Haughey's 'flawed pedigree'

One of the most notable moments in Garret FitzGerald’s political career was his speech opposing the nomination of Charles Haughey as Taoiseach on December 11, 1979. This was the speech in which he referred to Haughey’s “flawed pedigree”, a comment FitzGerald later excused by saying he had written the speech in the early hours of the morning and had not been able to seek the advice of his wife, Joan, as was usual for key speeches. The bulk of that speech is reproduced below. (The full speech is here.)


The occasion of the election of a Taoiseach is not any ordinary debate. We are not here merely as representatives of parties seeking office in competition with one another on this occasion. My task is correspondingly difficult. In a way that has no precedent I am conscious of speaking for a large part of the Irish people, regardless of party, and I am very conscious of the difficulty of responding adequately and sensitively to this unique situation. I must speak not only for the Opposition but for many in Fianna Fáil who may not be free to say what they believe or to express their deep fears for the future of this country under the proposed leadership, people who are not free to reveal what they know and what led them to oppose this man with a commitment far beyond the normal. I hope that some at least may feel able to express their feelings, their very real patriotism and their deep concern for Ireland, but few or none may be able to do so. If that is the case, this task falls to others and, in the first instance, to me. I trust I may be equal to it, that I may say what needs to be said and can be said, recognising how much I cannot say, for reasons that all in this House understand.

I take no pleasure in what I have to say. I have known Deputy Haughey for more than 35 years. I have never suffered insult or injury from him nor exchanged with him bitter words at any time. I would find my task today easier if we had not had this long relationship with each other, a relationship that was never intimate but never hostile. But I must do my duty regardless of these personal considerations. At the outset I must recognise his talents—his political skills and the competence he has shown in the past in the administration of Departments. These are important qualities in a Taoiseach, but they are not enough.

This country has had six heads of Government since the State was founded. These were: William T. Cosgrave, Eamonn de Valera, John A. Costello, Seán Lemass, Jack Lynch and Liam Cosgrave, all different kinds of men, God knows, but they all shared one common bond. They came into public life to serve this country and stayed on with that single purpose. None of them was ever alleged, even by his most unrelenting enemy—and some of them had unrelenting enemies on both sides—to have entered public life for any motive but the highest. Moreover, whatever their contemporary opponents may have said of them, whatever history's interim or later verdict on them may be, all were men who commanded the trust of those close to them. From a recollection of their virtues we may draw sustained hope for the future of this State.

Deputy Haughey presents himself here, seeking to be invested in office as the seventh in this line, but he comes with a flawed pedigree. His motives can be judged ultimately only by God but we cannot ignore the fact that he differs from his predecessors in that these motives have been and are widely impugned, most notably but by no means exclusively, by people within his own party, people close to him who have observed his actions for many years and who have made their human, interim judgment on him. They and others, both in and out of public life, have attributed to him an overweening ambition which they do not see as a simple emanation of a desire to serve but rather as a wish to dominate, even to own the State.

This judgment will be contested by others. It cannot be more than an imperfect assessment of the man but it is incontestable that this view of him is widely and most passionately held by people in his own party. If elected, he will be the first in a line of hitherto patriotic men who will have been viewed in this way by many contemporaries and many of his colleagues.

The second aspect of the election of this man as Taoiseach which must disturb deeply every democrat is that, whatever may be the result of the vote—and I think that is a foregone conclusion—he knows, I know and they all know that he does not command the genuine confidence of even one-third of this House, never mind one half. No previous Taoiseach has been elected in similar circumstances.

Formally, of course, he will secure a majority of votes. He will fulfil the constitutional requirement to form a government. He will then constitutionally be Taoiseach. As democrats we must respect the forms of democracy, even when the true spirit of the democratic system is not breathed into these forms but though we must respect these forms we are entitled to comment on the emptiness of this formality. The feet that will go through that lobby to support his election will include many that will drag; the hearts of many who will climb those stairs before turning aside to vote will be heavy. Many of those who may vote for him will be doing so in the belief and the hope that they will not have long to serve under a man they do not respect, whom they have fought long and hard, but for the moment in vain, to exclude from the highest office in the land. These men and women who, while they may give their formal consent, withhold their full consent in the interior forum include a clear majority of those who have served with him in government, who know his abilities better than most but are repelled by other defects which they see as superseding all considerations of mere competence, political skill or adroitness.

His majority comprises men judged inadequate in office in the past; men ambitious for office but disappointed of it hitherto; men fearful of losing office because they backed the wrong horse; and, above all, at least 18 men who scraped home narrowly in 1977 and who, fearing for the seats that were so unexpectedly won for them by the gamble of the manifesto, have now switched their bet to another gamble, the gamble of Deputy Haughey.

