Morality, politics, justice and Charlie Haughey

Vincent Browne interviewed Garret on the occasion of this 80th birthday for Village magazine. The interview is republished here from the Village archive, which is part of Politico's subscription magazine archive. Subscribe here.

VB:  Did you have a happy early childhood?
GF:  Totally.
VB:  Happy adolescence?
GF:  Yeah, sure.  
VB:  Were you close to both parents?
GF:  Yes.  
VB:  Always?  
GF:  Always, yes. I was really hostile to one of my brothers for years because he rowed with my father.
VB:  Did you disagree with your father later on, on political matters?
GF:  No, I didn't.  My views were very much my father’s, very conservative views up until the mid ’50s, it was only in the ’60s that my views changed.  
VB:  How did they change?
GF:  Well, in college with my students, I had coffee with them. My children, arguing with them. I realised my deep conservatism would not stand up to scrutiny, so I moved to the left from 1961 to 1968 I think.  
VB:  How did you remain impervious to those influences prior to this?
GF:  It was prejudice I suppose. No, it was in regards to my parents, loyalty to my parents and my father in particular and his views.  So that when the Civil War broke out in Spain I was instinctively on the side of the government but then I realised my father was against the government and in favour of Franco, so I changed sides. 

VB:  Did you read anything in the ’60s that changed your ideology?
GF:  Not really, no. It was more or less students and children. I mean no doubt things I read, you know, I read them differently because of the change in my own approach.
VB:  Was there any book that you read in the course of your life which changed your views in important ways?
GF:  Not that I remember. I mean lots of books impressed me, but I don't remember any of them changing my views. I do remember that certainly St. Joan the Stockyards by Brecht, that played in the Gaiety, had an influence. It pushed me.It’s the only thing I can remember.
VB:  Did anything you read on political philosophy change you?
GF:  Not a lot. I mean, I did philosophy at school. That was scholastic philosophy. It was actually quite useful, because it trained you to think, and that was good, I have to say, but no I don't think so. I never read Marx for example.  
VB:  Did you find that when you got involved in politics, you had little time to read and think and therefore may not have grown intellectually during that time? 
GF:  No. I always read a lot and politicians do that a lot. That wouldn't stop me reading. My constituency was my home, my office, the Dáil, university, all of my constituency was two miles by two, so I had a much easier life than other politicians.  I went home to lunch every day, which again was unusual for a Prime Minister.  
VB:  When you were Taoiseach at what time did you go into the office?
GF:  Usually about 9:30am. I would go home briefly for an hour at lunchtime. I would be home and back between 1 and 2. I would aim to get home around 6:20 to 7:00 if I could, but it depended on what was happening. Some days I would go in and I would run up the stairs and other days I would drag myself up. Much later on in 1992 I discovered I was having a heart problem at the time.

"The only advantage of having power is to do something positive and useful."

