Stephen Kelly, ‘A Failed Political Entity’: Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992 (Merrion Press, 2016, 446 pp, €22.50 PB, €49.99 HB, ISBN 978-1-78537-097-7)
Charles J. Haughey remains one of the most controversial, if not the most controversial, political figures in late twentieth century Ireland. A problem for anyone attempting to write about him is that he is almost universally despised by media and academia in Ireland. This might be due to his undoubted involvement in political corruption and skullduggery of various types (only the very credulous and perhaps duplicitous don’t believe that Haughey was personally and politically corrupt). But it may also be because Haughey is associated with anti-partitionism, republicanism and ‘the North’ itself and therefore provokes a visceral reaction from a southern Irish establishment that today fear any hint of irredentism. Haughey they suggest, either tried to lead the Republic into war with Britain in 1969 or at least was partially responsible for establishing the Provisional IRA. (Paradoxically of course many northern republicans maintain a soft spot for Haughey as someone who took them and their grievances seriously). While some critics at least accept that he played a significant role in the beginnings of the peace process, (and in formulating policy in other areas such as social partnership) many more refuse to give Haughey credit for anything. To me this again suggests how the legacy of over 20 years of war in the North continues to inform southern views on a whole range of issues.
Stephen Kelly, the author of a significant book on Fianna Fáil and partition (Irish Academic Press, 2013), sets out to examine some of these questions. One version of the Haughey story places great importance on the south Derry roots of his family. There can be little doubt that this background was important, but it is also significant that his was a Pro-Treaty background. Haughey’s father Seán joined the Free State army in 1922 and served with it during the Civil War, benefitting afterwards from the largesse of the new state. This was not an unusual choice for an Ulster IRA man in 1922 and indeed it could be argued that the Pro-Treaty IRA leadership showed far more interest in what was going on across the new frontier than the Anti-Treatyites did. But it was of course significant in terms of attitudes towards the young Haughey in Fianna Fáil. His great rival George Colley, in contrast, had a much more conventional republican lineage. Did this mean Haughey had to try extra hard to prove himself to his party colleagues?
Kelly argues, in contrast to the widespread cynical view that Haughey was just an opportunist, concerned only to use the North to further his career, that his anti-partitionism was real and deeply felt. He notes Haughey’s role in the riots outside Trinity College Dublin in May 1945 (when the British flag was burned). But thousands of people, notably many of Haughey’s fellow students at UCD were involved in these same demonstrations, which in one sense were a continuation of the inter-war Trinity-UCD Armistice Day battles. Among those cheering on the burning of the Union Jack in May 1945 was Tomas Gill, who as Tomas Mac Giolla, president of Sinn Féin, would be an adversary of Haughey in later years. Though Kelly attributes some importance to the action, even describing Haughey as ‘unscrupulous’, in reality it meant relatively little.
More substantially Kelly also claims that Haughey, as a member of Fianna Fail’s Ó Cléirigh Cumann in Dublin, was involved in formulating a plan to support a guerilla campaign against Northern Ireland. This was in 1955, long predating the crisis of 1969. Drawing up war plans in the passionately anti-partitionist atmosphere of mid-1950’s southern Ireland is one thing, however, action was another. And in 1961 Haughey as a young Minister for Justice would move decisively to bring an actual armed campaign by the IRA to an end. Haughey’s introduction of special military courts was credited by both the RUC and the IRA as having played a key role in pushing republicans towards a ceasefire. Indeed Haughey himself promised in November 1961 that he would ‘use every means … including the army if necessary’ to bring the IRA’s ‘futile, evil campaign of violence to an end.’ In the mid 1960s he does not seem to have dissented from firstly Seán Lemass and then Jack Lynch’s approach to relations with the Northern state. Haughey entertained the Unionist Minister for Agriculture at his Dublin home in 1964 and he used the term ‘Northern Ireland’ in public speeches (something, for example Fine Gael’s John A. Costello had not done in condemning the IRA’s campaign in 1957. Costello referred to the ‘Six County area.’) This does not contradict Kelly’s argument however, because others in Fianna Fáil, such as Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland, who would be associated with militancy after 1969, did not talk much about partition in the 1960s either. Both men had also been in a government that interned IRA members and neither of them were very vocal about the North until late 1968. Blaney’s Donegal Fine Gael rival Paddy Harte cynically suggested that Blaney ‘found his republican voice after twenty years in politics’ in 1969 while Boland was far more prone to verbally attacking housing protesters and Dublin republicans than in condemning Stormont in that era. Nevertheless this does not mean that they did not have genuine responses to the crisis that unfolded after the civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968.
But these responses, and perhaps Haughey’s as well, were also motivated by an understanding that Fianna Fáil was in danger of being outflanked on anti-partitionism. After Derry the Labour party, the republican movement and even Fine Gael, contrasted Fianna Fáil’s claim to be the ‘Republican party’ with its courting of the Unionist regime and its lack of action on behalf of nationalists. Labour leader Brendan Corish claimed that the government’s failure to defend nationalists revealed the ‘fiction of the Fianna Fail claim that they in some way represent the Republican tradition.’ Patrick Lindsay of Fine Gael asked ‘what has the Fianna Fáil Party done about partition since 1932? Nothing.’ As Fianna Fáil pushed to end proportional representation in the Republic, critics noted that civil rights demonstrators were calling for PR’s introduction in Northern Ireland. The government’s humiliation in that PR referendum in October 1968 no doubt concentrated minds in cabinet. Perhaps Haughey, along with Boland and Blaney, realized that the Northern issue might be valuable to them in all manner of ways, personal and political. Kelly pays little attention to the evidence suggesting government worry about the activities of republican radicals, as shown in a series of memorandum drawn up by Peter Berry and presented to the cabinet in the spring of 1969 or in the meeting between Jack Lynch and senior news and television editors where the Taoiseach asked that news of IRA activities in the Republic be played down. Lynch also informed the media men that his government were planning a major clampdown on republicans. That was in early August 1969, but events in Belfast and Derry made that clampdown impossible to implement. (There is a danger of seeming a little precious here but my and Scott Millar’s The Lost Revolution contains some relevant detail on this period. It might have at least merited inclusion in the book’s bibliography).
Kelly is on surer ground when he notes that Haughey’s meeting with the British ambassador later that year, when he talked about NATO or Commonwealth membership and other forms of trade-offs for an end to partition, showed how seriously he took the prospect. Haughey claimed that there was ‘nothing he would not sacrifice’ for a united Ireland and there is no reason to presume he was not being honest. He was being both pragmatic and realistic and those who seek an end to the border should ask how Ireland could be expected to gain complete independence in a globalized world, without the benevolence of at least one of the major powers. (That was just as an important a question in 1916 and 1921, though many seem to want to ignore it when discussing these events too). A more parochial view on Haughey’s role in the events of the year is to suggest as Kerry Fianna Fáil TD John O’Leary does that he ‘just wanted to be involved in everything.’ Involved he certainly was, and it remains the case that we are still no nearer discovering what exactly the Cabinet as a whole knew about the plot to import arms, or about what exactly the various republican factions were promised by Haughey and others. What is clear is that Blaney and Boland put their money where their mouths were in 1970-72, walking away, forming their own parties or local organizations and opposing the government when they disagreed with it. Haughey in contrast was far more pragmatic (or dishonest). While in popular memory repression is associated with the 1973-77 coalition, and censorship almost entirely with Conor Cruise O’Brien, when Fianna Fáil left power in 1973 they acquired a much harder-line reputation on law and order than their rivals. Between 1970-72 Lynch’s administration had introduced the Forcible Entry Bill, the Prisons Bill, the Special Criminal Court and the Offences Against the State Amendment Bill. They had tightened control of radio and television and sacked the RTE Authority for objecting to government broadcasting policy. Haughey opposed none of this (and in fact spoke very little publicly in this crucial period) but his association with the Arms Trial forever made him a republican hero to the rank and file, (or at least that section of it impressed by such things).
Like how his father’s Free State heritage was glossed over in favour of the memory of the south Derry IRA man, Haughey’s support for Lynch’s government’s actions during 1972 also disappeared from republican memory. Kelly is good on Haughey’s use of the Northern issue thereafter, when opportunism was certainly a factor. Despite numerous twists and turns, including an initially close relationship with Margaret Thatcher, he never lost the after-glow of the 1969-70 period. Perhaps this allowed him greater leeway than would ever have been accorded Lynch or Colley. In 1987-88, following the seizure of Provisional IRA arms on board the Eksund, and the IRA’s killing of 11 people at Enniskillen, Haughey’s government carried out the biggest clampdown on republicans in the south since the 1970s. Thousands of homes were raided, there were dozens of arrests and arms finds and a new extradition treaty with Britain was passed into law. It is surely significant too that no Haughey government ever seriously considered repealing Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which banned Sinn Féin from the airwaves. Ultimately, nationalist instinct aside, he was a southern politician, who led a southern party which was deeply loyal to the southern state. While Northern Ireland was always a factor in southern politics, after 1972 it was rarely a dominant one and his policies reflected that.
This book is a worthy addition to the growing scholarship on modern Irish politics, and on the way that Northern Ireland influenced southern decision-making. It tends to reinforce a general tendency among southern Irish academia however. Kelly sees anti-partitionism as unrealistic and assumes southern intervention in 1969-70 was doomed to failure. He writes that an ‘anti-partition virus infected’ the southern body politic in those years. But opposition to partition is not a ‘virus’; it is a legitimate political standpoint, held in 1969 by all the mainstream southern Irish parties. The emotional wave that gripped the Republic in 1969 was primarily a response to injustice. It subsided, leaving many unanswered questions in its wake, but it is as legitimate as any other response to the northern crisis. Like many who write on modern Ireland Kelly notes the influence of TK Whitaker in promoting caution in 1969. What strikes me as remarkable in those Whitaker memoranda is the civil servant’s lack of sympathy for those on the receiving end of either state or Loyalist violence (he attributed much of what was happening to ‘teenage hooliganism’) in contrast to his empathy for a police force who had killed several unarmed civilians (including a nine-year old boy); the RUC were ‘only human.’ Whitaker’s advice to Lynch and the overall view that the southern state could do little other than observe in 1969 deserves a more critical reading, whether or not one agrees with Haughey’s actions. A bloody conflict followed anyway and it is reasonable to argue that a state which claimed the six-counties as part of its national territory had a duty to intervene. There are many legitimate reasons to dislike Haughey and to criticize his governments. Caring too much about ‘the North’ is not one of them.
Brian Hanley is a historian and commentator who has written extensively on republicanism and socialism.