IS THIS DRAMA or is this history? I asked myself, as I viewed the first of our episodes of ‘Charlie,’ RTE’s programme on the life and times of Charles Haughey.
He, a former Taoiseach of this country, left no memoir, even though a long retirement would have given him time to do so. All our recent Taoisigh have written their own memoirs, giving us some starting-point for assessment and analysis.
Apart from public perception, the only official verdict we have on Charles Haughey is that recorded in the final report of the Moriarty Tribunal. And that verdict, reduced to a sentence, concluded that between 1978 and 1996, he received “improper payments” totalling £8.5 millions,” and that he had “devalued Ireland’s democracy.” Depending on individual political perspective, he was the politician that Irish people either loved to hate or loved to love.
RTE’s ‘Charlie’ is, of course, a drama, albeit with all the necessary ingredients of the classical story; a mini Grecian legend in 21st century vernacular. There is the rags to riches; the small man with the Napoleon complex; ruthlessly ambitious; but who nevertheless, could be charming when it suited him; loving his mother; distributing food to the poor; rescuing the ship-wrecked. To all of these classical ingredients , add the necessary lover, male or female, in the Charlie case the mistress in bed.
Some of my friends, fans of RTE’s previous mammoth drama production ‘Love/Hate,’ (which I did not see) described ‘Charlie’ as more of the same, though where drug crime and political corruption coincided on the readings of the moral compass, they were unable to say, beyond the fact that both were hideously erosive of public confidence and community cohesion.
While ‘Charlie’ is indeed a drama, screened to fit into a peak viewing spot on a dark Sunday night in winter, it is also history. We know, from journalistic reports and the Moriarty Tribunal, that many of the incidents and sequences in the production reflect the actual facts. And so the deduction has to be that Taoiseach Haughey was, as described by Garrett FitzGerald, a “flawed character.” It was a description for which FitzGerald was subsequently to apologise. But it still remains on the record.
It is interesting that a contemporary labelling of FitzGerald described him in derisory language (a bit of a laugh and an old fool!) as “Garrett the Good.” It was during those early years of the Celtic Tiger, when being arrogant and exploitative, rather than decent and honest, was the accepted norm.
And yet, despite all we now know, and the verdicts of the tribunals, Charles Haughey still has his devoted, uncritical admirers, some of whom took to the airways in RTE’s ‘Liveline’ to express their annoyance with the station’s depiction of their hero. ‘Disgraceful,’ they said; ‘I switched off.’ ‘I wouldn’t believe a word of it!’ ‘He’s a lovely man.’ ‘Not true, not true,’ they said.
To the ordinary Irish person, with no political loyalties, but with a deep interest in politics, and a voter in every election, this unwillingness to face facts is not only deeply troubling but it defies common sense. It suggests that we still believe, even in this so-called enlightened age, in the demi-god. It was the sort of belief that led Europe in the first half of the last century into facism.
But perhaps the most damning of all the verdicts on Charles Haughey is contained in three words in the Moriarty report, he “devalued Ireland’s democracy.”
That devaluation continued down into some subsequent governments, with the cult of the brown envelope, government ministers who were found guilty in our courts of criminal offences and another Taoiseach, who as named and shamed in tribunal reports.
And, unfortunatly, that erosion of democracy continues to the present time, because so many have become so cynical about party politics that, on average, forty percent of Irish people do not cast their votes in elections. Therein lies not only the devalutaion of democracy, but the death of democracy.
As we try to find our way out of that morally bereft Haughey-land where are we going today? According to the political pundits and the number-crunchers, we will forsake all the traditional political parties in the next election and return forty-five percent of Independent candidates to the next Dáil. This will represent a hodgepodge of politics from the extreme Right to the extreme Left (most of whom cannot agree even amongst themselves about their place in the “Leftie” spectrum). In our disenchantment with party politics (reinforced by the Haughey drama) are we about to jump from the frying pan into the fire?
An editorial in this newspaper (“Political Intrigue” issue January 1) raised the prospect of the rise and rise of Independents in Tipperary, where our current representation of six deputies in the entire county will be replaced by five. In that current representation three are Independents (Mattie McGrath, Seamus Healy and Michael Lowry). This, the editorial says “makes for interesting times on the political stage in the next election.”
“May you live in interesting times” - the Chinese say from the depths of their ancient wisdom. But in Chinese -speak that is not a wish. It is a curse!