Focus on the Haughey era is stifling


Back in 1975, when I was a teenager beginning to read newspapers, an article about something that happened in 1945 would have seemed like ancient history. So too would a piece about something in 1955, and even 1965, just 10 years before.

Even by 1980, then relearning history at UCD, I would have thought that long analytical current-affairs pieces in the media about the arms trial of 1970 were so much history. In fact, 1970 was officially the end of history, since it was the last year covered in the Leaving Certificate history syllabus. That is the way it has remained, by the way. Under a draft new syllabus, history will end in 1989, 11 years ago.

So, ironically, the end of history would jump from the arms trial to the first coming together of the PDs and Fianna Fail in 1989.

It only underlines that the current obsession of the political and media class with Charles Haughey's money, political life and doings must seem like history to most under-25s - and even to some well past 30. We would think it self-indulgent if the political class of 1914 had spent most of their time raking over the Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea liaison, and the Parnellite/anti-Parnellite split of 1890.

The late F.S.L. Lyons, biographer of The Lost Leader, says it took 10 years for that split to heal fully. Ten years, yes, but not 20 or 30. tragic, and even shameful that the events of 1922-23 dominated the first 60 years of political life in the Republic and the irrational Fianna Fail/Fine Gael split.

Now here we are in the early 21st century, facing another whirlwind of media and political analysis and argument about events of up to 25 years ago in the political life of an old man.

The obsession with Charles Haughey is explained at one level by age. Many in leadership in politics and the media were engaged in political and journalistic battle with the man and his followers. It is natural that surviving combatants want to tie up the many loose ends of events during their lives.

Gradually though, that becomes more a historical pursuit with diminishing connection to present political challenges. That is where the Haughey obsession is rapidly moving.

Was Charles Haughey corrupt? The answer matters, but to whom and for what?

The tribunal won't provide a formal answer in terms of criminality. Nothing will change for today's issues depending on the answer. No policy will be changed or reassessed in the light of the Haughey statements, analysis and tribunal judgment. No solution will be nearer, no political purpose firmer. No improvement in anyone's life depends on answers about Charles Haughey.

Might we govern ourselves better after all the analysis? Might we put in place more rules to prevent scenarios which are still being revealed? No rules can stop those who would lie, cheat and hide, only make it more difficult to do so. The rules about public office now in place are quite strong and it is doubtful that more rules will deliver better outcomes. Credit is rightly due to the last government for this and for its freedom of information culture. Is public funding of political parties the remaining policy issue? I doubt if anyone really needs to hear more Haughey analysis to make up their mind on that now.

Most importantly, Ireland has changed since the Haughey era. It is a much more open country. Who you know and who you are matters much less than before. The closed bad aspects of village culture in public and business life are fading. People expect there to be a meritocracy, as evidenced in reactions to the Hugh O'Flaherty nomination. The thousands returning from abroad have little time for the rigidities and hierarchies of an earlier Ireland in which cliques and clubs, the golden circles, could prosper. We are liberated by internationalisation, just as people fled villages for the freedoms of cities.

So what explains the hype about Haughey? The Moriarty and Flood tribunals have been invested with a meaning that they are about fitness to govern as well as good governance. It's not about the fitness of Mr Haughey to govern in his time, but whether any members of the present Government can credibly be accused of being unfit to govern. These tribunals are irredeemably politicised in that sense by the political and media class.

It is paradoxical that so much media and political comment in Ireland turned its nose up at the investigations into Bill Clinton, the purpose of which was to answer the fitness to govern question directly about an incumbent President. Here, unlike Parnell and Clinton, the direct question is not even about an incumbent who might affect present issues. Only an indirect question is about our incumbents, and it too will be answered totally politically.

In the Clinton case, a political judgment was reached by an editorial in this newspaper. It described his "recklessness, misjudgment and dishonesty", yet it said he had an opportunity to end his presidency "on a strong and creative note,

good news for those who value Mr Clinton's international contribution".

One wonders if the same latitude could be shown by any media or political outlet to an Irish incumbent found to have behaved in the same way, except by that person's most ardent supporters. It would remind you of Fianna Fail

blind faith, nearly. If the political class continues to give rein to an obsession with Haughey, it will bore younger voters.

If it gives top priority to arguing derivatively from an old man's actions as to who among us is fit to govern, it will be no wonder that politicians will be all tarred with the same brush as being out of touch. There are so many more challenges to face and opportunities to solve real problems. If the political class shows that its top priority is the past, it will alienate those looking to the future.

Oliver O'Connor is contributing editor at Finance magazine.


Mary Holland is on leave