At industry and commerce, O’Malley will now be able to pursue his campaign against seeming corruption in the beef export trade and Harney will have in her hands the ability to act on the issues of the national lottery and the redrawing of the constituency boundaries. In short, at first look, Haughey would seem to have conceded to PD pressure across the board. Heckler.”
A follow-up cable expanded on the analysis of the FF-PD coalition.
"By entering coalition for the first ever time, Fianna Fáil has acknowledged that it is now a party like any other . . . Why then did Haughey concede? The bottom line would seem clearly to be Haughey's gut desire to hold on to power running up against the clear evidence of the opinion polls that the electorate just would not stand for another election . . . Was the victory then one for the PDs as a party or a personal victory for Dessie O'Malley? Certainly while the agreed program carries the clear hallmarks of PD policy, it could more accurately be described as a Fianna Fáil government program masterminded by Dessie O'Malley. How long will O'Malley and Molloy be able to project this distinctive PD stamp on to collective cabinet decisions?
“ . . . But the most transparent losers on Wednesday were the parties of the left. Both Labour and the Workers Party had adopted a policy of, essentially, opting out of the government formation process . . .
“In the end, it would seem, after all, that Haughey, the great survivor of Irish politics, has once again fashioned a victory from defeat. In welcoming back his long-time political enemies he projects magnanimity. In entering a coalition he has put national interests above sectarian party concerns. He still has Fine Gael in his pocket on the essential economic and financial issues.
"He has blunted the voice of the left. And he has four years (including the EC presidency for the first half of next year) to stamp his final mark in Irish history and arrange a statesman-like exit from the political scene."
The year 1989 was a dramatic period in Irish politics which 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.
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.
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.
Profile: Margaret Heckler
Legend has it that Peggy Heckler won her chance to become the US ambassador to Ireland two years before she was nominated for that position.
It happened at the Eire Pub, a famous political watering hole in the Dorchester section of Boston that was founded by a Mayo man named Tom Stenson, and where the head barman was a Roscommon man named Martin Nicholson.
When President Ronald Reagan (pictured) walked into the Eire in 1983, Nicholson offered him a Guinness. Reagan demurred and ordered a Ballantine Ale, saying it reminded him of Ballyporeen, his family’s ancestral village in Tipperary.
Nicholson’s favourite memory of that day was not Reagan holding the mug aloft, an iconic photo that went around the world, but what happened after the president drained most of it and put the mug down.
Heckler, the former Massachusetts congresswoman who was then in Reagan’s cabinet, grabbed the mug and took a healthy swig.
“Impressive,’’ said Nicholson.
Truth is, Margaret Heckler earned her political chops as one of the few Republicans to win a seat in congress from staunchly liberal Massachusetts. She also served as Reagan’s secretary for health and human services, one of the biggest portfolios in the presidential cabinet.
She was born Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy in Flushing, New York, in 1931.
She served in Congress for eight terms before losing her seat in 1982, in part because her opposition to federal funding for abortion cost her dearly among the independent voters who are needed to offset the huge disparity between the number of Democrats and Republicans in Massachusetts.
A year later, Reagan put her in charge of the health brief, but her tenure was affected by a very public and ugly divorce from her husband John, who claimed she became a changed person because of her lofty public position.
She knew and loved Ireland and her appointment as ambassador to Ireland, in December 1985, was considered one of Reagan’s better diplomatic postings.
She was widely credited with pushing through Congress a $120 million US grant to the International Fund for Ireland.
Heckler had a high public profile during her time in Ireland and appeared as a grande dame at Dublin events.
The Washington Post described her as “an effective spokesperson for her government’s policies on everything from Central America to international trade”.
Her term as ambassador expired in August 1989.
Heckler now lives just outside Washington, in Arlington, Virginia.
Kevin Cullen in Boston
and Stephen Collins
Profile: James Baker
James Baker became the 61st US secretary of state in January 1989 and served under former president George HW Bush in this role until August 1992, when he was appointed senior counsellor to Bush as well as White House chief of staff.
He had been heavily involved in the Reagan administration and politics generally for almost two decades prior to this. As treasury secretary during the second Reagan administration, he was instrumental in passing the Plaza Accord of September 1985. This was a multilateral agreement that devalued the dollar in order to help the US economy recover from a recession by reducing the country’s account deficit.
Under Bush, he oversaw US foreign policy during the tumultuous end of the Cold War that saw the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. He was also involved in the formulation of policy during the Gulf War of 1991.