A saga of officially ordered telephone tapping, bugging and hints of bribe attempts that the local press is calling "Ireland's Watergate" has engulfed the country's Fianna Fail party and its leader, former prime minister Charles Haughey.
So certain were press and politicians that Haughey, 57, would be forced to resign as party leader today that the respected Irish Press ran a two-page political obituary of him this morning. But the redoubtable Haughey, who has insisted he knew nothing of the wrongdoing, which took place while he was Ireland's prime minister last year, refused to go quietly. "He's shown he won't give way to moral pressure," one Irish reporter said tonight. "They'll have to push him out."
So far the scandal has established that the Fianna Fail minister of justice, Sean Doherty, initiated police telephone taps last spring on two journalists who were writing about dissent within the party. In the fall Doherty provided a police tape recorder to the then deputy prime minister, Ray McSharry, who was confronting a prominent Haughey critic in the party's dissident wing.
A deputy police commissioner showed McSharry how to use the recorder and later police prepared a transcript of the session for the politician, fueling charges of political influence on the country's police.
The controversy has already cost the jobs of Ireland's police commissioner and a deputy for security matters, who are taking "early retirement." Doherty and McSharry were forced to resign from the party's parliamentary leadership. Haughey's personal position, already shaky after his defeat in national elections in November, then started to erode and his eventual downfall is still widely anticipated.
The affair--which for all the uproar is not expected to result in any criminal action--could still, however, lead to further explosive revelations about political influence on Ireland's police and the use of wiretaps by successive Irish governments. In a rear-guard action over the weekend, for instance, Haughey loyalists spread rumors that the ruling Fine Gael-Labor coalition, in a previous term in office, had tapped the British Embassy and at least one investigative reporter.
The Irish newspapers and political community, while not minimizing the serious side of the affair, find it irresistible and reporting of it is copious. But on balance, the clearly free-wheeling interference with the police is genuinely disturbing. "It is not merely a matter of interfering with discipline," said the Irish Times, "it is a question of the police being regarded by some as almost their personal servants and party political aides."
Inevitably, given the widespread comparisons to Watergate, Haughey's troubles are being compared to the fate of Richard Nixon. A proud and defensive man who was tried and acquitted in 1970 on charges of smuggling guns to Northern Ireland, Haughey, in two periods as prime minister, seemed to be regularly under attack over his style of leadership.
Haughey, a self-made millionaire who has led Fianna Fail since 1979, suffered a series of major political embarrassments, particularly in the past year. One of the the worst came last summer when a man wanted for two murders was arrested by police at the apartment of Haughey's attorney general where he had been living for several weeks.
In the end, though, it is the deep divisions Haughey has caused in his party that now seem likely to lead to his undoing.