Why did Bono get so much flak?

Opinion: Maybe it’s time to give the U2 frontman some credit

Speaking last week to the European People’s Party (EPP) conference in Dublin, Bono had the windows of his soul thinly filtered by stylish rose-tinted shades. The drooping shape of each lens, like a lopsided, growing teardrop, gave his face the air of an ancient Tragedy mask.

Watching the 20-minute speech on YouTube, I was struck by the unshakably sad mien that the glasses accentuated. His laboured jokes and impassioned exhortations couldn’t dispel a sense that Bono knew he was on a hiding to nothing.

And so it proved, at least in most Irish media, social and otherwise. Even before Twitter and Facebook exploded in rage, the Irish journalists assembled at the Dublin conference centre were locked in an eye-rolling competition, captured and epitomised by Miriam Lord. With a few exceptions, a sardonic reaction to his speech was the best Bono could hope for in his home country.

Bono’s anticipation of what awaited him was evident when he ad-libbed about why he didn’t pull a euro coin out of his pocket to illustrate his thoughts on the currency: “That would be a really bad photograph for me.”


Rough ride
These events don't usually go badly for him elsewhere in the world. Indeed the crowds of foreign politicians who pushed forward to take photos of Bono, sans euro, probably can't fathom why he got such a rough ride here. Motivational talks to the rich and influential are his stock in trade: "to speak comfort to power", as Gene Kerrigan put it. Except that this time Bono really did seem to believe he had brought some less-comfortable truths to the gathering, and his words support that belief.

As this week goes from bad to worse for him and his Paul-McGuinnessless band – with Billboard and Rolling Stone in a baffling battle of duelling sources over whether there will be a new album from U2 this year – maybe it's time to give the frontman some credit. Or at least put his shortcomings in context.

First, what he said about Ireland and the troika wasn’t perfectly phrased, politely leaving bondholders out of the picture, but its fundamental intention, and truth, was unquestionable: the wrong people have paid for the crisis.

Secondly, his prescriptions for the wider world weren’t limited to a generic rejection of “extreme nationalism” in its anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and anti-African manifestations – itself close to the bone for some of the EPP – but also included a call, albeit a muted one, for a financial transaction tax.

The muting may relate to how any call for any tax by Bono would be received in Dublin. But the fact is that a “Robin Hood” tax, quietly supported by his One campaign for years, would represent a rare victory for the public sector over the financial institutions that have cannibalised it for decades.

Yet in Ireland, appreciation for what he said was drowned out by those appalled he had the temerity to say it.

The vulgar abuse may stem from people’s belief that Bono spends entirely too much time schmoozing with politicians – but maybe he is their victim as much as he is their pal. The cover of the new Italian edition of my critical book about Bono pictures him with a barcode across his face, an image that invites the reader to view the book’s subject as both a product and as a prisoner.

Internationally, Bono has been used to bathe statesmen (George W Bush, Tony Blair) and corporations (Apple, Amex, Monsanto) in the moral legitimacy that he earned over decades as an artist and activist. In Ireland of late, however, his service to the powerful is cruder: he is a sort of human shield, taking the flak for the sins of banks and State. He’s a scapegoat.

U2's tax arrangements
When minister for finance Brian Lenihan was faced in 2009 with a U2-themed protest about tax justice outside his office, how happy he looked to be able to smirk, "You'll have to take that up with Mr Bono." Last May, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton took a crack at the band's tax arrangements.

But Lenihan and Burton were and are part of governments that have buttressed Ireland’s status as an offshore tax haven, facilitating corporate avoidance on a scale that makes U2’s putative Dutch windfall look like the change in Bono’s pocket.

Last week’s Dublin drama saw the human shield grow to European proportions. Austerity driver Angela Merkel came right to the docklands scene of the crime, flanked by half of Europe’s and Ireland’s political elite; and yet Bono, trying within his limited role to say something half- decent, was cast as the villain of the piece.

Now that’s tragic.

Harry Browne, lecturer in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology, is author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)