“The first thing that impressed us was that he came to all the meetings by himself,” says north-inner-city community activist Fergus McCabe.
But Charles J. Haughey wanted power back.
It was February 1982. Following a general election, the young Tony Gregory was elected as an independent TD for his north-inner-city constituency.
Over several weeks, Gregory, McCabe and others met and negotiated with Haughey. The leader of Fianna Fáil, Haughey wanted to be taoiseach again.
But for that to happen, he needed to strike a deal. “We were quite amazed he was willing to give as much as he did,” says McCabe.
In exchange for Gregory’s support in the Dáil, Haughey made the TD a series of written commitments, many of which, had he kept them, might have permanently changed the north inner city.
Today, the Gregory deal is the stuff of political legend, and for playwright Colin Murphy, it’s a perfect moment for the stage.
Murphy’s script-in-hand play Haughey/Gregory is scheduled to come to life for three nights at the Abbey Theatre in February.
As a key moment in recent Irish politics, Murphy says, the Gregory deal has “an appealing dramatic symmetry. The stakes are high.”
Back in 1982, Gregory took the chance to push Haughey for promises to help improve his community – finance to give jobs to 500 unemployed people in the north inner city, state funding to build over 2,000 homes across Dublin, for example.
In return, he’d support Haughey’s leadership.
After Gregory spent weeks in negotiations with various political factions – including Fine Gael leader and recently bumped Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald – he agreed final terms with Haughey.
This turned out to be a 32-page document, says McCabe, who attended each meeting between Haughey and Gregory.
“And what people often forget about the deal is that is was so extensive because Haughey was so keen to get into power,” says McCabe.
It included not just commitments to Gregory’s own constituency, but commitments at a national level, he says.
With both Haughey and Gregory both dead, interviewing the deal’s remaining players was key to playwright Murphy’s research, which also included studying documentary evidence.
“But at a certain point I’d to say, ‘That’s enough. I’ve got find the play here, free myself from the research a bit,'” says Murphy.
Script-in-hand works well, he says, because of the play’s model: documentary theatre. “It fits. People come and they’re expecting debate as much as they are theatre,” says Murphy.
It was during another play that the idea for Haughey/Gregory originated.
The Great Stroke
In 2016, Phizzfest co-organiser Des Gunning sat beside independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan – who replaced Gregory in the Dáil following his death in 2009 – during a dramatisation of the failed Phibsborough Local Area Plan as part of the local community arts festival.
“I said, ‘Wouldn’t that be a terrific way to tell the story of the Gregory deal?” recalls Gunning.
Fishamble: The New Play Company then commissioned playwright Murphy, developed the work and are producing it ahead of its run at the Abbey.
When you think of the deal, says Gunning, you don’t necessarily think of Mount Bernard Park or the 100 houses built in Phibsborough, both of which came about as a result.
Ultimately the “great stroke”, as it came to be known, was never fully realised.
Haughey’s government fell in October that year after several TDs, including Gregory, withdrew their support for over spending cuts.
Since 1982, the Gregory deal has been both lauded and decried. In 2000, the late Garret FitzGerald criticised it, suggesting that it paved the way for local politics to obscure the national interest.
Changing the Narrative
But playwright Murphy says that politics is often transactional.
The Gregory deal, on balance, had a positive effect, he reckons. Its core legacy lies, he says, with the fact that it spoke to local people from a seriously disadvantaged area, included them in the political narrative.
McCabe, the community activist, recalls that up until that deal was brokered with Haughey, the political narrative of the north inner city was about depopulation, bringing in businesses and cleaning it up.
But the Gregory deal was designed, instead, to revive the area as it was, says McCabe.
In the end, what Haughey was willing to offer Gregory trumped Garret FitzGerald’s more modest package, he recalls. “We decided that if we want to achieve these things, Haughey is the better bet,” says McCabe. “We were always happy that we tried.”
He’s excited to see how Murphy’s play turns out.
The play is partly supported by the Croke Park Community Fund, and the plan, post-Abbey, is to perform Haughey/Gregory around the inner city in a number of community venues throughout 2018, says Gunning, who helped gather support for the production.
Murphy says he hopes audiences are entertained and provoked, that the work is about “sparking debate and critical thought about politics and about how politics works”.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 18 January at 14:20pm to credit Fishamble: The New Play Company.