Commanding loyalty proved out of reach for men lured by legacy

The enactment of power in economic crisis by Haughey after 1987 and of Gilmore after 2011 was remarkably similar, writes Gerard Howlin

Commanding loyalty proved out of reach for men lured by legacy

Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries; for heavy ones they cannot - Niccolo Machiavelli.

The hallmark of betrayal is not immorality, it is its timing and efficiency. If it succeeds, it may become patriotism. The end justifies the means. Two exhibitions of the febrile no-man’s-land between patriotism and treachery, between success and failure, opened last week.

One, Charles Haughey: power, politics and public image by the photojournalist Eamonn Farrell is at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin’s Temple Bar.

The other was the former Tánaiste’s Eamon Gilmore’s memoir Inside The Room.

Where now they live on writing memoirs; once, more efficiently competitors for power and especially predecessors in office, were summarily dispatched. Exemplary justice was the gruesome public execution of traitors, whose end was a salutary reminder to any who similarly harboured sedition. In particular, treason required an appalling finish. Hanging, drawing and quartering - “drawing” was a Victorian euphemism for disembowelling - was not only a terrible close to this life, it foretold damnation in the next. Treason against lawful authority, by being the most terrible of sins as well as crimes, was enough to merit hell. The quartering of the body, and the separate dispatch of its four parts was a double precaution against any hope of bodily resurrection on the Last Day. It was the public performance of eternal damnation. In November, it is the time of year when the damned as well as the just are remembered.

In Irish iconography, Haughey is arguably the last in the tradition of the man on a horse. That is to say, of powerful men who enlarged and invigorated themselves metaphorically or in fact, on horseback. It goes back to ancient times.

To Haughey, the horse was a central prop for his social pretension and political power. The actual horse, the monumental staircase, the outsize portrait of the party leader at his ard fheiseanna were all variations on the theme.

Farrell was no court painter. The posed grandeur, the double-breasted suits of the men, the big hair and big sleeves of the women are all captured. So too is the sweat and the astonishingly bad dentistry of those foolish enough to open their mouths for the camera.

That generation grew up in the 1930s and 40s when dentists were few and rudimentary. There was a reason nobody was ever painted with an open mouth until the nineteenth century. The Empress Josephine mastered the art of smiling without ever parting her lips. Looking at some of Farrell’s photographs it is clear why there were more practical concerns than prudery involved, for a generation when some still insisted they would only kiss in the dark.

In contrast Gillmore’s book, selectively serialised like much more modern memoir, is a selfie. The selection of snaps mainly make him look good but, others not so well. If Haughey shamelessly succumbed to and exploited a post-colonial inferiority complex, what came after was the triumph of those pointing at him, but also furtively glancing at themselves in the mirror, who advanced the view that the natives cannot be trusted to rule themselves. This revisionist retake on a Punch cartoon of nineteenth century nationalism, turned Haughey’s neurosis inside out and, ironically, left it intact.

Variations of the failed-state theorem were advanced in opposition to de Valera’s viscerally restrained but constrictive nationalism, which found its florid phase in Haughey’s Ireland. The Ireland of the last 50 years from the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising to its centenary is oddly book-ended between Farrell’s photo essay of Haughey and Gilmore’s self-assessment of his own career. It is a story of ostensibly opposed political attitudes that shared a disdain for opinions other than their own. If Haughey was forever belittled by the sneering of the old money of the upper middle class; the revisionist left, at its most influential in the Workers Party, acted on a premise remarkably similar to his.

A priest-ridden, peasant people could only be commanded by leaders who knew better and behaved accordingly. Strip away the rhetoric and the only actual disagreement left was about who it was that did actually know best. The enactment of power in economic crisis by Haughey after 1987 and of Gilmore after 2011 was remarkably similar. They were restorationists, not radicals.

Haughey if he occasionally posed as a threat to the status quo, simply wanted to be it.

Gilmore, whose ethical hygiene, unlike Haughey’s, was never reproached, left behind the ideological obligations of a lifetime. Whose was the greater betrayal? Who was more deserving of loyalty neither ultimately could command?

The legacy of both, besides fractious disputation within their own party about what at any time constituted betrayal or responsibility, is the bolstering of institutions which at first they were excluded from. When they had the chance they enacted power in support of the status quo, not in opposition to it. This is not to say that they were not reformers.

Gilmore’s tenure was truncated, but in particular the equal marriage referendum is his legacy. Ironically Haughey first made his name in the 1960s reforming family law, particularly inheritance rights. If not together, then coincidently, they did more to adapt marriage, the most conservative of institutions, than any other modern Irish politician, with the exception of Mervyn Taylor.

In the eyes of the generation in Fianna Fáil who with de Valera, withdrew as the 1960s progressed, Haughey’s lifestyle and unexplained wealth made him suspect. Their austere nationalism was recycled by him after the Arms Trial as a flamboyant pseudo Celtic chieftaincy. As Haughey clawed his way back from the oblivion of the Arms Trial in 1970 to the Taoiseach’s office in 1979 a protégé of student politics emerged via Sinn Féin the Workers Party, The Workers Party, Democratic Left and finally the Labour Party. From the late 1970s, until his election as a TD in 1989 he was a full-time trade union organiser. An irony is that when Gilmore began as a union organiser, Haughey routinely garnered most trade union votes. As leader of Labour, coming from a trade union and radical left background, Gilmore’s legacy is a ruptured relationship between that party and swathes of the union movement.

Farrell’s photos are intentionally but, subtly interrogated by written text which contextualise them. No image is as it seems. Since Haughey, no politician has dared pose on horseback. They must wear an all-enveloping ‘ordinariness’, to become ‘everyman’. The memoir briefly reinstates the monumentality which power craves; the essential difference between a selfie and a portrait.

If it is no longer possible to build a great tomb for yourself, you can attempt to dig a grave for the usurper who succeeded you.

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