Charlie – a dangerous legacy

IRELAND had a close shave during the life and times of Charlie Haughey. We nearly succumbed to a version of the ‘big man’ political cultures that have caused such havoc in Latin America and Africa.

There is something deeply distrubing about admiration for the persona of Charlie Haughey, as if the pursuit of power and the exercise of charisma can outweight any wrongdoing.

People all over the country will relay stories of the things that Charlie did for them or anecdotes of his escapades. He was a fabled man-of-the-people. How this reputation continues to endure is beyone me as his extravagant and semi-fuedal lifestyle was so far removed from the experiences of ordinary Irish people.

There’s no doubt that Charlie Haughey’s life is an entertaining tale. Its twists and turns mirrored Ireland’s struggle for success. The irony is that Ireland took off just as Charlie’s fortunes finally dipped. 

In the 1980’s a significant portion of Ireland’s political culture became corrupt. At the same time Charlie Haughey was taking money from a leading businessman. Are these things related? Was it Charlie’s fault or was he part of the culture of the time?

Take two decisions. The IFSC and his decision to accept money from businessmen. 

Charlie Haughey took the decision to set up the IFSC. If it was today there would have been a consultant’s report, a cost benefit analysis, a public enquiry, an environmental impact statement and so on. Back then Charlie made a decision and Ireland has benefited to the tune of billions of euro. Over 10,000 people work in the IFSC.

Charlie Haughey also accepted money from businessmen, most notably Ben Dunne, while he was Taoiseach. The money was to support his private life and there has been no evidence that these were corrupt payments. But in accepting this money he betrayed the office of taoiseach by putting his personal wellbeing in the hands of wealthy people. And, of course, he didn’t pay income tax on these monies until they were revealed.

So Charlie Haughey, like everyone else, had his good and bad side. The good was great but the bad meant that he was not fit for high office.  

Furthermore, the fact that he was never brought to court for his various offences leaves a bad taste in the mouth. People have been locked up for not paying their TV licences while Charlie Haughey was allowed to live out his days in splendour in Kinsealy. And then he received a state funeral. A flawed republic, surely?

Many people supported Charlie because they suspected a plot against him by the Dublin 4 set. He had the aura of an anti-establishment figure about him. He is held in great affection by many, particularly on the northside. And while there may be good grounds for that affection locally, there should also be acknowlegment of the downside.

Term limits exist in politics partly in order to limit the damage done by politicians who go bad. Maybe Charlie Haughey’s career lasted to0 long, with too many favours and too many spats.

Ultimately, during this era a cult of personality arose, which still haunts Fianna Fail and threatened lasting damage to the fabirc of Irish democracy. It could have been a dangerous legacy.

If you hear the old graveside refrain “we’ll never see his like again”, in the case of Charlie Haughey you might want to decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing.