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Diarmaid Ferriter: Latest assessment of Haughey era seems derailed by deference

New biography devotes more attention to family rejection of Moriarty contents than to findings

Some of those writing about Charles Haughey amid the political upheavals of the 1980s and during his retirement in the 1990s were aware their assessments might prove short-lived.

Journalist Peter Murtagh, for example, wrote in 1999 that Haughey was “a dangerous, self-obsessed, narcissistic bully”, but suggested “there is no doubt that history will be kinder to Haughey than are today’s commentators, myself included. It is ever thus: being so close to events means one cannot determine the dross, the irrelevancies, the things that only the passage of time can discard as useless”.

After Ben Dunne described giving Haughey bank drafts for £1.3 million in 1991, Haughey denied receiving these donations, but the McCracken Tribunal in 1997 established that he had; Haughey subsequently admitted as much and that he had misled his own legal team. Over the course of the next few years Haughey's reputation was further battered by exposure of his exceptional greed. The Moriarty tribunal unravelled the scale of the payments to him from rich men, the extent of his lavish spending, and debts that were written off. In historian Patrick Maume's stinging assertion, "The glamorous man of mystery now appeared as a seedy beggar."

As leader of Fianna Fáil in 2000, Bertie Ahern declared that Haughey had disregarded Fianna Fáil's ethical standards

The first Moriarty report concluded Haughey received more than £9 million from businessmen between 1979 and 1996, that his receipt of such money was unethical, and that he had done corrupt favours for some donors. The incidence and scale of these payments, concluded Moriarty, “particularly during difficult economic times nationally, and when governments led by Mr Haughey were championing austerity, can only be said to have devalued the quality of a modern democracy”.

Haughey was well able to meet what were deemed to be his tax liabilities in 2000 when he made a settlement of £6 million with revenue by selling 15 acres of his Abbeville estate to the properly developers Treasury Holdings. Except for house plots gifted to his children, the remainder of the estate was then sold to Manor Homes for between €35 and €45 million with Haughey allowed to remain there until his death in 2006.

As leader of Fianna Fáil in 2000, Bertie Ahern declared that Haughey had disregarded Fianna Fáil's ethical standards; that his behaviour was a deviation from the party's proud history, "not just during the period of the founders of our party but at all times in our history, and more importantly it offends against the ethics and integrity of what our party stands for in relation to the public institutions of our State". In reviewing Gary Murphy's new biography of Haughey in last week's Sunday Times, however, Ahern asserted: "Throughout his long public career Haughey never forgot the sacrifices of his parents, his northside roots or the quintessential Dublin working-class values that were instilled in him growing up."

This must rank as one of the most ridiculous things written about Haughey and would be laughable if it was not so offensive, especially to working-class Dubliners. Haughey sought to remove himself as far as he could from their “values” and “roots” to the point of obscenity. How many of those Dubs were able to regard the addition of a swimming pool to their mansion, as Haughey did, as “the best money he ever spent”?

Murphy had 'unique' access to Haughey's papers which he describes as a 'rich tapestry'

How many were able to declare, as Haughey did to the McCracken Tribunal in 1997, that “my private finances were purely peripheral to my life” because there was bag man to collect the cash that he did not earn? Granted, many Dubs could surely attest, as Haughey did, that “there was no room” in his life “for any sort of an extravagant lifestyle”, but that was another of his grotesque lies.

These issues were hardly “dross” or “irrelevancies”. Haughey desired to be a transformative politician but did not deliver on his ambition, partly because what PJ Mara referred to as Haughey’s “great sense of himself” took precedence and he became too compromised by his greed and recklessness.

To his credit, Murphy has worked hard over eight years to assess Haughey fairly and there is much of value in his book. But his assertion that “there was no evidence of any political impropriety by Haughey in relation to the monies he received” is problematic. Murphy had “unique” access to Haughey’s papers which he describes as a “rich tapestry”, but it is a pity there is no reflection on the limitations of those papers or a comprehensive list or explanation of their volume.

Murphy also enjoyed the close co-operation of the Haughey family. And it is revealing that in relation to the Moriarty tribunal – the first report of which, like Murphy’s biography, runs to 700 pages and was published after nine years of work – Murphy devotes more attention to the rejection by the Haughey family of its contents than to Moriarty’s findings. Reaching a “balanced” assessment of Haughey, it seems, can still be complicated by unwarranted deference.