Plus, in a country where politicians tend to be less “Hollywood ugly” and more “circus ugly” he actually cut a rather dashing figure. He was charming and charismatic in a line of work where charisma and charm are in very short supply and he inspired incredible loyalty from many of his followers. But Haughey had ambitions and ego far beyond what could be satisfied by the premiership of a small, peripheral European state. Haughey dreamed of leveraging the relatively modest position of Taoiseach and becoming a statesman of global significance.
Know what’s crazy? He kinda…sorta…did? Unlike almost every other Taoiseach on this list, Haughey had a huge impact not just on Ireland but on the world at large, even though he’s certainly not famous outside of this island. How did that happen?
Okay, little bit of backstory required. And apologies, it involves the European Union which means it’s going to be super complicated.
So, the upper house of the European Parliament is the Council of the European Union, and it’s run by the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, to be confused with the President of the European Council. Yes I said “to be confused” because face it, you’re going to confuse them and that was probably the point. Anyway. The presidency is rotating which means that every country in the EU gets a turn at basically running the entire continent.
Right, so. In 1990 Ireland held the presidency and there was a big summit in Dublin to discuss piddling inconsequential political minutiae like trade reform and tarriffs and oh yeah THE BERLIN WALL HAS JUST COME DOWN REALITY AS WE KNOW IT HAS CRUMBLED WHAT DO WE DO!!!!?!
Weird as it might seem now, after the wall came down German reunification was by no means a sure thing. Most countries in Europe were decidedly less than giddy at the idea of Germany once again being large and in charge (jeez, you make one mistake). The British were particularly opposed, because Margaret Thatcher is a monster from European folklore who sneaks in through the cracks in the windows to feed on the tears of disobediant German children before snatching them away to her cottage in the forest that runs on chicken legs. The French, more understandably, were also opposed but more in a “well I suppose we could be convinced.” kind of way. What the French wanted was closer economic and political integration for Europe, essentially the basis for the modern EU and it was Haughey, in his capacity as president of the European presidency of the Council of the European Union council, who was able to get enough of the other nations on board in exchange for French support for German unity. This, then, means Haughey played a crucial role in both the reunification of Germany and the foundation of the European common currency, i.e. two of the most important events in the history of post-war Europe.
So why isn’t he further up the list? Well, not to get judgey or anything, but he was kind of a crook. And by “kind of” I mean “holy shit”.
Haughey was famous for buying things like fancy suits, race horses and…um…an island.
Now, the Taoiseach’s salary is generous, but it’s not “Bond villain” generous so people were understandably confused as to how he could afford all these clothes, mammals and landmasses on a civil servant’s salary. Now, there were only really three possible scenarios for how Haughey got the money.
1) He saved up his confirmation money like his mother told him to.
2) He was too crafty for the fairy king.
3) He was on the take.
By the time a tornado of various scandals (a “scandalnado” if you will) had forced him from office, if was pretty obvious that he’d been accepting bribes from businessmen both domestic and foreign. However, this being Ireland, we decided to be sure in the usual manner; a series of tribunals that cost the taxpayer millions and were only completed several years after Haughey’s death in 2006. As is the way of our people.
Of the many, many, many shady deals that came to light, it emerged that Haughey had accepted a five figure sum from a Saudi businessman to support his application for Irish citizenship. This, to me, was the worst betrayal of all. Irishness is not something you can buy. It’s something that’s earned by Americans whose lives have spiralled out of control until the village judge orders them to rebuild the wall of the stern but kindly farmer they crashed into while DUI and over the course of the summer the American learns the simple ways of the villagers while in return helping them attract tourists to their sleepy hamlet until one day the farmer puts his hand on the American’s shoulders and mutters “Now, you are one of us.” That’s the way it’s supposed to be. And Charles J. Haughey forgot that.
- As you can imagine, he’s quite popular in Germany.
- As Irish politicians go, he could be fairly progressive. For example, he’s the reason why Irish artists don’t have to pay taxes on any income that comes from creative work. Which, as someone trying to make a living as a writer, I am quite okay with.
- He was pro-business to a degree that bordered on the unladylike but he did make Ireland a more attractive place to do business.
- Margaret Thatcher hated him. Hated him. Loathed every particle in his being. So, you know. He can’t have been all bad.
- Haughey often gets compared to Richard Nixon but in some ways he was an even more formidable an animal. Haughey had Nixon’s intelligence, drive, and ruthlessness but he also had something that Nixon famously lacked; Charm. But all of that talent, drive and ability was put in the service of one cause: Charles J Haughey. It’s often said of Nixon that he could have been a great man if he had been loved. Charles J. Haughey could have been a great man if he’d loved anything other than himself.
Also founded the Aos Dana (I know there should be a fada in there somewhere, but it’s late, and I don’t know how to make them on my new laptop anyway), and ended VAT on books (or newspapers…one of them). He had a good eye for the little details that can make a big difference – something a lot of our Taosigh have lacked, safe to say. I suspect the contradiction between his brilliance and (utter, utter) venality is why Irish artists of a certain generation keep going back to him. (There’s some interesting stuff about his dealings with IRA in the 80s, but I’ve never heard it explained particularly well – just that it was important – I suspect because the papers haven’t all been released yet).
(Also, I thought this would be Reynolds…not that he was necessarily worse than Haughey, but if ever there was a more moronic way for a Taoiseach to get himself thrown out of office, I don’t want to witness it).
Hmmm. As you say, couldn’t have been all THAT bad. And yet, also as you say, if only he had loved someone or something other than himself. It sounds like he had a tremendous amount of potential that he wasted. And few things infuriate me more than when people do idiotic/selfish things, especially when they could do and be so much more.
Nixon may not have been charming but he could sound honest and hard-working when he wanted to. Seriously, listen to the Checkers Speech and tell me that he doesn’t sound like a good upstanding sort guy who is being unfairly attacked by his opponents. Also, as loath as I am to back up Thatcher on anything other than the Falklands, she might have had a point with Haughey.
Apropos of absolutely nothing, but I saw this and thought of you, Mouse:
Aw man, I gotta get me one of those.
So it was a Taoiseach that made the Euro, eh? I’m probably incorrectly picturing the Euros as being presented to the continent from out of a pot at a rainbow’s end, but I’m finding it too funny to correct at the moment.
In any case, that Greece bit cracked me up. How many Greek readers do you have? Hopefully this doesn’t let the cat from the bag.