Doherty, Sean (1944–2005), politician and cabinet minister, was born 29 June 1944 in Cootehall, Co. Roscommon, one of three sons and three daughters of James Doherty, auctioneer and politician, whose family migrated from Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim, earlier in the century, and his wife Maureen (née Hogg) who had Church-of-Ireland connections, and whose father, Andrew Hogg, was a Fine Gael county councillor. James Doherty was a county councillor for Clann na Poblachta and subsequently for Fianna Fáil. Educated at the local national school, and at Presentation Brothers' College, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim, Doherty initially intended to become a teacher, but joined An Garda Síochána in 1965. He was stationed in Sligo before being transferred to Dublin, first to Donnybrook station, then joining the special branch. He registered to study law at UCD and the King's Inns, but did not complete his courses. Having attained the rank of garda sergeant, Doherty left the force in 1973 after co-option to Roscommon county council to replace his deceased father; he also took over the family auctioneering business. At this time he first made the acquaintance of Charles J. Haughey (1925–2006), who was then in the political wilderness owing to his involvement in the 1970 arms crisis, but was assiduously touring the country on the 'chicken-and-chips circuit', rebuilding grassroots support within the Fianna Fáil party. Deeply fascinated by the sophisticated and cosmopolitan Haughey, Doherty became a devoted and loyal protégé, regarding Haughey deferentially as a supremely talented politician who had detected and was prepared to nurture Doherty's own potential.
First elected to Dáil Éireann for Fianna Fáil in 1977, Doherty represented Roscommon–Leitrim (1977–81), Roscommon (1981–9), and Longford–Roscommon (1992–2002). A highly effective campaigner, and a regular poll-topper in the first four elections of the 1980s, he contrived a political persona modelled on that of Brian Lenihan (qv) (who had served twelve years as a Roscommon-based TD (1961–73)). A consummate constituency man, highly responsive to supporters' problems and requests, Doherty addressed crowds in mellifluous but insubstantial language, that evoked a sense of solidarity and commonality with his audience, while conveying a wry cynicism about the political process. His career was marked by persistent rivalry with party colleague Terry Leyden, whose base was south Roscommon; Doherty often boasted about sly and devious tricks played at his rival's expense.
Doherty was numbered among the 'gang of five' TDs who intrigued on Haughey's behalf, and organised Haughey's campaign to succeed Jack Lynch (qv) as Fianna Fáil leader and taoiseach in 1979. He subsequently took a prominent role in rallying support for Haughey within the parliamentary party whenever internal opponents showed discontent. Haughey appointed Doherty minister of state at the Department of Justice (1980–81), where his relations with his superior, Gerard Collins, were tense (possibly because Doherty was seen as Haughey's proxy in a department where George Colley (qv) had insisted on a veto over Haughey's choice of minister as the price of his own service in government).
On the formation of Haughey's second government, Doherty was appointed minister for justice (March–December 1982), the first former garda to hold the office. His tenure, while brief, was crowded with controversial incident, which sullied his personal reputation, and contributed vastly to the general sense of low ethical standards and abuse of power that permeated Haughey's administration. Doherty was perceived by many commentators – a perception ratified privately by many senior gardaí – as displaying a cavalier attitude towards departmental business, turning the force into a political instrument both nationally and in his own constituency, and interfering in garda investigations for political advantage.