VB:  There obviously are difficult times in the period from '82 to '87, but did you enjoy it generally, did you enjoy being Taoiseach? Did you enjoy the exercise of power?
GF:  No. Not really. I mean the only advantage of having power is to do something positive and useful, and you need to have money to do that. But we did much better than we got credit for. We were blamed for doubling the national debt in four years and I forgot to point out that they (Fianna Fáil) had trebled it in the previous four years. We got inflation down from 23 per cent to three per cent and eliminated 80 per cent external deficit and halved the budget deficit from 21 per cent to ten per cent, it was in the last budget we presented at the time of the election; we never got much credit for these things. Charlie (Haughey) did a good job for the following two years, he got the remaining borrowing down from ten per cent to three per cent, but in retrospect he made a mistake over health. He cut 2,000 hospital beds. The other cuts would have been sufficient in retrospect, but those 2,000 beds have been a problem ever since. 
VB:  Did you have friends in politics?
GF:  Well, yes, I mean I got on well with people. But I was 39 when I went into politics, 47 when I went into government. So, my friends and pattern of life was formed already. Politics was an add-on in a sense. The nature of politics is you move on, you move out of politics, other people move out, you don't, there isn't room for stable friendships in politics, I think.
VB:  Who were your close buddies at the time, while you were Taoiseach? Who would you unburden yourself to?
GF:  The trouble is, if you are Taoiseach, you can't have any close buddies in government by definition. But Joan (his wife), obviously, all the time. And Patrick Hillery, the President. Who else can you talk to really if you are Taoiseach, except the President and your wife. Paddy had great experience of politics and was a very wise person and I would talk to him about any worries because he was totally neutral. And that was a help I thought, maybe I didn't see him as often as I should. It's more a question of being able to talk to somebody and not have to worry about - is there a consequence that it could go back to somebody else, or affect relationships - so being able to talk to somebody is very useful. And Joan, obviously, all the time.  About everything. One bad day during my first time in government it took me two and a half hours to tell her all the terrible things that had happened during the day. If only I had had a tape recorder it would have been a wonderful story of the way people behave in politics.
VB:  What was that day?
GF:  Ah, it was a particular day, after the snow. The end of the week of the snow, whatever day that was (January 1982). 
VB:  When Michael O'Leary the leader of the Labour Party and Tánaiste (now a District Court judge) was running the country, you were away on holiday, weren't you?
GF:  Yes, I rang him and he said everything was closed down. I said, well, what are you doing? He said he was in bed. I said you have to do something to get the country moving. So he did, he slipped on the way in to government buildings and hurt his leg and then he found that only one adviser, one of mine, had turned up, Michael Lillis. It was 19 years since the last significant snowfall and in that period people's ideas had changed and (they) expected the government to clear the snow off the front steps. The expectation was absurd. But we could get local government moving. You needed somebody to give them a push. 
VB:  But tell us about that awful day. What happened?
GF:  It was complicated. But the number of things that went wrong and problems, it was extraordinary to have to take two and a half hours to tell her what went wrong. It was only a 12 hour day as it was. So there are bad days sometimes. 
VB:  Socially, you were close to Michael O'Leary, weren't you? 
GF:  Well, no. Yes and no. You see, in the period when Frank Cluskey became leader (of the Labour Party in 1977), the relationship was not good between them (Cluskey and O'Leary), so I knew if I saw Michael O'Leary socially it would damage the very good relationship I was developing with Frank Cluskey. 
VB:  What was Michael O'Leary like as Tánaiste?
GF:  He took on far too much: Industry and Energy, Tánaiste and the leader of the Labour Party, it was too much for one person. That was a mistake from his point of view. 
VB:  The relations between Fine Gael and Labour in the next government 1982 to 1987 were fairly fraught.
GF:  No, very good, as relationships went. I mean the fruit of that is, after the election was over, Gemma Hussey said to me: have a dinner for the real government. So we had dinner until four in the morning. The Labour Party was deeply divided at the time but that didn't affect personal relations between the two groups at all.
VB:  Do you think in retrospect you resigned too quickly as leader of Fine Gael?
GF:  That could be held, yes. We were all absolutely exhausted after that period in government (1982-1987). I was 61 at the time and felt I would be too old at 65 to be Taoiseach again. But maybe I was wrong. 

"There can be no fairness if people use power for their own personal advantage."

