Ben there, Dunne that: Meeting the Taoisigh…



Forget substance, think style, forget policy, think personality! As Leo Varadkar becomes Ireland’s 14th Taoiseach, People Editor PAUL HEALY, who has met every holder of the Office of Taoiseach since 1979 (except for Garret), presents a tongue-in-cheek reflection on his first impressions of each one…


Whether I liked it or not, I met every Taoiseach we’ve had over the past 38 years (except for Garret).


Charles Haughey (1979-’81; 1982; 1987-‘92): A bit of a boyo, as you may have heard. There was a period in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when we stretched the expenses account at the Roscommon Champion and covered the annual Ard Fheis of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The Fianna Fáil ones were the most exciting, because of the Haughey factor. After Haughey’s address at the 1991 Ard Fheis in the RDS, Sean Doherty invited myself and photographer Gerard O’Loughlin to a reception upstairs. When an exultant Charlie made his grand entrance later, we actually switched our attention from the free bar and watched as his presence commanded the attention of guests. When Sean Doherty introduced us, I had a few starry-eyed moments chatting to Charlie. He never mentioned the fact that Ben Dunne called to Kinsealy that very month and handed CJ over 200,000 pounds in cheques.

  Ben: ‘There’s something for yourself…’

  Charlie: ‘Thanks big fella…’

I detected no tension between Sean Doherty and Charlie Haughey in that post-Ard Fheis bar. A few months later, Sean brought Haughey crashing down, when ‘The Doc’ implicated ‘The Boss’ in the 1982 phone-tapping scandal.

Garret Fitzgerald (1981-’82 and 1982-‘87): I never met him, but respected him from afar.

Albert Reynolds (1992-’94): Interviewing Albert in the Longford Arms Hotel, I was rather chuffed when he took a phone call from Gerry Adams while in my presence. “That was Gerry” Albert casually said when their chat ended. 

  Later, I interviewed Albert in the Taoiseach’s Private Office. He was just back a day or two from the funeral of Virginia Clinton, mother of Bill, then the American President.

  “She was a great card player” Albert mused.

High office couldn’t change Albert – he was wonderfully ordinary.

Many people in this area will remember the famous marathon Fianna Fáil Convention of 1992. The hall in Ballyleague was packed, warm and stuffy, and the progress was slow. There was the usual pandemonium at the doors, with people trying to gain entry. A prisoner of procedure inside, Taoiseach Albert could take no more; so he climbed out through a window from a side room and made his getaway. He promptly took ‘forty winks’ in his car while the formalities continues inside the hall. If it was now, the unconventional Taoiseach would be judged and photographed all over social media.

John Bruton (1994-’97): A mighty man to drink a pint. He opened a bypass in Longford, flanked by fellow dignitaries and the wider public. After the formalities, a couple of hundred guests were invited to a celebration function in the Annaly Hotel. It was late afternoon, early evening. I watched as the Taoiseach of the country, holding court at the top table, drank five pints over dinner. He could hold his drink; he held office for three years, more often than not with commendable assurance. 

Bertie Ahern (1997-2008): Charlie was on to something when he described Bertie as ‘the most cunning.’ In many ways he was an actor; certainly he was all things to all people for a long time. Except towards the end, when things had begun to turn sour, Bertie was adored by the man and woman in the street. And it was ‘in the street’ that I saw Bertie’s X Factor work its magic. Canvassing in Roscommon, in campaign after campaign, he devoured the streets at high speed, smiling, winking, kissing babies and always holding a head of cabbage up for the photographer when he got to the vegetable stall in Main Street. Everyone he met seemed to love him, but the meeting was always a fleeting one; there was never time to have a serious chat with Bertie, which, looking back, was probably just as well.

Brian Cowen (2008-2011): He popped into the Roscommon People offices, then located in the Harrison Centre, in the summer of 2008. He was friendly without being particularly charismatic. Cowen chatted briefly about the economy and the newspaper industry. I specifically remember him NOT saying: “The economy is about to crash, there won’t be a soft landing after all, the IMF are on my speed dial and we’re all banjaxed!”

Enda Kenny (2011-2017): The first time I met him was after hours in a Dublin hotel when he was a mere TD. He was very sociable. In 2011, he was still good craic, but now a new persona had to be created, a new level of gravitas adopted. Most of them do it. In the years that followed, we saw different versions of the man; including the ‘How’s she cutting?’ Enda and also the ‘International Statesman’ Enda.

I had always liked him and, as a personable West of Ireland man who got the top job, he would always have been well received in Roscommon…until, You Know What happened. When You Know What happened, everything changed.

I met him a few times, and we even had our photo taken together on one of his campaign visits to our office. I only interviewed Enda once; it was about a year before he became Taoiseach. I asked him that day for his thoughts on Roscommon Hospital. His response was vague!

Later, when he became Taoiseach, You Know What happened. This was one man who wouldn’t be holding cabbage plants aloft in Roscommon Town for a while.

In saying that, I would acknowledge that Enda did a lot of things right as Taoiseach, and, no more than Bertie, he had a fair bit of cunning.

And so, with no expectation that he’ll escape from a party convention via a window, drink five pints in public in the afternoon, or accept a €200,000 gift from a kindly businessman, it’s over to Leo…