‘A failed political entity’: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland question, 1945–1992

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Merrion Press
ISBN 9781785370977

Reviewed by: Martin Mansergh

While many books have been written about Charles Haughey by journalists, this is the first academic study focused on his Northern Ireland policy and that draws on archival sources available until the mid-1980s. For that reason alone it will be widely consulted. It is a sequel to Liverpool Hope University lecturer Stephen Kelly’s previous book, Fianna Fáil, partition and Northern Ireland 1926–1971.

The title, ‘A failed political entity’, from Haughey’s first presidential speech to the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis in February 1980, is an apt one. He once explained privately that irredentism—in other words, the approach that partition was fundamentally wrong in the first place, a view he certainly held—was less persuasive than the more pragmatic argument that Northern Ireland was a failed political entity. Its devolved system of government based on majority rule had collapsed after 50 years, being unable to sustain either full civil rights for all or to cope effectively with a renewed and ferocious IRA assault. Apart from the failed Sunningdale initiative, it had not been possible to put it together again on a power-sharing basis. That remained the case until well after the Good Friday Agreement. Apart from dissident republican opponents of the Agreement, no one today would dream of describing Northern Ireland as a failed political entity, and to that extent Haughey’s thesis, though plausible at the time, has been superseded.

In appreciating this book, the reader has to overcome three sources of irritation. Grammatical, spelling and factual errors occur too often for comfort, with two typos on the first page. Paddy Cooney was never a Fianna Fáil senator. Northern Ireland did not cease to be an election issue after June 1981. FitzGerald’s espousal of a joint north–south security policing and court system softened Fianna Fáil’s fall in November 1982 to 45% of the vote. Haughey’s confusion in a television debate with FitzGerald over renegotiating the Article 1 constitutional clause in the Anglo-Irish Agreement contributed to his just missing again an overall majority in 1987.

The second irritation is the use of terminology. ‘The Irish Republic’, long favoured by British and Northern Ireland media, is neither the name nor the description of the state. In a speech at Queen’s University Belfast in 1962, Charles Haughey never said, as reported by the Belfast Telegraph, that ‘the Constitution of the Irish Republic guaranteed freedom of religion to every citizen’. The terms he used were the Republic of Ireland and, significantly, Northern Ireland. Equally eccentric is Kelly’s systematic use of the ‘federal’ paraphrase to describe Northern Ireland’s offered status in a united Ireland. Northern Ireland’s status is that of a devolved region of the UK, and de Valera’s offer was to transfer that status to a united Ireland, though realistically the right of Northern Ireland to its own institutions would have needed to be entrenched following negotiation.

The third source of irritation is the judgemental attitude of the author, who, while highlighting positive aspects of Haughey’s Northern Ireland record, seems to want to reassure readers at regular intervals that he has not gone native. The disapproving adjective used constantly is ‘opportunistic’. Even high-minded politicians have to be opportunistic. Chancellor Kohl was highly opportunistic after the Berlin Wall fell, when he seized the hem of history and pushed through German reunification. Haughey as president of the European Council in 1990 did everything to facilitate this, despite virulent objections from Mrs Thatcher. Years later, addressing the Dáil, Kohl paid fulsome tribute to him. What is true is that with the peace process Northern Ireland ceased to be a source of political contention in the Republic.

Kelly attaches as book-ends to his narrative three episodes outside of Haughey’s career as a national politician from 1957 to 1992. Like most writers about Haughey, in highlighting the episode outside Trinity College, where as a student he participated in burning a British flag on VE Day 1945, Kelly overlooks the fact that ever since Armistice Day in 1919 there were nearly annual confrontations between Trinity and UCD students based at Earlsfort Terrace—Empire loyalism versus Irish nationalism.

Even more is made of a submission in 1955 of a memorandum by the Ó Cléirigh Cumann in Dublin North-East, of which both Charles Haughey and George Colley were members, advocating that the state should sponsor a guerrilla campaign in the north and supply it with arms, allied to a previous suggestion by Colley about creating a border incident to internationalise the problem. As recounted in Kelly’s previous book, de Valera asked Colley whether he would be prepared to be a G (Green) Special along the border. It is probable that both men were involved in drafting this submission, but there is no definite information. Haughey as minister for justice presided over the ending of the IRA border campaign in 1962.