VB:  You said on television recently that you had been out to see Charlie Haughey?
GF:  Yes, I'm sorry that I was put in that position of having to say I had met him. I don't want to intrude on his privacy but there you are, you get trapped sometimes.
VB:  Had you been to Kinsealy before?
GF:  No I hadn't.
VB:  What did you think of the house?
GF:  It's a grand house. I only saw part of it, obviously.
VB:  Where did you go? Was he in the study?
GF:  The study obviously, but I would prefer not to go into that. I feel guilty enough about having been forced to say something that I didn't want to say, I don't mind him saying it but I shouldn't say anything.
VB:  How did you think he looked?
GF:  He's pretty ill but he was better than I had heard or thought.
VB:  I gather in the television interview that you were dismissive of your remarks in December 1979 on his nomination as Taoiseach.
GF:  The phrase (“flawed pedigree”) was obviously a mistake, it was taken out of the context, I was simply saying that on the whole issue of the day, he did not have the support of all his own party and in this respect everybody was flawed…read the bloody speech, that's where it is...But anyway, the fact is, in retrospect, to use that particular phase was a mistake.
VB:  But you also went on to make other remarks that could be described as innuendo where you said that there were certain matters that you couldn't speak of and you said that his motivations could be judged only by God.
GF:  It still holds – the motivations of all of us can be judged only by God.
VB:  Then why did you say it in regards to him?
GF:  I don't know.
VB:  You said that he was flawed.
GF:  Well, I told you the context that it was in relation to that fact he did not have the support of a sizeable minority within his own party.
VB:  Yes, but you went on to say all previous Taoisigh had been motivated by concern for the common good but not him, he was in that way flawed. 
GF:  I don't remember the words used but I was expressing a view that was widely held in my party and in his by a special minority that it was not a good idea that he should be Taoiseach even though he had been a very good Minister. It was a strongly critical speech because I felt that should have been said before he became Taoiseach.
VB:  You said that there were dangers to the nation by his nomination as Taoiseach, his appointment to Taoiseach, and you said that there were matters that you couldn't refer to and people would understand how you couldn't refer to them – terribly unfair wasn't it?
GF:  No.
VB:  Matters that you couldn't refer to?
GF:  The difficulty is that you can have moral certainty about facts but not evidence and there's always a problem. In politics you may have a say something, you have moral certainty but where you haven't evidence and then if you make a direct accusation, immediately so you've no evidence, so there's a dilemma all politicians face.
VB:  What did you have in mind? What were the matters you didn't refer to?
GF:  Well I don't want to go back now but you have to make your own judgment.
VB:  I don't know, I don't know what the matters were. It's terribly unfair to leave that innuendo hanging, matters you couldn't refer to.
GF:  You may think so, I'm sorry we would disagree on that, a perfectly legitimate disagreement on your part. 
VB:  Why did you have to make innuendos you weren't prepared to back up?
GF:  Because I couldn't be specific, because I hadn't got evidence. 
VB:  Why didn't you just remain silent on the issue then?
GF:  Because I thought it was my duty to alert people before he became Taoiseach to the fact that I thought he was unsuitable for Taoiseach.
VB:  But you cited three reasons why you thought he was unsuitable, why did you have to make reference to matters that you weren't going to elaborate on?
GF:  Because, as I said there are matters that I have moral certainties of and didn't... 
VB:  What were they, did they have to to do with his money for instance?
GF:  You can draw your own conclusions. I don't want to go back on it at this stage.
VB:  There's a purpose to this which I want to get to in a moment. Was it his finances that you were referring to?
GF:  You can draw your own conclusions [from] what happened subsequently.
VB:  His finances? But why didn't you say it, that questions arise about his finances?
GF:  I've answered the question as best I can.
VB:  What would have been wrong with saying that he lives a lifestyle that would seem not to be supported just by the income he gets as a public representative?
GF:  I just felt that I hadn't evidence and therefore I had to make the point.
VB:  Did you have something else in mind other than the finances? Were you referring to matters concerning his private life?
GF:  Oh good heavens no.
VB:  Then what were you talking about?
GF:  I don't want to go back on these issues at this stage of the man's life. I don't want to do that.
VB:  Was there a moral conceit involved in this on your part? You were, by implication putting yourself forward as morally superior to him and that people of his moral degeneracy weren't entitled to be Taoiseach.
GF:  I gave reasons at the time and you can draw your own conclusion as to what happened subsequently.

