A retrospective through the Taoisigh of the modern era

Long shadows...former Taoisigh Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern.

World of Politics with Harry McGee

Charlie Haughey was still Taoiseach when I first set out in journalism over quarter of a century ago. I only encountered him once, at an event in what was then UCG to mark an Irish-language initiative. He came out and did a doorstep. It was short and cursory. I can’t remember the questions nor the subject matter. All I can remember was the tone.

It was neutral and measured and he was accommodating, but there was no mistaking his authority, that kind of steeliness he exhibited publicly – enough to kind of overawe a cub reporter.

Albert Reynolds was Taoiseach when I first moved to Dublin, but I was a feature writer in the Sunday Press and can’t remember any direct dealings with him, although I’m sure I attended a few press conferences and spoke now and again to his press secretary, the former RTE journalist Sean Duignan.

I had more dealings with the Labour side for some reason. I covered the November 1992 election from Tralee and got the first big interview with Dick Spring, who had just brought Labour to a record high of 33 seats. Spring was a little tetchy and short – unlike most politicians, he was impatient and didn’t like any faffing around.

Sean Duignan’s book about Reynolds’ two years as Taoiseach, One Step on the Merry Go-Round, is probably the best book I’ve read about Irish politics. Reynolds could be thin-skinned and took some political slights very personally. That led to fallings-out, some of which became bitter.

He fell out with Haughey when the latter agreed to a coalition with the Progressive Democrats. He had an appalling relationship with Dessie O’Malley, and indeed with Spring when he became Tánaiste.

Reynolds’ government broke up over his appointment of Attorney General Harry Whelehan as President of the High Court, which coincided with inexcusable delays by Whelehan’s office in extraditing a paedophile priest. It all unravelled badly.

Reynolds was not the most popular of Fianna Fáil leaders and there was a certain snobbishness about this “one sheet man” and his “country and western” set.

But he did have notable achievements, not least pushing thing forward considerably in the Northern Ireland peace process, and securing structural funds from the EU that were the foundation blocks of the prosperity that came at the end of that decade.

Read the full column in this week’s Connacht Tribune.