Analysis: The events leading to Charles Haughey's GUBU press conference remain one of the most sensational episodes in Irish modern history

By Stephen Kelly, Liverpool Hope University

In Irish political discourse, 1982 will forever be remembered as the year of 'GUBU'. The term was the joint invention of Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey and his political arch-nemesis and lifelong protractor Conor Cruise O’Brien. O’Brien coined the acronym GUBU from the adjectives of Haughey’s words ‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented’, said during a press conference in August 1982, in which the Taoiseach tried to explain why murder suspect Malcolm Macarthur was arrested in the apartment of the Irish Attorney general Patrick Connolly.

By all accounts, 1982 was an extraordinary year in the annals of modern Irish politics. Apart from Macarthur’s arrest, this was the year the government changed twice, there were three attempts to overthrow Haughey as Fianna Fáil leader and, of course, there was a dramatic deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations over the Falklands War. Unsurprisingly, to use a description by Leonard Figg, UK ambassador to Ireland, these events resulted in ‘Mr Haughey’s credit rating dramatically falling in 1982’.

Charles Haughey at the August 1982 press conference. Photo: PA

August 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of Haughey’s infamous news conference in which he uttered the sentence ‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented’, following a nationwide hunt that finally led to Macarthur’s arrest. To this day, the series of events leading to Haughey’s press conference remains one of the most sensational episodes in the history of modern Ireland.

READ: 'The most dysfunctional in history': remembering Ireland's GUBU government

The story commences with the eccentric character of Malcolm Daniel Edward Macarthur. He had lived a relatively privileged life until his arrest in August 1982. He grew up on a 180-acre estate at Breemount, Trim, Co. Meath and was the only son of Irene and Daniel Macarthur. A flamboyant character, recognisable by his distinct love of bow ties and cravats, during the 1970s and early 1980s Macarthur had immersed himself into Dublin high society, mingling with politicians and the well-to-do of Irish cultural life. Although unemployed, he cultivated an image of himself as a bohemian intellectual and art connoisseur. The reality, however, was an altogether different story.

In July 1982, following some time in Tenerife, Macarthur returned to Ireland. For the several months previously he had been living on the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, alongside his partner Brenda Little and their seven-year-old son. His return to Ireland was out of economic necessity. By now his financial circumstances were in dire straits. His savings, mostly from inheritances and family donations, had almost completely dried up. Desperately short of money, Macarthur had arrived at the ludicrous decision that he must commit a robbery in Ireland to restore his finances. Before he could implement his plan, however, Macarthur required a getaway vehicle and a gun.

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From RTÉ Archives, an RTÉ News report broadcast on 23 July 1982 about the attack in Phoenix Park

On 22 July 1982, after getting a bus into Dublin City, Macarthur made his way to Phoenix Park on the lookout for a potential getaway vehicle. It was here that he stumbled across a nurse, 27-year-old Bridie Gargan, who was sunbathing. Macarthur pointed an imitation firearm at her, ordering her to get into her silver Renault car. Apparently, Gargan then panicked on learning that her captor intended to tie her up. In a mad frenzy, Macarthur bludgeoned her with a lump hammer. The scene resembled a horror film. Blood was flung across the interior furniture and windows of the parked car. Gargan died in hospital four days later.

On 24 July, Macarthur travelled to Edenderry, Co. Offaly, in the hope of acquiring a shotgun. The previous day reading through the newspapers Macarthur had stumbled across an advertisement for the sale of a shotgun. The seller was a local farmer, 27-year-old Donal Dunne. Following a telephone conversation, both men agreed to meet. After an overnight stay under a local bridge, Macarthur met Dunne on the morning of 25 July. Dunne wanted £1,100 for the shotgun, but MacArthur had no money. An altercation ensued with Macarthur managing to shoot and kill Dunne.

Macarthur then stole Dunne's Ford Escort car and fled the scene where Dunne’s body lay for several hours. It would later be discovered by a local child. News of Dunne’s murder stunned the Gardaí and Haughey’s government. The question on everyone’s lips was whether the two murders were somehow linked. By now a national manhunt had commenced. The key pieces of evidence that Gardaí required were the shotgun and Dunne’s stolen car. The car was later found near the Central Bank on Dame Lane, Dublin.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The History Show, journalist and Haughey biographer Peter Murtagh talks about GUBU

On 4 August, Macarthur finally implemented his planned robbery, selecting the Killiney home of a former US diplomat, Harry Beiling. Having charmed his way into the victim's home, Macarthur demanded money, threatening Beiling with the very same shotgun used to kill Dunne. Fortunately, after several hours of being held captive, Beiling managed to escape. Realising that his former hostage would invariably contact the Gardaí, Macarthur fled to Dalkey, where he managed to convince his old acquaintance, Patrick Connolly, to allow him to reside for a few days in the Attorney General’s apartment at Pilot View (Connolly was duped into accommodating Macarthur through an old connection with the latter’s partner, Brenda Little).

Several days later, on 13 August 1982, following intensive investigations and on receipt of a tip-off, detectives of the Gardaí arrested Macarthur in Connolly’s apartment. He was then taken to nearby Dún Laoghaire Garda station, where he confessed to the murders of Bridie Gargan and Donal Dunne.

Malcolm MacArthur during his trial at the Central Criminal Court in 1983. Photo: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

Despite Macarthur’s arrest, early in the morning of 14 August, Connolly left Ireland to undertake a scheduled holiday to the United States. Demonstrating poor judgement – some have argued utter nativity – Connolly failed to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the situation and the potential political fall-out once news leaked that a murder suspect had been captured in the home of the Attorney General. It did not take long for the news to make international headlines. Indeed, on his arrival at JFK Airport, New York, Connolly was greeted by an avalanche of assembled media.

Following Haughey’s express orders, Connolly thus made a hasty return to Dublin. While Connolly had played absolutely no part in Macarthur’s savage killing rampage, spurred on by an excited media, the public was engrossed in a frenzy of speculation, including unfounded rumours that there had been a cover-up at the highest level. Haughey’s political antennae immediately sensed danger. Under no circumstances would his government be contaminated by this extraordinary event. Thus, with the survival of his government at stake, Haughey ordered Connolly’s resignation as Attorney General. With few other options available Connolly resigned, at midnight, on 16 August 1982.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Pat Kenny, an interview with Paddy Byrne who tried to prevent the murder of Bridie Gargan (Broadcast 23 November 2011)

The following day, 17 August, Haughey delivered his GUBU speech to the assembled media. It was an extraordinary moment in the history of modern Ireland. Here you had a serving prime minister of his country seeking to distance himself from a crisis that threatened to bring down the government of the day. Fortunately, for Haughey, his government served to fight another day; albeit the party was forced out of office by Fine Gael following its defeat at the November 1982 general election.

In a further bizarre (and cruel) twist to the story, at his murder trial in 1983, Macarthur was only convicted of one murder, that of Bridie Gargan. He was not convicted of the killing of Donal Dunne. To the dismay of the Gargan and Dunne families, in 2012, Macarthur was released from prison after serving 30 years for the murder of Bridie Gargan.

For further reading on the year of the GUBU and Charles J. Haughey's precarious period as Fianna Fáil leader see The Boss by Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh

Professor Stephen Kelly is Professor of Modern Irish History and British-Irish Relations at the School of Humanities at Liverpool Hope University.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