A rash of incidents that were highly publicised at the time reinforced this perception. A Roscommon garda, with whom Doherty had clashed over the former's enforcement of charges for drink-driving and after-hours-drinking against some of Doherty's supporters, was threatened with transfer from Boyle to the border station of Ballyconnell, Co. Cavan, whereupon the garda prepared a memorandum (later published) detailing Doherty's history of interference with local policing; the transfer eventually was rescinded by an internal garda appeals body. Doherty was widely suspected of interference in the case of his brother-in-law, a garda who was charged with assaulting a man in a public house; hours before the case was due to be heard, the man was arrested by the RUC near his home in Co. Fermanagh at the request of An Garda Síochána, only to be released later without charge; the case against the garda was discharged, owing to the man's failure to appear and give evidence. In a particularly celebrated incident, Doherty's garda escort car crashed late one night, and was abandoned on a roadside, while the minister was attending Listowel races; though the widely circulated rumour that Doherty had been driving the car in the company of a well-known female singer was untrue, a more credible account was that Doherty – who was believed to engage with associates in illegal late-night drinking – had instructed his garda driver to provide two such acquaintances with a lift home. The years after Doherty's period in office saw revelations that he had overridden the recommendations of departmental officials by granting Irish citizenship to individuals who had financial dealings with Haughey, and allegations by Haughey's press secretary, Frank Dunlop, that Doherty had supplied a cabinet colleague, Ray Burke, with a copy of the official file into a garda investigation of the early 1970s of allegations of corruption against Burke.
The most controversial episode of Doherty's ministry came to light soon after Fianna Fáil's electoral defeat of November 1982. The new Fine Gael justice minister, Michael Noonan, revealed in January 1983 that Doherty while in office had ordered the tapping of the telephones of two political journalists (Bruce Arnold of the Irish Independent, and Geraldine Kennedy of the Sunday Tribune), and that Doherty had obtained equipment from the gardaí to record a conversation between two cabinet colleagues. Suspicions were rife that Doherty's purpose in bugging the journalists' phones was to discover the sources of their information about internal divisions within Fianna Fáil. Both the garda commissioner and deputy commissioner resigned over their parts in the scandal. Doherty resigned as opposition spokesman on justice, and later resigned the Fianna Fáil whip (but was readmitted to the parliamentary party in December 1984). Haughey, who denied any knowledge of the bugging, survived a vote of no confidence in his leadership. Doherty initially defended his actions by citing national security considerations (though the taps had failed to produce any information relevant to criminal activities). Later he insisted that he had been upholding cabinet confidentiality, and that attempts by cabinet ministers to overthrow Haughey were equivalent to 'treason' – an argument that, even (or especially) if sincerely held, displayed a disturbing inability to distinguish between the state, and the government of the day.
Owing to such controversies, and to his political style generally, Doherty was a central and representative figure in the political and cultural divisions of the 1980s. His and Haughey's detractors regarded Doherty as the epitome of provincial obscurantism, hypocrisy, corruption, demagoguery, and morally irresponsible 'stroke' politics. Doherty's admirers (especially in his own constituency) regarded him as a hard-working and effective proponent of legitimate local interests, who was done down by a condescending and hypocritical liberal elite. The latter outlook was expressed forcibly in a memoir, Jiving at the crossroads (1991), by the Roscommon-born journalist John Waters, who, in exploring his own changing attitudes towards his provincial background, suggested that Doherty and his supporters were unfairly demonised by an insecure metropolitan elite, and that Doherty's popularity derived in part from such legitimate values as neighbourly solidarity and local patriotism, and from confusion at the stresses of the modernising process.
When Haughey formed a minority Fianna Fáil government in 1987, Doherty was deeply chagrined at being denied a cabinet appointment. Standing in the 1989 European elections in Connacht–Ulster, he was wrong-footed when a dáil election was called for the same date. His decision to contest both elections being seen as double-jobbing, he was defeated in both polls, losing his dáil seat to an independent candidate opposing the closure of the psychiatric hospital in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon – an issue on which Doherty, as chairman of the Western Health Board, was awkwardly positioned. Elected to Seanad Éireann for the administrative panel (1989–92), he served as cathaoirleach – elected when his name was drawn from a hat after a tied vote.
