Once upon a time in Wexford, there was a hero . . .
As in a spaghetti western, the heroes and villains of Irish politics are distinguished mainly by appearances
SOMETIME IN the second half of the last century, the moral conditions of Irish politics ceased to be rooted in absolute values and began to resemble those of a spaghetti western.
In a spaghetti western, the characters of the heroes and villains are immediately discernible not so much by behaviour as appearances.
The baddie always sports a moustache, a mean look and an evil laugh; the minor baddies are fat, short-arsed and stupid. Baddies mouth off too much – the more talk the less principles.
From the first frame, before the first line of dialogue, it’s obvious whether the character on the screen is a Good Guy or a Bad Guy. The Good Guys are not so much handsome as virtuous-looking, fresh-faced and solid of jaw. They speak evenly, sincerely, with a sympathetic edge. They smile rather than laugh, or have a dry ironic chuckle intended to convey that the baddie will one day come to a nasty end. Any man don’t wanna git killed better git on out the back.
There’s lots of killin’ but it doesn’t really tell you much. The Good Guys do nearly as much killin’ as the Bad Guys, but it’s not the same thing at all. The Bad Guys can kill some of the minor Good Guys and, in due course, the Good Guy gets to kill all the Bad Guys, but the main Good Guy always survives to the last frame. If he dies, it is as a hero dying a heroic death because of his crusade against laughing, mustachioed men.
This way of seeing Irish politics enables us to understand why a public representative who knows there is a massive cloud hanging over his tax affairs can still launch himself electorally as a new broom under a slogan like, say, “For a New Politics”.
In comprehending this moral landscape, ethical comparisons relating to the quantums involved in ostensibly questionable dealings are misleading. A baddie steals a dollar from an old lady on a hospital trolley and causes the audience to shudder in horror. But if the Good Guy has deprived the VAT man of a couple of million, it is bound to be an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Suddenly the VAT man sprouts a moustache and is surrounded by laughing, short-arsed men who have not shaved for days.
Even more interesting is the way the characters of Irish politics have so conveniently – almost obligingly – fallen into their obligatory roles. As soon as you laid eyes on Noel Browne or Garret FitzGerald, you just knew they were Good Guys. What they did, or what happened as a result, was of little consequence. Similarly, Ray Burke or Pee Flynn could never get by as anything other than Bad Guys. Haughey, of course, was the quintessential villain, but in a more subtle fashion.
It was his height that gave him away, and to a lesser extent that thin-lipped smile that turned into a sneer. In the entire history of Irish politics, the only individual I can think of who went from being a Good Guy to a Bad Guy, was Bertie Ahern, but this demands a study all to itself.
Obviously, if Pee Flynn had ever defrauded the VAT man of a sum running into millions, there would have been widespread and immediate calls to hang him from the highest tree. Such was the obviousness of Pee’s orneriness that relatively inconsequential sums were sufficient to move the plot along. There was something deeply tragic about Pee and the way he would laugh at you. You oughta try it sometime, amigo.
But when a man with long blond hair appears on the Irish political landscape wearing a pink shirt, he does not need to ride a white charger for us to know he’s a Good Guy. Ain’t no call for reverbed whistles or twanging guitars. But, just in case, the newcomer helpfully mouths some sparse, ironic lines about the need to clean up this here town. We get the message, compadre.
Later, when the facts appear to go against him, we understand that the facts must have some hidden meaning that will yet become clear – this is just the kind of stuff the script throws up to test the hero in Act Two. The quantums involved don’t matter, and neither do what an observer from Mars might have naively interpreted as the underlying principles of previous onslaughts on some red-necked, laughing cowboys.
Just in case, though, the hero’s buddies in the media take the precaution of writing casuistic articles in which they scramble around for things worse than misdeclaring your VAT returns. Editorials speak of the “schadenfreude” and “unseemly pleasure” of those who, having been on the receiving end of the hero’s righteous denunciations, now seek to take advantage of his misfortune.
Our attention is drawn to the “candour” and matter-of-factness of the hero, who we are reminded – in case we missed the point of his steely gaze into the distance – is “not a cute hoor”. The facts don’t mean a hill of beans. If the Good Guy dies in the end, it will be the death of a flawed hero, brought down by men who laughed too loudly and too long.