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Sunday 3 July 2005

When Charlie got really nasty, it was to his friend of 30 years

LAST week, responding to an article in which I had confessed to loathing Fianna Fail,
Willie O'Dea kindly offered to lend me a copy of Brian Lenihan's For the Record.

Thanks, Willie, but I have my own copy, with an inscription from Brian thanking me for my

The story behind this is a salutary reminder of just how nasty Fianna Fail can be.

When it became clear in 1989 that Brian would die without a liver transplant, Charlie
Haughey solicited money from businessmen to pay for the operation in the American Mayo
Clinic. (True to form, he allegedly pocketed quite a bit of the collection himself.)

The following year, Brian ran for the presidency, but a week before the November
election, he was sensationally sacked as Tanaiste and Minister for Defence.

The issue was Brian's denial that he had been one of those trying to phone President
Patrick Hillery in January 1982, to pressurise him into refusing a dissolution of the
Dail; instead, the Fianna Fail telephoners wanted him to get Garret FitzGerald to resign
as Taoiseach and invite Haughey to seek Dail support without an election. (The canny
President refused to take any calls.)

The loaded gun was a tape of an interview six months previously with a politics research
student called Joe Duffy, in which Brian stated he had made such calls.

Later evidence suggests that Brian was so heavily drugged when he gave the interview to
Duffy that he was very likely talking nonsense, but the allegation that he was lying was
immensely damaging to his campaign and caused the PDs, Fianna Fail's coalition partners,
to demand that he resign or be fired.Rather than risk an election, Haughey sacked his
"friend of 30 years" and Brian lost to Mary Robinson.

I hadn't seen Brian since an evening some years previously when I had denounced his
leader as corrupt, and I lived in London, so in April 1991 I was baffled to receive a
message asking if I would launch For the Record, his remarkably unbitter book about the

I wasn't even a journalist then: my only claim to fame in Ireland was as the author of
what had been a controversial biography of Patrick Pearse.

Although Brian had told me he admired the book, and we were cousins, I concluded that the
man who had often been referred to as the most popular politician in Ireland must now be
very hard up for friends.

Despite my views on his party, I liked Brian, I had always been grateful to him for being
so kind to the Literary and Historical debating society when I was at UCD, I had been
appalled by Duffy's breach of academic ethics and particularly angry that it was Brian's
sheer good nature in finding time to help a student that had destroyed his political

So I said yes, subject to three conditions.

First, I wanted him publicly to urge politicians to continue to help academic
researchers, despite Duffy's breach of trust. "No problem."

Second, I wanted him to emphasise that he had no quarrel with the UCD Department of
Politics by making a financial contribution to it. "No problem."

Thirdly, although it was no hardship to make a speech being nice about Brian, I couldn't
bear anyone to think I was a Fianna Fail supporter, so I warned him I'd have to say that
I'd have voted for Mary Robinson. "No problem."

He certainly was short of famous friends at the launch party.

Although Bertie Ahern - who had been his director of elections - popped by, the only
other Fianna Fail faces I and my escorts recognised were members of Brian's family.
Where, I wonder, was Willie O'Dea.

That the party to which Brian had given more than 40 years of his life had turned its
back on him was no surprise to me. In the world of Charlie Haughey, loyalty was a one-way

But the whole episode made me sad. Brian was courageous, kind, highly intelligent and an
effective minister whose achievements included the scrapping of our absurd censorship
laws. But his principles were eroded by Fianna Fail.

Willie O'Dea thinks I elevate principle (by which he bizarrely thinks I mean
"intellectual, erudite, genteel, high-brow") way over pragmatism ("uncultured,
unsophisticated, regressive").

Not so, Willie. I know that both are necessary in politics as in life. However, in its
heart and soul, the Fianna Fail party thinks principle is for wusses.

Like many other decent members of the party, Brian Lenihan knew that his leader and some
of his colleagues were on the take, yet he chose to pretend otherwise.

When a man as intelligent as Willie O'Dea dismisses the corruption of the Haughey years
as if it were no more than a matter of a bad apple or two, he is continuing a very Fianna
Fail tradition.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards