Monday, 23 May 2011

Irish Rivals: Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey

The history of Irish politics in the 1980s is dominated by the rivalry of two men, Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, who succeeded each other as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Republic on four occasions between 1979 and 1992.

The two had first met when they attended University College Dublin during the forties. They came from very different backgrounds. FitzGerald was a son of parents who had both been involved in the iconic moment of Irish nationalism which ultimately led to independence, the Easter Rising of 1916, and his father – who was also a poet – became the first Irish minister for external affairs. His mother had a Northern Irish protestant background, though she herself was a fervent nationalist. The young Garret had spent summers in France just before the war, giving him a fluent command of the language. As such, his background was very much that of the political and intellectual elite in the country.

Charles Haughey
Haughey had more humble origins, his father being an army officer who became an invalid relatively early in life. He studied commerce (achieving a first class degree) while FitzGerald majored in history and French. While they were students they both courted a fellow student, Joan O’Farrell, who quickly showed her preference for FitzGerald. They married in 1947 and their love for each other was legendary until she died fifty two years later. Haughey went on to marry Maureen Lemass, the daughter of the government minister and future Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, whom he had also got to know at college, in 1951.

Haughey quickly began to build a career in politics, joining the ruling Fianna Fáil party and becoming Minister for Justice in his father-in-law’s cabinet in 1961. He made a name for himself as a young, dynamic minister – though even at this stage many of his actions were characterised by a ruthless promotion of his own image. He also achieved a reputation as a man-about-town and bon vivant and a friend of businessmen and people with commercial interests.

FitzGerald was also politically interested but used the fifties and early sixties to establish himself as an economist, first at Aer Lingus and later as a lecturer in his own alma mater, ultimately achieving a PhD in Economics in 1968. He also built an international reputation as a free-lance journalist, commentator and consultant. Though courted by Fianna Fáil, including Haughey, he joined the old party of his father, Fine Gael, entering the Irish upper house in 1967 and being elected to the Dáil (the Irish House of Commons) in 1969.

To understand the background to the stories of the two it is necessary to briefly explain the distinctions between the two major Irish political parties. Fianna Fáil, the party founded by the doyen of the Irish struggle for independence, Eamonn de Valera, understood itself as more than simply a political party – it was a national movement, the soul and guarantor of true Irish republicanism. Fine Gael had its origins among the more pragmatic revolutionaries who had accepted the original Treaty leading to Irish independence in 1921 (which de Valera had opposed as not going far enough). Largely under the influence of FitzGerald and other likeminded younger members it moved from a quite conservative position to a social centrist one, in the character of a classic European Christian Democrat party, from the late sixties onwards.

The outbreak of the troubles in Northern Ireland led to Haughey’s first major political scandal. Implicated, as Finance Minister, in the use of Irish government funds to buy arms for the IRA, he was fired from the government and stood trial. The court failed to convict because of contradictory claims by Haughey and other government ministers, the judge ruling that he could not conclude who was telling the truth. Haughey remained a Fianna Fáil member of parliament and worked hard within the party over many years to prepare a challenge for the leadership – a challenge which finally succeeded in 1979.

On the day Haughey was nominated for Taoiseach in the Dáil, FitzGerald – who, having been Foreign Minister during the 70s, was now Fine Gael and opposition leader – made a speech in which he referred to Haughey as having a “flawed predigree.” It was a phrase which he later claimed he regretted, explaining that what he meant was a “flawed political pedigree.” Personally, I (and I think most of those who heard it and were not looking for gratuitous offence) never understood it any other way. I still believe he was right.

The following decade saw the two of them alternating frequently as leaders of the country against a background of economic problems, ongoing violence in Northern Ireland and a battle for the soul and future identity of Ireland in social issues between those supporting a secular, liberal, pluralist agenda and an aggressive right-wing Catholic movement. FitzGerald tried to institute a “constitutional crusade” for a “genuine republic” free of sectarian laws. He had little success with it, a referendum to introduce divorce being rejected and a revanchist right-wing “pro-life” amendment to the constitution being pushed through, despite his misgivings. Haughey, as was to be expected, opportunistically embraced the various positions pushed by the Catholic right. By 1987, he seemed to have triumphed. Back in power, though with an uncertain majority, he had ridden out various scandals, internal party challenges to his leadership – and Garret FitzGerald, who resigned the leadership of his party having failed to be re-elected as Taoiseach.

Haughey, having in opposition opposed FitzGerald’s attempts to further the peace process in Northern Ireland and the reforms necessary to put Ireland in its economic feet, now embraced these policies. It can be argued that much of the groundwork which led to the Celtic Tiger phenomenon was done between 1987 and 1992. In more ways than one.

But his hold on power, the lodestone of his life, was weakening. The inconsistencies, the questionable deals, the shafting of rivals and opponents, the casual misuse of privilege were mounting up and seeping into the open. In 1992 he chose to resign rather than be finally, ignominiously hounded out of power.

It didn’t really help him. The years of his retirement were filled with revelations and investigations of his abuses. Party funds and donations pilfered. Pressure on and threats to banks and public servants. Bribes taken, among others for Irish passports for Saudi businessmen. Over IR£ 8 million accepted from benefactors in Irish business between 1978 and 1986 alone. An affair with a society lady through all the years where he had supported the causes of the Catholic right. The means by which he financed his lavish life-style, including his own private island and yacht, became clear and he avoided formal prosecution only because of sophisticated legal filibustering, illness and, finally, death.

