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State papers: Haughey fretted over leaks from Cabinet meetings

The Taoiseach was worried about how newspapers kept getting details of matters discussed in cabinet, and prepared for court.

The confidentiality of cabinet meetings had become something of a hot potato after Charles Haughey succeeded Jack Lynch as Taoiseach.
The confidentiality of cabinet meetings had become something of a hot potato after Charles Haughey succeeded Jack Lynch as Taoiseach.
Image: PA

CHARLES HAUGHEY was intensely worried about the confidentiality of cabinet meetings, and was outraged at how details from meetings were continually leaked to correspondents at National Newspapers.

Haughey’s private files, released into the public domain under the ’30-year rule’, showed that his department had meticulously kept clippings of various press reports that appeared to relate government decisions that had been made by the cabinet under its usual rules of confidentiality, including details of initiatives proposed by Haughey while he was Minister for Health under the premiership of Jack Lynch.

National newspapers had published details of a health scheme being prepared by Haughey in 1978 – which would have extended free hospital care to anyone earning less than IR£5,000 a year – as well as details of ambassadorial appointments and a report on promoting tourism.

Other clippings collected by the Department of the Taoiseach under Haughey – implying that they had also been subject to cabinet confidentiality – included details of new jobs being created by computer manufacturer Fujitsu, government nominees to the board of airport controller Aer Rianta, and a proposed visit by Haughey to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had come to power the previous year.

Tensions over the confidentiality of cabinet meetings reached a head in October 1980 when the Oireachtas joint committee on state-sponsored bodies sought details of cabinet discussions on the future of Nitrigin Éireann (later the Irish Fertiliser Industries).

Haughey asked his then Acting Chief Whip, Bertie Ahern, to respond to the committee, sending him a note reading:

Bertie,
Pl expand:
I have the gravest reservations about handing out copies of government memoranda or decisions.
CJH
16/10

Haughey sought legal advice from the Attorney General, Anthony J Hederman, on the matter, and was told that a court case would likely uphold the cabinet’s claim to privilege, though it may mean that a judge could gain access to the cabinet’s records.

When it became obvious that the committee would not be given details of the cabinet’s decisions, it decided to withdraw its request.

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A referendum on giving the cabinet a constitutional right to confidentiality was eventually held in October 1997 – shortly after Ahern had become Taoiseach – and was approved by 53% to 47%.

The National Archives files referenced in this story are 2010/53/32 and 2010/53/76.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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