Book reviews: Haughey given too much credit for peace process role

Then taoiseach Charles Haughey with Margaret Thatcher in 1980 Picture: PA

'A Failed Political Entity': Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland Question, 1945-1992 by Stephen Kelly, published by Merrion Press

Reviewed by Robert McNamara

WHEN Charles Haughey was found to have been involved in the arms crisis in April 1970, the reaction of observers was surprise as the then minister of finance had barely mentioned Northern Ireland over the previous decade. Stephen Kelly gamely attempts to demonstrate that Northern Ireland was a big deal to Haughey. But the evidence is not strong enough to sustain the case.

Set against this, Haughey enthusiastically interned the IRA during their 1950s border campaign. Indeed, his role during the arms crisis, from which ever after he carried a whiff of cordite, remains incredibly murky. Did then taoiseach Jack Lynch, who got cold feet, authorise the import of arms? Or was it a part of a plot by Haughey and Neil Blaney to use the northern crisis to topple their despised leader? The jury is still out and is likely to remain so.

The portrait of Haughey as taoiseach that emerges throughout the book suggests that his northern policy was often filled with missteps and, at times, downright idiocy. Even the most adroit politician would have been largely impotent in the face of the bleak politics and violence of early 1980s Northern Ireland, but Haughey did little to mitigate matters.

He alienated already suspicious unionists with his failed political entity rhetoric. He oversold the substance of his talks with Margaret Thatcher at the summits in London and Dublin in 1980, leading her to permanently mistrust him. He made a mess of the hunger strikes, managing to irritate Thatcher while doing little to resolve the crisis. He was, of course, constrained by the fact that the central demand for political status was as unacceptable to the Irish government as it was to British government.

Of course, out of office from July 1981, Haughey changed his mind and supported political status, when it was cost free. However, the danger of pursuing a more ‘green' line in government was demonstrated by his mishandling of the Falklands crisis in 1982 when he wasted valuable political capital in London by moving from a pro-British to an anti-British line because he believed that it would play well in a by-election. It didn't.

Haughey went from bad to worse in opposition from 1982-87. His behavior at the New Ireland Forum (only a unitary state was acceptable) and over the Anglo-Irish Agreement (he was against it, though he would have bitten off Thatcher's hand for such a deal if he had negotiated it) demonstrated unprincipled opposition politics at its worst. It is hard to agree with the author's rather generous conclusion that Haughey was motivated by "ideological republicanism, ruthless pragmatism and political opportunism".

Kelly gives too much credit for Haughey's minor role at the beginning of the peace process. As devolved power-sharing was always likely to be at least one part of an eventual settlement, Haughey's consistent opposition to it suggests that his judgment about what was possible in Northern Ireland was profoundly unsound.

:: Robert McNamara teaches at Ulster University

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman, published in hardback by Jonathan Cape

THE premise of Israeli novelist Grossman's latest story is simple. Dovaleh G, a fading stand-up, gives one final performance. His routine is that of a man in meltdown, and some of his audience have been specially invited to witness it. And that's about it. The entire book is taken up with a description of the comic's monologue, of the stories he tells and the memories he shares, and the rollercoaster reactions of his audience. The technical challenges are considerable. Do we believe in this man? Absolutely, and the nuances of his back story are brilliantly realised. Are the jokes funny? Sometimes – and when they're not, that's to the point too. Does it sustain us over 200 pages? Just about. Raw and utterly unvarnished, Dovaleh's spiel is that of a modern-day Ancient Mariner, who buttonholes us with his tale, lightening the hard-to-stomach parts with gags when we threaten to walk out. In staunching his own wounds, he brings an uneasy catharsis to those who have stuck with him.

Dan Brotzel

Messy: How To Be Creative And Resilient In A Tidy-Minded World by Tim Harford, published in hardback by Little, Brown

IF YOU'VE ever been told to tidy up your desk by your boss, make sure Secret Santa delivers them a copy of this book – they'll learn about the benefits of a little disorder in boosting creativity and innovation. Economist Tim Harford examines the positive impacts that mess and complication can have across a wide range of situations, from battles won by German officer Erwin Rommel because he ordered his troops to do the unexpected, to the impact of a lack of rules in a building at MIT, which resulted in some of the most creative scientific and engineering thinking of the last century. Harford's explanations are good stories. He shows the downsides that mess can create for some people too: Musicians subjected to Brian Eno's deliberately disruptive strategies hated the process that expected them to play outside their comfort zone, while investment clubs where everyone was friendly had worse results than those which had arguments about where to invest their money.

Bridie Pritchard


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