Garret FitzGerald
Following his retirement, FitzGerald remained a respected figure in Irish public life, publishing his autobiography, resuming his work as a journalist and commentator, becoming Chancellor of the National University of Ireland. The nineties saw many of his visions for which he had struggled so passionately come true; Irish society became increasingly pluralist and liberal and the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland, much along the lines he had been suggesting for over twenty years.

I must admit at this point to personal bias. I never liked Haughey. Growing up in Ireland in the seventies and as a young man in the eighties, he never managed to draw me into that aura of fascination and admiration which he seemed to be able to inspire in so many. There were enough questions about him, his integrity and his wealth which I felt were not being answered at all and I abhorred the image of charismatic roguish aristocratic competence he cultivated – I regarded him as a dangerous, power-hungry crook, without any principles worth mentioning apart from his own overweening ego. In Dublin in the early eighties there were enough rumours about him, but his followers, and indeed frequently the majority in the country, seemed uninterested. Nearly twenty years before it finally became public, for example, I would have been able to tell you the name of his mistress. Not that a politician having an extra-marital affair bothered me particularly (that is part of his private life), but the hypocrisy with which he, at the same time, courted the ultra-conservative Catholic vote sickened me.

And I admired FitzGerald – his intelligence, his honesty, his vision of a genuinely pluralist republic. He was not perfect; his very strengths could become weaknesses. His government from 1982 to 1987 was characterised by gridlock within his coalition and I can well sympathise with members of his cabinet who despaired of eternal, fruitless discussions because Garret frequently insisted on trying to convince others of the correctness of his opinion rather than pound his fist on the table and, as Taoiseach [Prime Minister], simply lay down the law.

A typical intellectual, his grasp of so many issues was so deep and his mind so quick that he failed to see that others could not always follow his reasoning and that he needed to bring them with him to where he had long since conceptually arrived. He was, in many ways, the typically absent-minded professor, once going out to campaign for votes with two different shoes on. A famous comment attributed to him went, “That’s all right in practice, but how does it work in theory?”

He was always supremely approachable and always ready to discuss and explain. I remember coming into the Arts Building in UCD one evening sometime in the early eighties when I was studying there and seeing a group of students, some of whom I knew, gathered around a bank in front of one of the lecture theatres. There sat Garret (he would have been leader of the Opposition at the time) chatting with those who came by, answering and asking questions. And there are thousands of other Irish people who can tell similar stories.

His opponents, most of whom were firmly in the Haughey camp, derisively gave him the nickname, “Garret the Good.” Reading the many tributes published about him following his death last Thursday, it struck me that he had, in the course of his life, genuinely lived up to it. And I found myself reflecting again on his epic struggles with Haughey during the eighties, on the contrasts between the two and what they show about Ireland then and in the years since.

I mentioned earlier that the measures taken by Haughey’s last government at the end of the eighties to reform and sanitise Irish public finances laid some of the foundations of what became the Celtic Tiger. Other less sanitary foundations were also laid; an admiration for sharp dealing, a culture of political hubris, a dedication to the notion of individual advancement above any consideration of the public good, a fundamental lack of any sense of public morality – particularly in relation to business – and, finally, the loss of any connection to sane reality. This was the legacy Haughey left to his party, Fianna Fáil, and they followed it through from 1997 onwards when they were continually in government. Despite a few warnings (among others from FitzGerald in his weekly column in The Irish Times) they overheated the economy, mismanaged the boom and bungled the bust.

And the Irish people bought into it all, as they bought into the glamorous promises made by Haughey in the eighties. They are now paying the price. (As are Fianna Fáil, finally thrown out of power and decimated as a political force in the general election three months ago.)

Garret FitzGerald’s lasting legacy can be seen in other areas. His vision of a pluralist secular republic has largely been realised. The current front-runner in the campaign for the next president of Ireland, the election of whom will take place later this year, is the openly gay protestant, David Norris. And, as many have commented in the past few days, there was something symbolic about the fact that he died while Queen Elizabeth was making the first visit of a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland since independence. Without peace in Northern Ireland – a peace founded on the principles of tolerance and respect for different cultural traditions for which FitzGerald worked all his life – that visit would not have been conceivable.


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  1. I thought Haughey had sweet bugger all going for him as Taoiseach, and Fianna Fail were just a bunch of corrupt self serving politicos. And Fine Gael wasn't much better. Our TD was a labour guy. And I managed to vote in the Irish elections though technically I am not a citizen of the republic.

  2. Francis, thanks for this thorough backgrounder on Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald. As I was out of the country for most if not all of this time I was not familiar with the rivalry between these two men although I must say I had similar thoughts to yours regarding their integrity - Garret FitzGerald was truly a great statesman; a giant in comparison to Charles Haughey.

  3. An interesting post Francis. I think Colleen's comments regarding Fianna Fail just about sum-up both sides of politics here in Australia, especially New South Wales.

  4. What a contrast between the two men. Fitzgerald was one of Ireland's greatest statesmen while Haughey was a piece of criminal drek.

    Fitgerald will be greatly missed while I daresay even the worms turned their noses up ah Charlie's corpse

  5. The epic battles between Haughey and FitzGerald (or 'Charlie' and 'Garret' as it was personalised) dominated Irish politics in the 1980s


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