They include also a few people who are not personally motivated, but who are inspired by a narrow and dangerous nationalism that is the antithesis of everything Tone and Davis stood for—a patriotism that effectively, even if they do not admit it even to themselves, excludes one million Irish men and women from the nation as they conceive it; men and women who do not believe in seeking unity by agreement but who crave after unity by constraint; men and women who, whether they themselves realise it or not, think in terms of imposing one Irish tradition on those who, with their ancestors for generations past, had honoured a different but also an Irish tradition. These men and women who voted for Deputy Haughey on grounds of idealism—misplaced as I see it—and free from personal interest are, I believe and the great majority of almost five million Irish people believe, not merely misguided but dangerously misguided.

Taken together these groups of self-interested and fatally misguided defectors from the Republican tradition of 1798 and 1848 make up three Deputies out of every ten in this House. Yet, this motley minority may, and I think will, at the end of this debate make this man Taoiseach.

Why so? The Irish people are entitled to ask this question. What worries me is whether I can honestly answer, if asked what the reason is, other than that, though many on both sides of this House have honourably struggled to break free from Civil War politics, nevertheless these politics, through the shackles of the party system that emerged from that Civil War, still bind some of the Members of this House in thraldom.

If those on both sides of this House who see the dangers for this State that lie almost inexorably and fatally embedded in the nomination now before us cannot find it possible at this moment to come together in face of this danger and make common cause for Ireland, can we truthfully say to our electorate, some of them born almost 40 years after that event, that there is any reason for this other than the origins of the parties to which we belong—origins that many of us had hoped were now totally irrelevant to the contemporary political life of this State?

The long shadow of that darkest hour of our history, when Irishman fought Irishman, when families were divided, brother against brother, husband in conflict with wife as happened in my own family—that long shadow which many of us had led ourselves to believe had long since lifted, darkens our understanding here today and inhibits this House from dividing along the lines of deepest conviction, along the lines that divide those who honestly seek Irish unity by agreement, and by agreement only, from those who, while they talk of peaceful means, still think at least subconsciously of constraint. It also divides true patriots from mere political opportunists.

I would like to believe that there is still hope, still a possibility, that we could face this crisis in our affairs, throwing off these shackles and coming out from under this shadow. Perhaps it is too much to hope of men and women who are under intolerable pressures of tradition and convention at this point. However, if it does not happen today, that does not mean that it may not happen at some point in the middle future. For the mixture of men and motives artificially concocted to create a formal majority for Deputy Haughey when this debate ends must be frail and fragile; it cannot survive indefinitely the pressures on it imposed by his—I must say it—flawed character.

I know that many decent people in every part of Ireland who have cast their votes for Fianna Fáil candidates are repelled by the thought of Deputy Haughey in power and, however skilfully and energetically he may strive—he will strive skilfully and energetically, he has those qualities—during the next year or two years to apply his undoubted talents to the task of Government, he will not persuade these people to cast their votes for a party led by him, even if that party were to be a united one, which palpably it will not be.

But if Deputy Haughey as Taoiseach is an uncovenanted bonus to Fine Gael, a precipitating factor that will bring to our support many good and patriotic people of integrity who for many years have cast their votes for Fianna Fáil under Deputy Jack Lynch, he cannot be seen in the same light so far as the national interest is concerned. On this occasion I have to say, with regret—even some bitterness—that the interests of my party and the nation do not coincide. I have the interests of this nation sufficiently at heart—I think in saying that I speak for my party also—to prefer to take our chance with another Fianna Fáil leader who would not provoke such mistrust amongst the electorate and who would be correspondingly harder to beat, than for the country to have to take a chance with Deputy Haughey.

Why is it such a chance? There are many reasons. I shall give only a few; some are not to be raised even in this privileged assembly. The first is that there is a question-mark that remains over a man who was accused of conspiracy to import arms to the IRA and after he had been found not guilty of that charge chose to seek the plaudits of the crowd for a man who represented that organisation at that time, saying of him: “he is one of the finest persons I have known in all my time in public life and politics”. For nine long years after that day—nine long years—he refused to utter one word of condemnation of the IRA until faced with a question on this issue at a press conference following his election to the leadership of his party. I say “refused” advisedly. Deputy Haughey disingenuously told his questioner at the press conference on Friday that the reason he had never expressed any condemnation of the IRA up to that moment was that: “up to now responsibility in regard to Northern Ireland policy has been something for the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs”.

