Charles Haughey, who served four terms as Ireland’s prime minister in a career overshadowed by ethical questions, died Tuesday following a long battle with cancer, his family said. He was 80.
Haughey died at his opulent mansion north of Dublin with his wife, Maureen, and their four children at his bedside. Although his retirement was spent in disgrace, the government said he would receive a state funeral, probably Friday.
Adored and despised, Haughey oversaw four scandal-marred governments as leader of Ireland’s most popular party, Fianna Fail. The first two, from 1979 to 1982, nearly bankrupted the country. The second pair, from 1987 to 1992, slashed spending and laid the foundation for the booming Celtic Tiger economy.
He was “the great survivor,” bouncing back after being put on trial for allegedly running guns to Northern Ireland, and again after a series of scandals in 1982 which included a murder suspect being found at the home of Haughey’s attorney general.
Garret FitzGerald, leader of the opposition Fine Gael party, in 1979 accused Haughey of “an overweening ambition ... a wish to dominate, even to own, the state.”
The verdicts were kinder Tuesday, even from opposition chiefs.
“He had an immense ability to get things done and he inspired great loyalty amongst many of his followers both inside and outside Fianna Fail,” said Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who as Fianna Fail treasurer signed blank party checks for Haughey’s lavish personal spending.
The current Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, said Haughey “bore his humiliations with dignity and, no doubt, personal pain.”
Haughey’s followers saw “The Boss” as a lovable rogue, courageous and visionary. Enemies detested him and deemed him the source of every ill in Irish politics.
“He radiated an aura associated in the public mind with a Renaissance potentate — with his immense wealth, his retinue of loyal retainers, his Florentine penchant for faction fighting, his patronage of the arts, his distinctive personality, at once crafty and conspiratorial, resilient and resourceful, imaginative yet insecure,” the historian J.J. Lee wrote in 1989.
Corruption tribunals established that Haughey secretly solicited more than $10 million from businessmen. Haughey insisted he gave no favors in return.
The money financed Haughey’s 280-acre estate, a private island and a yacht, a helicopter business run by a son, and a jet-setting second life with a mistress.
Born in rural County Mayo, Haughey earned degrees in accountancy and law, and co-founded an accounting firm. In 1951, he married the daughter of Sean Lemass, who became prime minister in 1959 and made his son-in-law a Cabinet minister two years later.
After Lemass resigned in 1966, Haughey became finance minister in Jack Lynch’s government, and introduced tax-free status for resident artists and writers, a policy unique worldwide.
Northern Ireland arms accusations
In 1969, when conflict ignited between Protestants and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, Haughey was accused of coordinating arms purchases for shipment to the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and Lynch fired him.
In two trials, Haughey and his alleged coconspirators were acquitted, but his political career was widely presumed to be over. Instead, he regained a Cabinet post when Lynch led Fianna Fail to a landslide victory in 1977.
Haughey backed a free-spending policy that plunged Ireland into debt, then won the party leadership after a fiscal crisis led Lynch to resign in 1979. Haughey went on television as prime minister to tell the people to tighten their belts. “As a community,” he intoned in his gravelly yet regal voice, “we are living way beyond our means.”
Later investigations revealed that he was more than $1.3 million in debt. Within weeks of becoming prime minister, his bank wrote off much of his debt after receiving an unidentified transfer of offshore funds.
Haughey seized control of Fianna Fail’s fundraising. With no laws regulating party finances or donations, he collected money directly through checks made out to “cash” or friendly third parties, investigators later established.
Haughey showed his political skill in 1979 in making contraception available to married couples, with a doctor’s prescription, despite the opposition of the Catholic hierarchy. “An Irish solution to an Irish problem,” he said, coining an oft-repeated phrase.
Wave of scandals
He didn’t last long as prime minister, because of a wave of 1982 scandals: a Haughey aide accused of stuffing ballot boxes was acquitted on a technicality, a murder suspect was found hiding in the attorney general’s home, and two journalists’ telephones were tapped.
Haughey described the discovery of the murder suspect as “grotesque,” “unbelievable,” “bizarre” and “unprecedented” — instantly immortalized in Irish political discourse as “GUBU.”
Returning to power in 1987, Haughey scoffed at his critics: “I’ve been around so long now they know I don’t eat babies.”
Haughey was forced to resign in 1992 by new evidence that he had authorized the 1982 phone-tapping.
In 1997, a judicial probe identified Haughey as a beneficiary of donations from Dunnes Stores, a supermarket chain. Public sentiment turned against him, particularly after allegations he spent $40,000 earmarked for cancer treatment for his longtime deputy, Brian Lenihan.
Facing a possible criminal charge of obstructing justice, Haughey agreed in 2000 to pay $1.2 million in back taxes on the Dunnes donations. But by then, other questionable donors had surfaced. In 2003, he paid $6.5 million more in a final settlement.
Besides his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Eimear, and sons Sean, Conor and Ciaran.