I am an occasional reader of the Socialist Democracy website, having found that, despite a rather dour style, the Grumpy Old Men of Irish Trotskyism do produce consistently useful material. One thing that caught my eye recently was this article by Andrew Johnson on the Moriarty Report into Charlie Haughey’s corruption. It’s actually not a bad article, giving a decent recap of the essential points and trying to put the whole corruption issue in some sort of historical context. This makes a welcome change from the history-by-character-assassination practiced by yahoos like Stephen Collins, who would have you believe Charlie was the root of all evil in Irish politics.
The article, however, and this is what I don’t like about the left press, is marred by quite a bit of schematic dogmatism. This seems to be the SD house style – they don’t make many concessions to the reader who isn’t immaculately versed in their politics, and there is a tendency to conclude with their entire programme. What I would particularly take issue with is Johnson’s historical account of “the rise of corruption”, which is written in a telegraphic manner that fails to take into account some of the nuances of 26-county politics. Perhaps that can be forgiven in somebody writing from the vantage point of Belfast, but for the southern reader it’s a little jarring.
For instance, Johnson makes big play of the “de-republicanising” of Fianna Fáil in response to the explosion in the North in 1969. But FF didn’t simply ditch the First Aim of its Córú and proceed in a political vacuum. Rather, the old policy, laid down in the New Departure of 1926 which established FF as the constitutional republican party, was replaced by a new policy, enunciated by Jack Lynch in 1970 and endorsed at the 1971 Ard Fheis. This new policy, which Lynch passed off in typically opportunistic fashion as the old policy retooled for new conditions, was in fact the old Cumann na nGaedheal policy from the 1920s.
Johnson is also more than a little hazy on the divisions within Fianna Fáil in those years. It is true that, in the 1960s popular imagination, Charlie was the exemplar of Homo Mohairicus, but things were more complicated and much more interesting than that. Neil Blaney was often characterised in those days as a Mohair Suit Man, but Neil may have been, along with my mentor Kevin Boland, one of the last honest men in Fianna Fáil and a good traditional republican. Conversely, if there was one man in the FF leadership who took the lead in ditching the party’s time-honoured ideology, it was the ostentatiously old-fashioned George Colley. The events surrounding the Arms Non-Crisis are usually and correctly held to be a precursor to the 1985 split (and it was no coincidence that the “retired” Jack Lynch became the Desocrats’ éminence grise), so a more in-depth analysis would not go amiss. The politics of Ireland in recent decades has been ill served by radical historiography, and may provide more fertile grounds for research than yet another paper on 1798 in Roscommon.
I have genuinely mixed feelings about Charlie. Of course he was a shocking old reprobate and I wouldn’t want to defend his crookery for a second. But there was no doubting his extraordinary ability and I’m in no doubt that the tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats (© Splinter) hated him not for his failings but for his better points, most notably his populism and his residual (in fact largely rhetorical) republicanism. This I think is why so much of the spiteful commentary on his decline and fall leaves a bad taste. Charlie probably deserved a spell behind bars, but he didn’t deserve to have his epitaph written by those who never did the nation any service at all.