Infamy! Defamation! Haughey!

Charles J Haughey, from“Infamy! Infamy!” Charlie Haughey (left) ( | wikipedia) might have said during one of the many political crises he survived, “They’ve all got it in fo’ me!”

I don’t know who told that joke about Haughey,* but it’s been going round in my mind this weekend whilst reading Bruce Arnold’s biography of Charles Haughey (B Arnold Haughey. His Life and Unlucky Deeds (Harper Collins, London, 1993) (Amazon: hbk | pbk)). I’ve been enjoying it immensely; and, in it, I discovered that Haughey, in 1961, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Justice (Oscar Traynor, whom he was to succeed as Minister after the general election later the same year) had taken the second stage of the Defamation Bill in 1961 (Arnold, p 32). This was one Bill amongst a raft of legislation which had been in preparation in the Department for some time before. Haughey, as Arnold puts it, acted not so much an initiator of these Bills as “a facilitator in putting through the backlog of legislation” (ibid), resulting in a “a valuable process of tidying up and of bringing the law up to date, rather than anything that could be characterised as fundamental social reform” (ibid, p 41); but, in doing so, as Dick Walsh wrote, “he managed to meet the fastidious standards set by the secretary of his Department. Peter Berry was to report: ‘He was a joy to work with, and the longer he stayed the better he got’,” (see also Arnold, p 36). As Arnold wrote, Haughey

brought to the presentation of legislation a dynamic confidence and his speech were well researched, forceful and often eloquent as well. He demonstrated an easy grasp of detail, he handled interruptions well, was never flustered and his many exchanges, some of them quite sharp, are a pleasure to read (Arnold, p 33).

With that encomium (and in the light of the current debates about the Defamation Bill, which is – finally – due to complete its Report and Final stages in the Seanad next Tuesday), I thought I’d have a look at Haughey’s role in the passage of the Defamation Act, 1961 (also here).

The Bill that was to become the 1961 Act had its First Stage on 12 April 1961; it had its Second Stage on 3 May 1961; it had both parts of its Committee Stage on 26 May 1961; and it had its Report and Final Stages on 2 August 1961. It sailed through the Seanad with nary a word on 9 August 1961. This expedition is all a far cry from the tortured progress of its current benighted (if no longer becalmed) successor. During the Second Stage, Haughey gave two hostages to irony. First, in describing the effect of what would become section 22 of the Act on the defence of innocent defamation, he said

It is not in the interest of any section of the community that frivolous or unduly enterprising actions for defamation should be encouraged (188 Dáil Debates, col 1684 (3 May 1961))

Second, in describing the effect of what would become section 23 of the Act on the defence of fair comment, he said

It is also a defence to an action for libel that the words complained of were “fair comment upon a matter of public interest.” This will be regarded as an important safeguard in the maintenance of that freedom of expression of opinion which Article 40 of the Constitution was designed to protect (188 Dáil Debates, col 1684 (3 May 1961)).

This, so far as I can tell, is the only reference in the entire debate to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.

Two other gems from the debate should not go unnoticed. First, at the commencement of the Committee Stage, opposition TD Gerard Sweetman commented

Now that the Parliamentary Secretary has arrived, may I say how appropriate it is that Fianna Fáil should be dealing with a Defamation Bill because they are past masters in relation to it? (191 Dáil Debates, col 1901 (26 July 1961))

Second – and perhaps with this crack more than half in mind – during the Report Stage, while opposition Deputy Patrick McGilligan was treating the Dáil to a learned discourse upon the nature of absolute privilege (during which Haughey described Gatley on Libel and Slander as “not a very good book” (191 Dáil Debates, col 2538 (2 August 1961)), Fianna Fáil backbench TD, Major Vivion de Valera heckled that McGilligan

… has often availed of that privilege (191 Dáil Debates, col 2539 (2 August 1961)).


* Update: Daithí points out (offline) that the line is spoken by Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar in Carry on Cleo. I rather suspect that its application to Haughey is down to Scrap Saturday of blessed memory.