Charles in Charge

 
 

Charlie - Feature ImageIan Mulholland looks at the recent RTÉ series and its complex relationship with the real Charlie’s Legacy

In a Red C poll conducted for Paddy Power in the days following the broadcast of the second episode of Charlie, a surprising 15% of participants said they would like to see a “character like Charles Haughey as Taoiseach”. Among 18-24 year olds, almost a quarter held this view. While it seems those of us of a different political persuasion don’t need to start worrying just yet, it’s nevertheless curious that even today, knowing all we do about the man, he manages to continue to captivate so many.

RTÉ’s three part series on the man is, as we are reminded at the beginning of each episode, a drama, not a documentary. However it still manages to pay more than lip service to the true history of Ireland’s politics during Haughey’s time. While not entirely unsympathetic to the man, the series tries not to pull any punches.

There is a feeling though, that many events are simply being name-checked. Three hours and forty-five minutes may seem like a long time to tell one man’s story, but this is a story that spans almost fourteen years. It just about manages to squeeze in all the important events, a very impressive feat for a show which is primarily focused on the drama of politics.

However, so much of what’s interesting about Charlie is due to events much later than the final episode’s 1992 ending. At first glance, there’s no reason that this series could not have been produced many years ago – say, after the Moriarty Tribunal published its initial findings on Haughey in 2006. What makes it all the more appropriate in 2015 is the events subsequent to that report. Much was made, in some outlets, of the fact that viewers would need to already be familiar with the politics of Haughey’s time in advance of watching. It was claimed that younger viewers who may not be old enough to remember his government would be at a particular disadvantage. In fact the show does a passable job of giving the audience enough information to follow along, even if some references might slip them by. But what has transpired since 1992 and since 2008, in particular, is as important.

“Wealth creates wealth”…it helps him retain power, and it helps him help the wealthy

In one of the final moments of the last episode, PJ O’Meara recalls Haughey’s now-famous description of Bertie Ahern as “the most skillful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all.” It’s clear at this point (as it was at the time) that Ahern is Haughey’s preferred successor. Aside from two-and-a-half years under Albert Reynolds, there is an almost continuous connection between the moment Haughey became leader of Fianna Fail, and the economic crisis that followed shortly after Ahern stepped down.

As if to drive the point home, many of our contemporary problems rear their heads in Charlie, often appearing to be only incidental to the story being told – that of the man himself. So we have a recession following an economic crash, we have unprecedented levels of emigration as young people seek to start a new, better life. And we have a government worrying that sovereignty will be lost if the IMF is brought in to bail out the economy. The makers of the show certainly didn’t want these facts to pass quietly.

When challenged by Tony Gregory, Haughey, in his “what have the Romans ever done for us?” moment, lists off a string of the policies that have helped him buy the support of various constituencies. Ideologically opposed to one another (although Haughey claims not to have any ideology), Gregory’s interest lies in investing the poor of his community, Haughey’s lies in his own power and wealth, wanting to be seen as a peer of the François Mitterrand’s and Helmut Kohl’s of the world. His desire for Ireland to be seen as an equal among other nations (important in order for him to be seen as an equal) may go some way towards explaining his push to attract big banks, businesses and artists to the country.

“Wealth creates wealth”, he tells Gregory at one point, seeking to justify himself. And so, if he receives money from AIB or from Ben Dunne and does them a few favours, it’s nothing to worry about – it helps him retain power, and it helps him help the wealthy, whom he claims create wealth. As one recent letter to the Irish Independent asked, “There were many business people who were too willing to donate to your lifestyle, who saw that with your leadership Ireland could grow. Who really cares if many of them gave you money? The only ones who care are those looking for something to write about.”

Charlie goes to great lengths to show us these various dodgy deals that helped Haughey to maintain such an ostentatious lifestyle and to keep a grip on power. It doesn’t deal much with the opposition parties and their leaders – Garrett Fitzgerald’s two governments (falling in between Haughey’s three) are left completely unexplored. This is not a problem – the title of the show gives a clue as to who the focus is on. By the end of the final episode, when Ahern’s ascendance has become inevitable, we know enough of his mentor’s ideology to be able to connect the dots from 1992 all the way to 2008’s meltdown.

Ahern finally became leader of Fianna Fail in 1994 and Taoiseach in 1997. Like his old master, he remained faithful to the concept of trickle-down economics, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. His party’s tent at the Galway races where wealthy businessmen could schmooze with powerful politicians would become famous, and some of the most powerful businesses in the country would find themselves subject to only “soft-touch” regulation.

At several points during Charlie, Haughey dwells on his need for a legacy. Pointedly, we see him leave a copy of a document called “A Path to Peace” by Martin Mansergh to his successor. Perhaps this contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process is what Colin Teevan, Charlie’s screenwriter, feels is part of that legacy. But arguably the other part was Bertie Ahern. Through both, he has left an indelible mark on modern Irish society.

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