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Opinion: Charles Haughey’s election as Fianna Fáil leader – the Northern Ireland factor

What impact did Haughey’s stance (real or perceived) on Northern Ireland have on his successful election as Taoiseach and president of Fianna Fáil?

Dr Stephen Kelly

THE NEW PRIMETIME RTÉ mini-series ‘Charlie’ which vividly depicts the public and private escapades of arguably Ireland’s most brilliant – if flawed – politician Charles J Haughey, brings memories flooding back of Ireland during the late 1970s and 1980s. This was a time of prolonged economic hardship, industrials disputes, mass emigration and daily acts of violence on the streets of Northern Ireland. Haughey, Fianna Fáil leader from 1979 to 1992 and Taoiseach on three separate occasions, was at the centre of Irish life during this period.

The first episode of the new the ‘Charlie’ drama provided a colourful insight into the methods that Haughey employed to win the Fianna Fáil leadership contest in December 1979; a victory which ultimately allowed him to be crowned Taoiseach. What the programme did not reveal, however, was the extent that Haughey utilised the emotive subject of Northern Ireland to galvanise support among Fianna Fáil backbenchers for the presidency of his beloved organisation (as is revealed in my forthcoming monograph, Charles. J. Haughey and Northern Ireland, 1945-1992).

The leadership race

The leadership campaign for the presidency of Fianna Fáil pitted the traditionalist George Colley against the ‘self-made man’ Haughey. According to a confidential file from the British Embassy in Dublin both men were said to ‘loathe one another’. Haughey enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle; he liked the good things in life and favoured idolisation. Colley, on the other hand, disliked ostentation and valued his privacy. It was no secret at the time that Taoiseach Jack Lynch firmly supported Colley as his successor. Moreover, Colley had the overwhelming support of his cabinet colleagues in government. He was viewed as a safe pair of hands, cut from the same cloth as Lynch.

Behind the scenes, however, working with a small caucus Haughey was convinced he could secure the Fianna Fáil leadership. He decided that the subject of Northern Ireland and Irish unity, so close to Fianna Fáil supporters’ hearts, would comprise a central component of his election bid. Between September and early November 1979 a cohort of senior Fianna Fáil personalities, including party Senator Patrick Cooney and party TDs Síle de Valera (granddaughter of Éamon de Valera), Thomas McEllistrim and William Loughane, all delivered public speeches that directly challenged Lynch’s conciliatory stance on Northern Ireland. Although Lynch vigorously defended his Northern Ireland policy and publicly rebuffed each of his outspoken backbenchers, Haughey smelled blood.

He decided that now was the time to strike. In his mind it was a matter of when, not if, Lynch would resign. As Bruce Arnold recounts in his excellent biography on Haughey, during a lunch reception at the Royal Hibernian Hotel, during this period, Haughey reportedly noted that ‘Lynch and Colley had lost the party and it was only a matter of time before they would be routed’. The final nail in Lynch’s coffin came in early November with the double defeat in two by-elections in Co Cork, in which Fianna Fáil lost the Cork city seat and Cork North-East seat. These defeats came as a personal blow to Lynch, being as they were in his own backyard.

Coded attacks

On the back of these election setbacks Haughey decided to personally and publicly challenge Lynch’s stance on Northern Ireland. On 10 November Haughey delivered a ‘coded attack’ on Lynch at the annual Pearse Speech. The former claimed that the idea of partition was ‘totally inconceivable’ to Pádraig Pearse. ‘If he were alive today’, Haughey was reported at stating, Pearse ‘would be totally opposed to partition’.

Initially, the media paid little attention to Haughey’s comments. However, at the time Seán Dunigan of RTÉ did realise the significance of Haughey’s language. “You have to know the code”, Dunigan said. “They’re sending semaphore messages to each other…”. Haughey’s bid for the Fianna Fáil leadership had thus commenced.

Lynch, although in America, tried to face down Haughey’s challenge. In a prepared statement he recorded that ‘… we are concerned with the moral, cultural and material well-being of the Irish people and that can be advanced not by killing, not by death or hatred or destruction, but by life’. Rejecting the idea of Pearse’s ‘blood sacrifice’, he concluded, ‘The paradox of Pearse’s message for the Irish nation today is that we must work and live for Ireland, not die, and most certainly not kill for it’. ‘If he were alive today’, Lynch declared, Pearse would ‘reject violence and work peacefully for national unity’.

Haughey’s absence from a reception committee at Dublin airport to welcome back Lynch from his trip to the United States only helped to fuel speculation and was widely seen as an attempt by the unruly minister to undermine the Taoiseach’s authority.

Lynch, reading the signs, resigned as Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach on 5 December 1979. Addressing his final parliamentary party meeting as Fianna Fáil leader on the day of his resignation he spoke of the need for someone with a ‘new approach and fresh thinking’ to take over the leadership of his beloved party. With George Colley clearly in mind Lynch said that it was essential that the party elected a new leader ‘who will carry on the traditions established by the founders and successive leaders of Fianna Fáil’. Thus, on resigning he confidently (and naively) believed that Colley would secure the leadership of Fianna Fáil. Both he and Colley were to be bitterly disappointed.

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Fatal misjudgement 

From the start of the leadership campaign Colley was ahead, but not to the extent that he believed. As James Downey aptly put it, ‘The complacent Old Guard failed to see the extent of the danger’. Rather than canvassing backbenchers for their support, Colley spent much of his time in his office. This was to be his fatal misjudgement. He and his supporters underestimated Haughey’s chances. Over the preceding years Haughey had assiduously groomed Fianna Fáil backbenchers, knowing one day he would call on their support for the presidency of Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil TDs were placed under huge pressure in their hotels and lodgings in Dublin the night before the election to vote for Haughey. Some backbenchers were even bullied and intimidated into submission. According to recently declassified British government files some Fianna Fáil backbenchers had reportedly taking ‘bribes’ to support Haughey’s nomination for party leader.

The election took place on 7 December. When the vote was counted Haughey emerged triumphant, winning the Fianna Fáil leadership contest by six votes, 44 to 38. At the gathering Haughey spoke briefly, expressing his ‘thanks to the parliamentary party for electing him’. It was a remarkable victory. He had come a long way from the scandal of the Arms Crisis of 1970, when his political career had looked all but ruined. Almost ten years later he now stood on the brink of history – and by God did he know it! In his eyes all the years of strife, ridicule, and chicken and chip dinners had finally bore fruit. He became Taoiseach on 13 December.

The question arises, what impact did Haughey’s stance (real or perceived) on Northern Ireland have on his successful election as Taoiseach and president of Fianna Fáil? According to the British ambassador in Dublin Robin Haydon, Haughey’s positioning on Northern Ireland was certainly an important factor among the Fianna Fáil backbenchers, particularly given the ‘inadequately Republican nature of Mr Lynch’s Northern Ireland policy’. Moreover, one of Haughey’s backbencher supporters Fianna Fáil TD for Kildare Charlie McCreevy recalled that many of the younger party TDs, including himself, Albert Reynolds and Seán Doherty, ‘preferred Charlie Haughey’s Nationalist-Republican stance to that of Jack Lynch’.

In the final assessment, however, economic considerations, not Northern Ireland, were most probably the deciding factor. In truth, most backbenchers believed that Lynch would lose the next general election because of the weak economy. Therefore, they turned to Haughey in their droves in the hope that the new Taoiseach could secure an overall majority at the next general election and thus save their seats in Dáil Éireann. As the ‘Charlie’ series reveals backbencher Fianna Fáilers were to be sadly mistaken following Haughey’s general election defeat in the summer of 1981.

Dr Stephen Kelly is a lecturer in modern history at Liverpool Hope University. His forthcoming book, Charles J. Haughey and Northern Ireland, 1945-1992, is due for release in early 2016.

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About the author:

Dr Stephen Kelly

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