Thursday, June 22, 2006

Charles Haughey

Jun 22nd 2006
From The Economist print edition

Charles Haughey, four times taoiseach of Ireland, died on June 13th, aged 80

Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland!
Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland!

CHARLES HAUGHEY got a good send-off, with a state funeral and all the trimmings, verbal and decorative. Bertie Ahern, Ireland's current leader, said that history's judgment “will be favourable”. Foes and critics alike praised Mr Haughey's common touch, his panache, his brains and his energy.

Charles Haughey was a technicolour politician in a monochrome landscape. He burst onto the Irish political scene at a time when it featured dull men distinguished only by their austerity. Elected to the Dail in 1957, the flamboyant Mr Haughey quickly became the foremost member of a group tagged the “men in mohair suits” for their smart clothes and brash ways.

Although an Anglophobe by birth and conviction, he cultivated the most elaborate tastes and mannerisms of the Anglo-Irish gentry. He had mansions, estates and a private island. He liked antique furniture, and fine art, horses, clothes and wines.

He wanted Ireland to swagger too. He had embassies renovated, and encouraged diplomats to splurge on entertaining. He liked high culture, and basking in the reflected glory of the literary and artistic elite. One of his most memorable innovations was freeing creative types from income tax. He gave free travel for pensioners, a fair deal for widows, and tax breaks to the bloodstock industry.

History may well judge that he was the most gifted Irish politician of his generation. But it is harder to argue that he put those talents to good use. Ireland was a benighted place when his political career began, and a bright one when he died. But that was largely despite his influence, not thanks to it. To that extent, Mr Haughey represented the worst side of his country's post-war history.

Few charges against him stuck, though. Many had long wondered how he supported a lavish lifestyle on a politician's salary. But the Irish media, cowed by the country's ferocious libel laws, investigated half-heartedly. Only in 1999 did a corruption tribunal identify $10m-plus of the lavish gifts he had received from businessmen, and the way his bank simply cancelled a large chunk of his overdraft (Mr Haughey had warned them “I can be a very troublesome adversary”).

The revelations were tantalisingly partial: pleading ill-health, Mr Haughey shunned the inquiry. He brushed off the allegations, arguing either that “finances were peripheral” or claiming a precedent: had not Winston Churchill been financed by business admirers too?

Perhaps, but only when out of power, and Churchill did not plunder the Tory coffers; Mr Haughey used those of his Fianna Fail party as his private piggy-bank. He was a flagrant tax-evader: when the authorities finally caught up with him, he had to sell his estate to pay them. Even his greatest fans would not call him fastidious. It was best to call him simply “Boss”. There was cronyism for chums and thuggish treatment of the rest. Unfriendly journalists' phones were bugged. His justice minister even considered having dissident members of his parliamentary party arrested. Days before his death he warned a British journalist who was getting too nosey: “My arms reach far, and people have been found floating down the Thames.”

A marriage into an Irish political dynasty was the springboard for his later career. His own roots were military: his family fought against the British to win Irish independence. The mutual loathing was lifelong. In 1945 the young Mr Haughey, then a humble commerce student in Dublin, led a crowd that burned the British flag to mark VE-Day. As finance minister until 1970, he was twice tried (and acquitted) of running guns to the IRA.

Confounding those who thought that scandal had ended his political career, he returned to his party's front bench in 1975. When it took power in 1977, he became health minister, striking an ingenious compromise—“an Irish solution to an Irish problem”—on the issue of birth control: contraceptives could be available on prescription, to married couples only.

He became head of a short-lived minority government in late 1979, when the economy was floundering because of high taxes. He preached austerity, yet practised prodigality, doling out favours and privileges with flair and precision. An election in 1981 put him briefly in opposition; he returned to office briefly the next year for a few more months of profligate populism and misrule.

In opposition, as evidence of his heavy-handed ways came to light, Mr Haughey's party split. But amid growing frustration with Ireland's economic stagnation, he scraped back into power in 1987 for a third minority term of office. This one, and a coalition government that followed, lasted for five years and, at first, proved remarkably successful, chiefly thanks to a decision by the Fine Gael opposition to support all moves towards fiscal reform. That allowed the fierce spending and tax cuts that began to transform Ireland from a banana republic into a “Celtic Tiger”.

But Mr Haughey had little time to enjoy the fruits of this rare period of goodish government. Old scandals resurfaced and new ones broke. He left politics for good in 1992, his reputation increasingly tattered, and with a lot worse to come.

1 comment:

Bg anon said...

I like this piece - it matches my own impressions of Haughey and contemporary Ireland generally.