WORLD

The Irish Houdini

ROSS LAVER March 2 1987
WORLD

The Irish Houdini

ROSS LAVER March 2 1987

The Irish Houdini

WORLD

IRELAND

During his 30 years in Irish politics, Charles Haughey has been called everything from a statesman and a visionary to a ruthless demagogue. But both his supporters and his critics agree that Haughey, 61, has a remarkable ability to bounce back from political defeat. In 1970 the thenprime minister, Jack Lynch, fired

Haughey as finance minister amid charges that he had illegally imported arms for use in Northern Ireland. Despite his acquittal, the episode convinced many observers that Haughey’s parliamentary career was finished. Instead, he gradually rebuilt his power base and became prime minister when Lynch resigned in 1979.

But Haughey’s Fianna Fáil (Warriors of Destiny) government was plagued by scandals, and after two brief terms in office it lost to the rival Fine Gael (Tribe of Ireland) party, led by Garret FitzGerald, in 1982. Last week the two men faced each other again in a general election and Haughey won —confirming his reputation as the Houdini of Irish politics.

Still, the victory celebrations will probably be short-lived. At the

outset of the four-week election campaign, Haughey’s lead over FitzGerald was so great that most analysts expected him to win a comfortable majority in the 166-seat Dáil, or parliament. Instead, Fianna Fáil lost support during the campaign and finished with only 81 seats, three short of a majority. That will force the new

government to rule with the support of independents—and could compel Haughey to call another election later this year. At the same time, the new prime minister will have to grapple with Ireland’s 19.6-per-cent unemployment rate and a $48-billion national debt which has doubled in the past four years. Said one Dublin analyst: “It is a wonder that anyone even wanted to be prime minister at a time like this.”

So far, Haughey has given only a vague indication of what his government’s policies will be. Throughout the campaign he railed against FitzGerald’s plan to reduce government spending this year by 2.6 per cent, or $420 million, saying that the burden of restraint would fall most heavily on the poor and unemployed. Although he acknowl-

edged that spending cuts were needed, the Fianna Fáil leader refused to say where they should be made. That prompted FitzGerald, whose party won 51 seats last week, to suggest that voters who marked their ballots for Fianna Fáil were “buying a pig in a poke.”

Haughey also seemed to back away from an earlier promise to seek changes in the Anglo-Irish Accord. The agreement, signed by FitzGerald and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985, was welcomed by most of Ireland’s 3.5 million citizens because for the first time it gave the predominantly Roman Catholic country a voice in the affairs of Ulster, the British-controlled province in Northern Ireland, where Protestants outnumber Catholics by two to one. In the past Haughey had sharply criticized the accord because, he said, it implied that the Irish Republic had dropped its historic claim to Ulster. But earlier this month he promised that he would honor the agreement and use it to try to improve conditions for northern Catholics.

In fact, the results of the election signalled clearly that most people in Ireland were far more worried about the feeble state of the country’s economy than they were about the future of Ulster. None of the 27 candidates fielded by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, won a seat. Instead, 14 seats went to the Progressive Democrats, a party formed only 14 months ago that has called for steep cuts in both public spending and taxes, as well as a program to sell off many of Ireland’s state-owned industries.

The mood of pessimism about the economy is reflected in the growing numbers of young, educated Irish who are emigrating in search of work. Last year alone at least 31,000 left the country. “Everyone I know has either gone or is planning to go,” said Jacqueline McAnulla, 21, an undergraduate at Trinity College in Dublin. Thousands of other people who lack jobs do not have the qualifications to find work abroad. For them, the future looks bleak. Michael Boylan, 37, lives with his wife and four children in Ballymun, a graffiti-scarred public housing project in Dublin’s north end that shelters 20,000. “Life is bad enough for my generation, but what really scares me is what it’s going to be like for my kids,” said Boylan, who lost his job in an aluminum-window factory in 1984. “Every time I tell my 16-year-old boy to study hard he looks at me and says, ‘What for?’ ” Haughey’s challenge will be to find an answer.

ROSS LAVER