How Charles Haughey Transformed Ireland

Haughey’s Achievements

… the point, however, is to change it.
by Brendan Clifford

A liberal reforming Government was toppled in the Irish Republic in February and was replaced by a conservative Government more in tune with the requirements of the Catholic Bishops. That was the only possible interpretation of the replacement of Charles Haughey by Albert Reynolds as Taoiseach, if you kept your eyes on what the Haughey Government was actually doing and on which vested interests suffered most from what it was doing.

But since this is the media age, and the manipulators of media images are the most devout believers in the images they project, the event was depicted as being the opposite of what it was in actual fact. Actual fact has become a dual mystery to those who live with the image, and only a few old-fashioned people still have the ability to see it.

The liberals in the Irish media have been trying to topple Charles Haughey for ten years. Their fixed idea that he is a reactionary is one of the great psychological puzzles of the era. It began with Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien about twenty years ago. O’Brien, as a would-be liberal in the leadership of the Irish Labour Party, disputed with Haughey in the early seventies about national ideals. Because Haughey had in 1970 been made the scapegoat for the gun-running that most people with principle and guts had engaged in at the time of the events of August 1969 in Belfast and Derry, O’Brien must have thought he would be easy prey. But Haughey held his own in the ideological dispute. And he survived the scapegoating to come and replace Jack Lynch, his party leader who had stabbed him in the back. O’Brien, on the other hand, entered the Coalition Government as a senior Cabinet Minister in 1973 and made the painful discovery during the next few years that he had no aptitude for realising his liberal convictions in practical politics. He became a political has-been in 1977, having achieved worse than nothing. (His inflammatory nationalist speeches in the spring of 1974 helped to wreck the power-sharing “Sunningdale” Executive in Belfast.) But he did not draw the reasonable conclusion from his failure that a vital element ‘was missing from his political understanding. Instead, he blamed his failure on some mystical power of evil supposedly exerted by Haughey.

At the last General Election O’Brien flew home on election day from America where he was on a lecture tour. He gave a press conference at Dublin airport, explaining that he had come to cast his vote against his own party, the Labour Party, because he could not trust it not to do a deal with Haughey. There was in fact not the slightest danger of a Labour /Fianna Fail deal. The Labour leader, Dick Spring, has been quite as irrational as Dr O’Brien on the subject of Haughey. It looked as if O’Brien’s motivation was a need to dramatize his hatred of an enemy.

There have been two women in the forefront of Irish politics during the past year or two, one in a figurehead position, the other in a position of real power. Mary Robinson, a leading civil rights barrister, stood for President, put a lot of effort into it, and won due to a fantastic chapter of accidents. She now counts for much less in the real world than she did two years ago.

The other woman is Mary O’Rourke, who was Haughey’s Education Minister until the Cabinet reshuffle last November and was then transferred to Health. As education Minister she prepared a Green Paper (preliminary to a Bill) with the object of making education publicly accountable. Irish Education operates without an Education Act, through the informal influence of the Catholic Church on the Department of Education.

There is no state provision of basic education. The vast majority of schools are owned and controlled by the Catholic Bishops and the remainder by the declining Church of Ireland. Over the past ten years about a dozen “multi-denominational” schools have been set up by groups of parents who wanted a more liberal education for their children. These groups faced a clericalist obstruction from the Education Department under the Labour/ Fine Gael Coalition, but their way has been eased considerably since Haughey took office.

Mrs O ‘Rourke aimed to put the education system as a whole on a more satisfactory footing, and she was acting in conjunction with liberal pressure groups in society. Her replacement of last November, Noel Davern, showed every sign of continuing her work while she applied herself to restructuring the health service. (There is no NHS in the Republic).

The Catholic Church sees itself as having a crucial hegemonic role in both education and health. It was profoundly uneasy about the projected reforms, but would have found it difficult to gain leverage against Haughey while appearing in ecclesiastical dress.

In the past the West British liberals have jeered at Haughey for devising “Irish solutions to Irish problems”. But that was his great strength as a reformer. And the trendy liberals never explained why Irish problems should not have Irish solutions.

The liberals have now done the work of the Church for it and got rid of Haughey. They have been more influential than they ever thought they could be. But their influence was specific to a particular event. They have acted as a catspaw for the Bishops in driving Haughey from office, and in this they were facilitated by the great conspiracy of the Church.

The week after its great triumph the Irish Times was shocked by the sweeping change Reynolds made in the Cabinet. Davern was dropped from Education and Mrs O’Rourke from Health. O’Rourke was offered a junior ministry (Women’s Affairs) and when she refused was given the safe department of Trade. And signs were given that the Education reform was off.

And then the liberals who had been hounding Haughey for ten years were shocked again by the court order confining a fourteen year old girl, pregnant from rape, to the jurisdiction of the 26 counties so that she could not get the abortion she wanted.

Haughey’s Cabinet was not made up of liberals. Fianna Fail is the great nationalist party of the state so it covers the spectrum of opinion with regard to religion. The Minister of Justice and the Attorney General were on the reactionary wing, but that scarcely mattered while Haughey was Taoiseach. But the very moment his controlling hand was removed it mattered a great deal. The Attorney General acted to enforce the Anti-Abortion clause in the Constitution against the girl who had come to Britain for an abortion. (The matter came to the notice of the authorities because her parents asked if they should bring back a sample of the foetus for the purpose of proving the identity of the rapist.)

Mary Robinson would have been in her element fighting the Attorney General on this case. But she is wasting away in the Presidency.

The would-be liberals have been jolted out of the fool’s paradise in which they lived for a day or two after getting rid of Haughey. But they are now trying to blame the Anti-Abortion amendment on Haughey.

In sober fact the Anti-Abortion amendment is due to the other great liberal hero (after Dr O’Brien), Dr Garret Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald took up the “pro-life” issue as Fine Gael leader in the 1981 election campaign. SPUC was then an unimportant fringe group,. The boost given to it by Fitzgerald made it famous and influential overnight.

Fianna Fail could not sit idly by while Fine Gael played the anti-abortion card against it. Fitzgerald won the election but when it came to formulating the Amendment he found himself trumped by Fianna Fail on the opposition benches.

But if he had not been so irresponsible 25 to seek party advantage by taking up !tire matter in the first place, the anti-abortion referendum would never have happened.

Haughey has never stirred up either theological issues in the Republic: or nationalist passions in the North. Tire~ abortion amendment which has led to the imprisoning of a fourteen girl within lire jurisdiction of the Republic, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement which has raised the killing rate in the North which was in steep decline in 1985, are both the work of Dr O’Brien’s good friend and kindred spirit. Dr Fitzgerald.

Finally it must be said that the Workers Party has behaved disgracefully over the past six months. It has a mania about Haughey that almost equals Dr O’Brien’s. Proinsias de Rossa bayed with the pack and he spewed out bile at Noel Davern on his appointment to Education and was disowned by Workers Party members in Davern’s Tipperary constituency who knew he was a progressive. Davern’s crime was that he pointed out that a Workers Party member working in its printing operation in the Dail had been convicted of terrorist crime in the North. This was a very mild response to the insufferably holier-than-thou attitudinising of the Workers Party towards everybody else in the matter of terrorism. De Rossa’s tirade was all the more inexcusable in that his terrorist was given security clearance on Haughey’s authority after being refused it by the routine vetting.

A certain amount of humbug is unavoidable in politics. But the humbug of the Workers Party is extravagant and wanton.

A moderately blind eye is the best way of coping with individual matters as affected by the Northern Ireland business. But the Workers Party carries on about the motes in other people’s eyes and denounces them if they notice the beam in their own.

It was frantically active in disrupting the progressive Government which has just fallen. And that will take a lot of forgetting.

It is conceivable that the reaction will over-reach itself and that some good will come of it all in the end. But if so that will be no thanks to the Workers Party.

This article appeared in March 1992, in Issue 28 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at