"[Tax evasion] is the only way in which you can steal from everybody else in society simultaneously, and particularly from the poor."

VB:  There is at the heart of all this an idea that a morality in public life primarily has to do with personal matters. The speech was suffused with a judgmentalism about personal matters and to a large extent you have represented morality in your political career in that confined way, rather than to do with fairness in society.
GF:  I don't disagree with that at all. I agree with you entirely, it is a fairness in society and the integrity of politics and not ever pursuing one's own private interests at the expense of the public good.
VB:  But surely personal integrity is incidental, the central issue is fairness in society.
GF:  What matters in politics is integrity. Integrity in politics is the most fundamental issue. Without integrity in politics, then you have a fundamental problem in how a state is run. 
VB:  What would it matter if a leader was devoid of personal integrity and yet strove to create a society that was fair, strove to deal with the huge inequities in education, in health, in housing and in income distribution? What would it matter if that person were a person of no integrity but left a society that was fair?
GF:  It would matter because if that were the case then people could not know if they could trust such a person. A fair society is one in which there is total honesty and people do not seek to get anything for themselves from politics.
VB:  But if somebody did get something for themselves in politics, isn't it trivial compared with essential fairness in the structures of society?
GF:  No. Integral to it. There can be no fairness if people use power for their own personal advantage.
VB:  What is the point of somebody being scrupulously honest in politics in that confined sense and causing society to be grievously unfair?
GF:  I agree, if that's all they do and they're not concerned about equity in society, then there's no issue and I would certainly agree with you, the two go together, part of the same thing.
VB:  Anyway, the point I want to get to is that when you look back at your contribution to society and look at the society that's left, we have a deeply immoral society in the sense that the unfairnesses are so deep and ingrained, you would have to wonder what is the morality of those people responsible for that.
GF:  Yes, the scale of tax evasion, lack of integrity by people in that respect. I had no idea it was so widespread. I didn't know there were tens of thousands of people involved and I think we all are taken aback by the scale of it. 
VB:  But of course, you can't justify tax evasion but, again, it's a sort of a side issue.
GF:  No it isn't. Because it is the only way in which you can steal from everybody else in society simultaneously, and particularly from the poor. That is actually worse than other forms of fraud.
VB:  Alright, let me argue why I think it's a side issue. A report published a number of years ago seems to me to be the most interesting insight into Irish society. It was the Institute of Public Health document on Inequalities and Mortalities and it showed that between 1989 and 1998 the rates for all causative premature deaths were over three times higher in the lower occupational classes than in the highest. The death rates for all cancers among the lowest occupational classes were twice as high as for the highest class and nearly three times higher for strokes, four times higher for lung cancer, six times higher for accidents. In other words, there is at the very heart of society this terrible inequality and terrible injustice and looking back at morality and politics, issues to do with personal integrity surely are trivial compared with allowing this terrible inequality to persist.
GF:  The two are closely related because if politicians are after their own good instead of the public good there is a serious problem. 
VB:  Fine Gael traditionally has been comprised of people with personal integrity – let’s accept this is as a working assumption for now – but could you say of Fine Gael that it has been moral in confronting the inequities in society?
GF:  I don't think any party has been sufficiently concerned with these issues. You are dealing with imperfect human beings, imperfect institutions and the results are very unsatisfactory, I'd agree and in our case, the degree of inequality in our society, measured in terms of income seem to be greater than elsewhere and there's a reluctance to provide the resources to tackle these problems are very great indeed and all parties have been, in varying degrees, inadequate in coping with this.
VB:  Do you fear death?
GF:  No. Not particularly. Maybe if I got nearer to it I might but now it doesn't preoccupy me.
VB:  What do you think will happen to you when you die?
GF:  That's a matter of intense speculation.
VB:  And what's your speculation?
GF:  I don't know. It's an area, by the nature of things, (which) can't have certainty.
VB:  Okay Garret, thank you.