In our February blog, Turlough O’Riordan discusses the sequence of events that led to the resignation of attorney general Patrick Connolly in August 1982, and the origins of GUBU – a phrase that has become firmly embedded in our political and cultural lexicon.
At a dramatic press conference on 17 August 1982, Taoiseach Charles Haughey gave an overview of the events that led to the resignation of his attorney general, Patrick Connolly, the previous day. A nationwide manhunt had located Malcolm Macarthur, the suspect in two vicious murders, in Connolly’s exclusive Dalkey home, where he had been staying for several days. Haughey described the outlandish and improbable sequence of events leading to that point as ‘grotesque’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘unbelievable’. Little could he have known these words, suggested by Anthony Cronin in a conversion prior to the press conference, would come to haunt him.
After Macarthur was arrested on 13 August in Connolly’s exclusive Dalkey home, the aloof nature of the protagonists and their odd behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the arrest, when added to the gruesome nature of the crime, proved deeply troubling. Connolly, who otherwise assisted the gardaí in every way, declined to give a statement the day after the arrest and insisted on commencing a long-planned holiday to the USA. Despite speaking to Haughey both before and during his journey to the USA (Haughey initially assented to the trip but swiftly changed his mind), Connolly refused to return until the presence of a media scrum at JFK airport in New York convinced him of the seriousness of the situation.
It soon emerged that in the days prior to his capture, Macarthur, the most wanted person in the state, had repeatedly travelled around Dublin city with Connolly in his state car, driven by a garda. Connolly returned to Dublin from New York on 16 August and resigned that same day.
A week after Haughey’s press conference, Conor Cruise O’Brien, a former diplomat, cabinet minister, journalist and litterateur, used his Irish Times column to dissect Haughey’s phraseology. He reordered the adjectives (‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented’) to form the notorious acronym GUBU, a phrase that immediately entered the political vernacular and rapidly imprinted itself on the collective consciousness. It remains widely used by the media and public alike when discussing Haughey and the 1982 government he led.
The bizarre circumstances of Macarthur’s arrest proved to be just the first of a series of events that exposed the turbid nature of Haughey’s government. That summer, at the instigation of Sean Doherty, minister for justice, assistant garda commissioner T. J. Ainsworth supplied Ray MacSharry, minister for finance, with covert recording equipment. In October MacSharry surreptitiously recorded conversations with Martin O’Donoghue, minister for education, which were transcribed and supplied to Doherty. Doherty had also initiated the phone tapping of two leading political journalists, Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold, ostensibly to establish the source of cabinet leaks though largely to gain advance knowledge of possible challenges to Haughey’s leadership of Fianna Fáil.
Haughey’s government collapsed in early November 1982. A Fine Gael–Labour coalition entered office, led by Garret FitzGerald, who appointed Michael Noonan as minister for justice. Informed by FitzGerald of rumours the private phones of journalists had been tapped, Noonan tasked Laurence Wren with investigating Ainsworth and the garda commissioner, Patrick McLaughlin. His findings resulted in their voluntary resignations, though the government made clear it was prepared to dismiss them both.
In December 1982 RTÉ’s Today Tonight revealed details of Doherty’s interference in garda affairs in favour of relatives and supporters, while details of MacSharry’s covert recordings surfaced publicly for the first time in early 1983. Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh’s insightful reportage detailed garda malfeasance by Ainsworth and Doherty. (The Boss (1983), their brilliant account of the incredible events of 1982, remains a classic of Irish political reportage.)
The capture of a murder suspect in the attorney general’s home, and Connolly traveling on holiday afterwards, were the catalyst for GUBU. If the former was improbable, the latter was odd (if not suspicious) and entirely avoidable. The tapping of Arnold’s and Kennedy’s home telephones, and the recording of ministerial conversations, was indicative of the paranoid mindset of Haughey and his cabinet confidants. Doherty’s actions suggested a deep disregard for the rule of law at the highest levels and laid bare the decrepit nature of Haughey’s 1982 government. By early 1983 the phrase GUBU accounted both for the specific and the general. O’Brien’s prescient formulation, a neologism with no root or synonym, brilliantly encapsulated the murky nature of Haughey and his government. GUBU was also the catalyst for Haughey’s ultimate political demise; in 1992 Doherty confirmed the taoiseach knew of the phone tapping, leading to Haughey’s resignation in January that year.
The recent fortieth anniversary of these events heralded many retrospective accounts. Most insightful, and the only one to secure the cooperation of Macarthur, was Mark O’Connell’s A thread of violence (2023). O’Connell noted another minor, though bizarre, coincidence. The farm where Bridie Gargan grew up and where her family lived at the time of her murder, was formerly owned by Haughey’s parents and was where a young Haughey spent some of his childhood.
Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh, The Boss (1983)
RTÉ History Show: https://www.rte.ie/radio/radio1/clips/21130972/
Harry McGee, The murderer and the taoiseach: death, politics and GUBU – revisiting the notorious Malcolm Macarthur case (2023)
Mark O’Connell, A thread of violence (2023)