Luke Ming Flanagan TD is a comic strip version of Charlie Haughey with bad dress sense. Haughey was famously outfitted by the renowned Parisian shirt maker Charvet while his lavish lifestyle was subsidised by Ireland’s then largest draper Dunnes Stores. If he had stuck to the reliable St Bernard brand for his shirts, history might be different. Ming is as attentive to dress as Haughey ever was. His style of street grunge, no tie and his shirt buttoned up to the collar, is a uniform as confected as anything from Charvet. His pony tail tells you, if you didn’t already know it, that he is not one of ‘them’, he is one of ‘us’.
Ming, Mick Wallace and Richard Boyd Barrett radicals all; systematically use their clothes to project themselves as part of ‘us’ and not the ‘them’ they purport to oppose. Vastly skilled at getting attention, they are clever enough to know that when what they say is forgotten, it is image that advertises them best. They use clothes as a code that allows them appear to oppose a system that in fact they actively participate in. Sinn Féin TDs do the same. Jackets and ties come off in the Dáil chamber, shirt sleeves are the boiler suit of the oppressed. It is the picture not the policies that count.
This week Ming’s values didn’t live up to his revolutionary Roscommon chic. In perfect synch with the drama across the water involving the penalty points of the once empowered and now imprisoned Liberal Democrat couple Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce; Ming’s penalty point’s saga exploded and his story like theirs imploded. He had twice received penalty point and twice they were removed from his record. gardaí and a senior official of Roscommon County Council were mixed up by Ming in that most foul of deeds, namely of political fixing.
Ming had, however, written to An Garda Siochána to have one set of penalty points erased. With his Dáil colleagues Mick Wallace, Joan Collins and Clare Daly, he launched a spectacular onslaught on alleged wholesale Garda fixing of penalty points for people either connected or in the know. For once Ming Flanagan was expert on his subject.
Ming’s reputational implosion follows Mick Wallace’s. While lecturing others on their obligations, Wallace comprehensively failed to act on his own responsibility in relation to the tax affairs of his business. What is galling about Ming and Wallace is not ultimately their personal failings, it is their political posturing.
That posture is projected through their personal appearance. It is essential to their political product. It got them elected, it gets them attention, it is their brand. The German Greens pioneered the look decades ago before they got suited up to go into government. And the same costume and makeup department services an entire genre of political drama. It is based on the premise that by imitating the outfit of the commonalty you actually succeed best in making yourself stand out and become singular. It is rampant individualism disguised as community action, pretence posing as principle.
Aping the costume of the street to access the corridor of power is a strategy of sabotage not of the establishment but of the ideals that are used to access it. Wallace and Ming are alpha-hippies on an ego trip. They are revolutionaries without a revolution. The shifting alliances of the hard left and the softer contours of the smart-casual all share a fetish for uniform. It is as much about the aggrandisement of the personal. By mirroring the crowd they exploit it all the better. Sitting in the Dáil in daintily distressed couture are they representing us or mocking us? In truth they are in power and we are on the street.
Dressing for power is an old game. On Wednesday night the oldest power on earth elected the new Pope Francis. Hours later on RTE’s Prime Time programme the symbolism of the papal dress code was highlighted by some who know a lot about it.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin twice pointed out the plain dress chosen by Francis for his first public appearance. Plain that is by Vatican standards. Painting a picture with words, the archbishop noted Francis wore a “plain white soutane” and “refused to put on other vestments”. Diarmuid Martin was making an ideological point about clericalism and implicitly criticising the style and maybe the substance of the ancient papal regime in retirement at Castel Gandolfo. The archbishop was pivoting in perfect concord with a regime change as yet only a few hours old. He was swaddling himself in the garb of the outsider, to better play the game of the consummate insider he is. Dress was the code he chooses to cipher his message.
If the archbishop was talking in code, the historian and Pope Francis’s fellow Jesuit Father Fergus O’Donoghue didn’t hold back. Pope Francis would not be “an elderly fashion victim” as some previous popes had been”. A generation of clerics who successfully stripped the altars are now apparently prepared to strip themselves.
Historian and intellectual Father O’Donghue is equipped to understand the significance of appearance. He went on Prime Time in a jumper that Ming Flanagan would be cosy in. Who exactly the elderly fashion victim is, is a matter of taste. His undress is the unvarying modern uniform of academia, the mainstream of Catholic clergy and politicians who as superheroes wear their principles like their underpants out over their trousers.
Where previously you dressed up for power, now you dress down to better dissemble it. This isn’t edifying simplicity. It is intellectual sneering at an audience you disrespect by dressing up in drudge for.
Where Charlie Haughey once strutted in full pontificals and lived on other’s millions, Ming and Mick Wallace professed to be the antidote. Their coarse cloth contrasted with the rustle of his silk. But the lust for power comes in many disguises. Perhaps Charlie Haughey was the ultimate free spirit. He did not even own his own clothes.