At the other end, key importance is attached to an unverifiable statement from an unnamed source to a northern journalist, claiming that Haughey rejected the Good Friday Agreement because of the unviability of the northern state. One might ask whether it matters what he—or Mrs Thatcher, for that matter—privately thought of the Good Friday Agreement, especially as what retired politicians do bears no necessary relationship to what they did in office. Haughey was not generous in private about other taoisigh, though he had a good rapport with fellow fox-hunter Liam Cosgrave, offsetting the Jack Lynch–Garret FitzGerald pairing.

Academics crave consistency more than politicians. Haughey happily went along with the Lemass cross-border initiative, and entertained NI agriculture minister Harry West at home. There is no evidence that he was suppressing his deeper instincts.

Kelly throws no new light on the events from August 1969 to the Arms Crisis in 1970. Vincent Browne’s foreword is more cogent on the subject. Unfortunately, most commentary wants to play the blame game, not disentangle the truth. The whole affair was so messy and the lines so crossed that, having been acquitted of assisting the illegal importation of arms, because the verdict meant that it was a covert operation that had been rumbled and gone wrong, Haughey simply decided to stay away from the subject. From one point of view it was an albatross round his neck; from another point of view it gave him the priceless CV of a patriot subjected to felon-setting.

Some points are habitually missed. Jack Lynch’s broadcast of 1969 helped to precipitate the arrival of British troops in the north, necessitating finally a complete reversal of the British arms-length policy since the 1920s. Secondly, the perceived abandonment of nationalists by the Dublin government after 1970 amongst more militant and deprived members of the nationalist community did as much unintentionally to accelerate the development of the IRA as any previous lines of communication. Military intervention only if Britain failed to protect communities under attack would in other circumstances have disastrously backfired.

Haughey’s strength on the question of Northern Ireland as well as his impressive ministerial record saw him elected taoiseach in 1979. His diplomacy with Mrs Thatcher saw the Northern Ireland question raised to a higher plane, and the approach was radically reworked under FitzGerald to produce the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The second hunger strike was frustrating for a man who could have resolved it but who felt bound to protect such Anglo-Irish progress as there had been facing an election, whilst feeling the damage. In the long run, when peace came, all prisoners were treated as political in everything but name.

Thereafter he hardened his line, not willing to be a supplicant and determined to defend his republican flank. In opposition, he backed the prisoners’ five demands, opposed FitzGerald’s constitutional crusade to win over unionists as naïve, and was critical of the dilution (by Mrs Thatcher) of the Joint Studies. Much of what he wanted, a parliamentary tier and an all-round constitutional conference, did come about later. Back in government, working with Hume and the SDLP, he checked the last British internal initiative of James Prior in 1982. His opposition to the Falklands war, deplored by diplomats, caused no lasting damage to British–Irish relations. Regarding it, like most European leaders privately, as a colonial anachronism, he gambled that the fall of Mrs Thatcher after the sinking of the Argentinian battleship General Belgrano with heavy loss of life might produce a more amenable partner, but instead, victorious, her position was immeasurably strengthened.

The gestation of the north–south constitutional nationalist alternative that became the New Ireland Forum began under Haughey, and in terms of modernising the nationalist position had more substance than just the constitutional models, on which Kelly concentrates.

In opposition from 1982 to 1987, Haughey had FitzGerald mostly on the defensive but overplayed his opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, where wait-and-see would have been more appropriate. It led to the formation of the Progressive Democrats, depriving him again of an overall majority though not of single-party government. Back in government, he operated the Anglo-Irish Agreement without too much zeal. The best work it did was in beefing up fair employment legislation. He would have welcomed north–south bodies, but not the devolution going with them. He got on well with Peter Brooke, who called on him every time he was in Dublin. Kelly is mistaken in writing that Haughey was only prepared to change Articles 2 and 3 for a united Ireland. A strong Irish dimension would have sufficed. He explored political alternatives, one that would have involved meeting UUP leader James Molyneaux, and one involving dialogue at a personal remove with the republican leadership. He handed over the threads to Albert Reynolds, who drove forward with them to a ceasefire. He did not, as Kelly claims, rejoice in the fall of Margaret Thatcher, knowing that the bell was beginning to toll for him too.

The fluid situation in Northern Ireland from the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 created hopes that it might end in a united Ireland. That was not to be, as unionists with British support held firm. The settlement eventually arrived at was one with which nearly everyone could live, and to which Haughey had contributed along the way.

Martin Mansergh is a former Northern Ireland adviser to Charles J. Haughey.


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