His own man

Bertie Ahern's 'snubbing' of Sean Haughey, the son of Charles Haughey, in his recent mini-reshuffle left pundits and politicians very surprised. Now this mild-mannered, well-liked TD is considering his future in politics. Profile by John Byrne.


When he was first elected as a local representative in 1985, his surname gave him a huge head-start, connecting him to a commanding political dynasty that included his father, Charles Haughey, then leader of Fianna Fáil, and his grandfather, former Taoiseach Sean Lemass. But two decades later, it may be that the Haughey moniker contributed to the widely-tipped Sean Haughey being overlooked by Bertie Ahern in the recent Government mini-reshuffle.

There are other explanations. A direct swap with Ivor Callely, who shares the Dublin North constituency with Haughey, would have been harsh on the former junior Minister for Transport.

And Bertie Ahern may have been trying to shore up support for Fianna Fáil in Meath by choosing Mary Wallace, the Meath TD, who was a surprise choice for re-elevation.

But in any case, Sean Haughey is clearly very annoyed with the Taoiseach, and is seeking a meeting to find out why he was ignored after so much public speculation that he would get the job. Such was the expectation that Sean Haughey would get promotion that the Daily Irish Mail reported in a headline that he had got the job in the Department of Transport the day before the announcement. In 2003 he had been impatient for more responsibility; he expressed frustration that after almost 20 years in the Oireachtas he had reached only the "dizzy heights" of vice-chair of an Oireachtas Committee. "I feel I've a greater role to play," he told the Irish Times. "I understand why the Taoiseach might be cautious; it's such a controversial name, but hopefully in due course things might change."

Charles Haughey will not be impressed either. The strain in the relations between him and Bertie Ahern have eased since before the 2002 General Election, when Charles Haughey accused Ahern of "trying to erase the Haughey name from the Dáil". This was after Bertie Ahern had gone canvassing with a rival Fianna Fáil candidate in Sean Haughey's Dublin North Central constituency. Bertie has become a regular visitor at Kinsealy at Christmas but, according to a friend of Charlie Haughey, they don't talk politics and Bertie never asks his former patron for advice.

Born in 1961, Sean was the youngest child of Charles and Maureen Haughey. He went to St Paul's College in Raheny and studied economics and politics in Trinity College, Dublin. The quietest of the four Haughey siblings, it was not apparent, as he grew up, that he would be the one to follow his father into politics; his sister Eimear, a formidable woman and the oldest child, seemed a more likely successor. But he found being part of a political family exciting, and joined the St Brendan's Cumann of Fianna Fáil in 1979. From there he became heavily involved in Ogra Fianna Fáil. Colleagues would have noted his unassuming demeanor, his openness and his willingness to work hard. During this time he got to know journalist Veronica Guerin, who was then centrally involved in the organisation and a friend of the Haughey family. "She was a kind of heroine for us," he says. "We were devastated when she was murdered."

He left Trinity in May 1985 and by then had decided to enter politics. Months later he was sitting on Dublin City Council, having been elected for the Artane Ward. His career trajectory over the next few years was impressive. He was elected to the Seanad in 1987, and was made Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1989 while still in his twenties. In 1992, he was elected to the Dáil for the first time – the same year that his father left office. But since then there has been stasis, a stasis reinforced by Bertie Ahern opting to overlook him again.

He became a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs in 1995, and was made vice-chairman of the Joint-Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Local Government in 1997, eventually becoming chairman in 2004. But these are the highest roles he has assumed since he became a TD, scant reward for a man of his skills and ambition.

He is well liked in the Dáil. "He is a diligent constituency worker, he follows up fairly assiduously and he is a good attender of meetings," says Fine Gael's Richard Bruton, a constituency rival in Dublin North Central. "He's an honest broker, and he'll never rock the boat. He's quiet, he has a sense of humour, and he's easy to get on with. Any controversies he's been involved in have been spillover from his father."

Finian McGrath, another competitor in Dublin North Central, says, "Although I would have major political differences with Sean Haughey, he's very likeable on a personal level – very courteous and friendly, the kind of guy you'd go for a pint with."

Although mild-mannered, he is not afraid to clash with Fianna Fáil colleagues in public. In recent times, he opposed Seamus Brennan's plans to break up Aer Rianta, and he disagreed strongly with the Government's decision to route a motorway near the Hill of Tara.

"I was more inclined towards the Government position on Tara," says John Moloney, another Fianna Fáil TD who sits on the Joint-Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Local Government that Haughey chairs. "But you always knew that Sean was sincere on this, like he is on everything. He's very easy to get on with. And throughout troubled times he was able to rise above it. He is an impeccable politician."

At difficult times like this, family will be important to Sean Haughey. He is married to Orla O'Brien, who he met when she was working in the Fianna Fáil press office. They have four children. He is still very close to his siblings and parents. He visits his father and mother a few times a week.

Speaking of Charles Haughey, Sean Haughey says: "Obviously, he's very ill but I try to spend as much time as possible with him now. We discuss family matters, but often we'd turn to political or historical issues."

Being overlooked again is a disappointment. After all his father was just three years in the Dáil when he was made a junior minister (they were called Parliamentary Secretaries then) and just four years when he became a full minister in the Department of Justice. Sean has been around for 14 years and nothing to show for it in terms of preferment aside from chairmanship of a committee.

"I'm in it for the long haul," he told Village the day before Bertie Ahern made his announcement.

Now that is not so certain.

Additional reporting by Donal Kavanagh