Doherty's resentment over his treatment by Haughey was further inflamed by what he perceived as continuing slights by figures within the leadership of Fianna Fáil (by now in coalition with the Progressive Democrats (PDs)). In an interview on the RTÉ satirical programme Nighthawks (January 1992) – recorded at a Castlerea pub to mark the publication of Waters's book – Doherty hinted that others beside himself had known about the 1982 phone-taps. The broadcast generated a new wave of speculation, intensified by the fragility of Haughey's political position, owing to the cumulative effect of recent electoral setbacks, a series of scandals involving semi-state bodies, and a recent leadership challenge. After going incommunicado for some days, Doherty announced at a press conference that he had supplied Haughey with transcripts of the taped conversations, and that Haughey never expressed reservations about the practice. Though Haughey denied the allegations, and some commentators speculated that Doherty was a stalking horse for Haughey's party rival Albert Reynolds (qv), opinion polls indicated that a considerable majority of the public believed Doherty. The PDs withdrew support from Haughey, who resigned as taoiseach (11 February 1992), to be succeeded by Reynolds. Although subsequent commentary has claimed that Haughey was preparing to resign to avert disclosure of dubious financial dealings, the popular perception was that Doherty brought down his erstwhile patron.
In 1992 Doherty returned to the dáil as TD for Longford–Roscommon, retaining his seat in 1997. Any hopes of regaining office were extinguished by Fianna Fail's poor 1992 election result, and subsequent coalitions with Labour (1992–4) and the PDs (1997–2002), neither of which parties would have countenanced him in government. His latter career was dominated by constituency work, a strong public commitment to his catholic faith, and highly effective work on dáil committees.
From the early 1990s Doherty advocated a 'Shannon tax corridor' – an incentive to encourage development in the upper Shannon region of Roscommon, Longford, and Leitrim. The scheme's implementation under post-1997 Fianna Fáil-led governments resulted in a building boom in the region, and was acclaimed by many local obituarists as Doherty's greatest achievement. Posterity might well regard such acclaim as built on sand: the policy contributed to the proliferation in the region of 'ghost estates' – unfinished or unoccupied housing developments built where there was insufficient demand to supply a return on expenditure – during the post-2007 economic downturn. A longstanding advocate of tourism development, Doherty won particular praise for helping to secure funding for completion of the Arigna Mining Experience heritage centre.
Doherty's deepening interest in religious matters, and in upholding what he perceived as 'family values', dated from the mid 1980s, when he reduced his drinking and intensified his religious practice. In the 1990s he organised prayer groups in Leinster House, lobbied for a referendum to restrict access to abortion after the 1992 supreme court decision in the 'X' case, and campaigned against the introduction of divorce. After passage of the 1995 divorce referendum, he secured funding for a Family Life Centre in Boyle, and was insistent that state funding should not affect its religious ethos. He was strongly influenced by the alleged Marian visionary Christina Gallagher, and once joined a delegation to the papal nuncio to protest about the refusal of the Irish bishops to grant official recognition to her 'House of Prayer' shrine on Achill island. In retirement he chaired his parish council, and spoke of taking a third-level course in theology.
As a member of the dáil committees on public accounts and public expenditure, Doherty contributed incisive cross-examination during inquiries into the cooperation by Irish banks in their customers' illegal evasion of deposit interest tax (DIRT), and on cost overruns on infrastructural development in the national rail service, Iarnród Éireann. His suggestion that monies in dormant bank accounts might be appropriated for public expenditure unless or until depositors reclaimed it was adopted by government. His committee work was praised by political opponents, and supporters suggested that his later record indicated what he might have achieved in politics had his ascent to high office been deferred till he had attained greater maturity. Some former critics who made his personal acquaintance in these years were struck by his charm and intelligence.
Doherty married Maura Nangle; they had four daughters, of whom Rachel became a Roscommon county councillor in 2004. He retired from politics in 2002 to become a property developer; he built an upmarket housing estate, Mount Eagle Fort, in Cootehall, and began construction of a 35-berth marina. He died 7 June 2005 in Letterkenny county hospital, Co. Donegal, after suffering a brain haemorrhage while on holiday. Posthumous assessments of his legacy were as polarised as those issued during his lifetime. Some commentators invoked novelist John McGahern (qv) (1935–2006) – who inhabited the same region as Doherty, and whose scathing references to opportunistic politicians taking over from priests as local powerbrokers, were inspired in part by Doherty – to argue that the social solidarity of familial and clientelistic networks was limited in its reach, and often operated at the expense of those excluded from such networks.