Vincent Browne: Knowing Charlie Haughey
I had known Charlie Haughey since 1965 when, as a student, I was on a television panel that interviewed him. With a mutual friend I visited him in his first grand home, Grangemore, in 1968. I remember very little about the visit but he later recalled I asked him then where he got the money to afford such a fine house. I asked him the same question again and again over the years and one time in 1979, a few months before he became Taoiseach, he told me the truth but I didn't believe him. He said he was able to borrow money on the asset of his mansion and estate at Kinsealy and that was precisely what emerged later at the McCracken and Moriarty Tribunals. By Vincent Browne.
I spoke to him in September 1969 for a magazine I then edited, Nusight. He told me of the divisions in the cabinet over the North and how he and another minister had to redraft Jack Lynch's television address in August of that year (that was the "we can't stand by" speech). I did not get the impression from him he was trying to destabilise Lynch. I spoke also at the time to George Colley, Brian Lenihan and Patrick Hillery and got a clear impression of tensions within that government.
My next encounter with him was at the funeral in Derry for the victims of Bloody Sunday. This was in February 1972. I was struck then by how alone he was. He had come to Derry on his own, as far as I can recall. And he had nobody else to go to the gravesides with.
I must have met him in Kinsealy in 1975 and 1976 for I recall going there on a Saturday morning after he was back in government in July 1977, and I certainly knew the place by then. He had been reappointed to the cabinet as Minister for Health and Minister for Social Welfare and I was there to do the first interview. I had a terrible hangover that morning and I asked him to write out something controversial – anything controversial – while I went for a swim in the pool.
I met him several times then up to December 1970 when he became Taoiseach. I did a series of interviews with Jack Lynch in October and November 1979 for publication in Magill in December 1979. The last interview took place in the Taoiseach's office on the ministerial floor of Leinster House. As I was walking down the ministerial corridor, Charlie emerged from his office. He asked me what I was doing. I said I would call in on him when my interview with Jack Lynch was over.
At that interview Jack Lynch made it clear to me he was about to retire. There was no way I was going to be seen going into Charlie's office in the immediate aftermath of this confidential disclosure, so I passed by Charlie's office on my way out. But he emerged from his office again, called me back, and just as I was going into his office, Jack Lynch came out of his office and saw me going in to talk with Charlie.
Charlie wanted to know if Jack Lynch had given me any indication he was going to retire. I wouldn't tell him. He asked me if I thought he would be Taoiseach, I said yes and we went across the road to the Hibernian hotel for lunch.
When Jack Lynch announced his retirement I went to Charlie's office and asked if I could sit in on all his discussions with TDs during the course of the leadership campaign. He agreed and it was I who opted out because of the embarrassment there was when TDs arrived to find me with a notebook.
But soon after Charlie became Taoiseach we fell out. It isn't possible – or at least it isn't appropriate, I think, – for a journalist to be on other than adversarial terms with a politician in senior office. He was appalled when he heard – from a fawning journalistic colleague – that I was planning publishing a major series in Magill on the 1970 arms trial. Then he made a mess of the economy and when he went into opposition in July 1981 he was even more reckless for a while and our relations got even worse.
He returned to office in February 1982 and remained there until December 1982, the GUBU government. Again no contact, or at least no cordial contact.
Diplomatic relations were opened via PJ Mara around 1985 or 1986 and we got on well again until he went back into government as Taoiseach in March 1987. Then more hostilities and they did not abate until March 2001. Then he nearly died of a heart attack. I wrote to him saying: "Jaysus, don't go on us yet." He phoned me and there started a round of regular conversations, always at his home in Kinsealy, right up to eight weeks before his death.