In what way, I ask the House, would that allocation of responsibility preclude any Minister in an Irish Government from expressing his abhorrence for the IRA, for its murders and robberies North and South, its orgy of destruction, its threat to our democratic institutions, institutions which it refuses to recognise in this State and which its spokesmen recently threatened to destroy? If Deputy Haughey abhorred the IRA and wished, as any decent man would wish to do, to clear his name of any sympathy with them after the experience of being accused of conspiring to import arms for their benefit, he could have done so at any moment since that trial ended, in full accord with the policy of successive Governments. He chose, most deliberately, not to do so. He refused to entertain questions on this issue from journalists. He preferred to maintain an indecent ambiguity over his attitude until safely ensconced in the leadership of his party. Did he fear that if he had any earlier than Friday afternoon last said the words, “I condemn the Provisional IRA and all their activities”, he might have received less enthusiastic support for his candidature from some of the—the politest word is greener—members of his party? Now that he has the job, does he feel he can safely condemn what he was so careful to avoid condemning for nine long years? The question mark on this issue which Deputy Haughey has chosen deliberately to allow to linger around him for all those years is one reason—the highest of all reasons—for refusing him confidence. It is one reason why so many of his colleagues do not have confidence in him.

The second reason is that, arising from this deliberate ambiguity Deputy Haughey, as leader of his party and, perhaps, soon as Taoiseach, is and will be an obstacle to Irish unity to be achieved by agreement. No one with that background of silence—to put it no higher—could, by any stretch of the imagination, offer reassurance to Northern Protestants looking southwards, as many have begun to do in search of a permanent solution in conjunction with the people of this part of Ireland. As an Irish nationalist who, I believe, with the exception of Deputy Harte, has devoted more time than any other Member of this House to the cause of peace in Ireland and of a new political relationship between North and South I cannot endorse the candidature of a man who seeks to be Taoiseach of this State, but who in that capacity will represent a barrier to unity by agreement.

Thirdly, while I have already remarked on Deputy Haughey's political ability and administrative competence he has shown himself, especially and most relevantly in this decade, more concerned with public relations and less with achievement than is acceptable in a Minister. He has been in the Departments of Health and Social Welfare. He neglected the latter Department almost totally, while in the former he dragged his feet on all awkward issues, from contraceptive regulations to nurses' pay, putting in time until his moment should come to replace the man he had for so long worked to undermine. In passing, I must repeat what I said on the Bill dealing with contraception which was that this legislation by the very terminology it contains and uses to describe forms of family planning is denominational. By its introduction Deputy Haughey reinstitutionalised denominationalism in Irish legislation in total disregard of the principles of republicanism, at least as Tone and Davis understood them and in equal disregard of the interests of bringing North and South together which he claims to be committed to. On the blatant hypocricy of this Bill, taken in conjunction with his protestations of republicanism which suddenly blossomed for the Pádraig Pearse centenary, he deserves to be rejected as Taoiseach of this State, a State whose people aspire to unity by agreement between the people of North and South.

The fourth and final reason, as far as I am concerned in this debate why Deputy Haughey is to be rejected is his failure to articulate any idealism that might inspire the younger generation and because of his own life style. This failure to articulate any idealism that might inspire that generation makes him particularly unfitted for the task of leading into the eighties a State half of whose population are under 25 years of age. It is on those four grounds, amongst others to which I do not propose to refer, that I propose the rejection of Deputy Haughey's nomination as Taoiseach.

I have not found that speech easy to make. It is distasteful to have to argue the merits of an individual rather than a policy and to reflect so critically on the performance and character of a parliamentary colleague I have known for many years. I am conscious also of the tension between the duty I owe to the State in speaking frankly on these matters and the duty I owe to Parliament not to overstep the mark by entering into areas inappropriate for debate, or by using harsher language than is minimally called for by the occasion. I am sure that fault may be found on both grounds with what I have said and I beg the indulgence of the House if I have offended in either respect. I have had to decide where my duty lay and although I have seen public advice offered as to the desirability or not of making such comments, I have had to decide in the interest of the State as I see it to reject that advice and to take any criticism that may come as a result. I move, in the name of my party, and on behalf also, I believe, of many who will have to remain silent during this debate, and may not even feel free to vote with their feet according to their inclinations, the rejection of the nomination of Deputy Haughey.


Garret FitzGerald’s comments on Charles Haughey were in marked contrast to his comments on Jack Lynch, greeting Lynch’s resignation earlier that same day. He expressed his “sincere regret” at Lynch’s resignation as Taoiseach, emphasised “the respect which I and my party feel for his service to the State”, and noted Lynch’s “warmth, spontaneity and sincerity”.

His full remarks are here.

I have admired also his tenacity and political skill exercised frequently in the interests of leading his party along the path of moderation in relation to Northern Ireland and his almost unfailing courtesy even when his patience has been tested, by me amongst others. History will in time give an interim and later a more definitive verdict on his place in Irish politics. I can only record regret that at the end he was brought down before his time by smaller ambitious men who have little mercy for a man who has served them and his country well.

He knows and his wife, Maureen, knows in what affection she is held by people of all parties and how much we, who know what a burden politics impose on those people engaged in them, respect the support and encouragement which she was always able to give him in bad times and good.