Prince Andrew patronage presents a right royal problem for Portrush

Sideline Cut: The prince’s BBC interview betrayed a damaged moral compass

Prince Andrew with solicitor Paul Tweed (centre) at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Co Antrim for  the Duke of York Young Champions Trophy on September 9th, 2019. Photograph:  Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Prince Andrew with solicitor Paul Tweed (centre) at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Co Antrim for the Duke of York Young Champions Trophy on September 9th, 2019. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Pity, then, whoever is taking the minutes at the next meeting of the council of Royal Portrush Golf Club when its members sit down to decide what to do with their patron. Ink will fly. Just months after the Co Antrim club gloried in the success of hosting its first British Open since 1951, complete with smitten global coverage and even an Irish winner – if not from the ideal side of the Border – the club is now presented with a huge test of its public image and of the public interpretation of its values.

Bluntly put, it needs to decide whether it wants Prince Andrew showing up on its doorstep anymore. When your patron has just given the most notorious and widely-ridiculed public interview in the history of the royal family, when his personal reputation is in tatters, you know that the routine issues of tee times and whether to order in extra bottles of Bushmills 21-year-old for the Christmas clubhouse rush is going to be pretty far down on the order of business.

On Saturday night last, Prince Andrew’s interview was, among other things, a peculiar reminder of the old power of the declining era of terrestrial television. His disastrous sit-down in the palace, where the décor will forever scream 1983, was “aired” as they used to say at 9.30pm. Yes, you might have recorded it or flicked through the edited lowlights on your smart phone but this was one of those rare instances – a throwback to the late Lady Diana’s Panorama interview with Martin Bashir – which commanded the collective attention.

The television schedule told the public where to be and when, and just as it used to be the families dutifully convened in the living room to stare at the idiot box at the same time to hear what old Andy had to say about this dastardly Jeffrey Epstein business.

One of the sub-themes of the crown has been the changing use of television as a means of communication for the monarchy over the past 80 years. Andrew’s appearance marked a new low: a 40-minute wreckage of a conversation. The expression of Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis, incredulous and, by the end, slightly queasy, spoke for most people watching.

New light

Meanwhile, Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, must have sat with his head in his hands. Season three, all of it, would be released by Netflix just 24 hours later on Sunday evening. The Crown takes liberties but over its two seasons, with its magisterial cinematography and its haunting soundtrack, through off-the-charts performances from actors like Jared Harris and Vanessa Kirby, the show succeeded in casting the creaking monarchy in a new light of pathos and dignity for a new generation of jaded Brits.

But suddenly: who cares? How could a fictional treatment of the goings-on at Buckingham Palace compete with this?

Everything fell apart almost as soon as bucko began to speak. In one fell swoop he managed to forever minimise and besmirch the good name of Woking. And you can just imagine the phone calls between the PR folk of Pizza Express.

The prince was photographed enjoying a round of golf at Portrush as recently as September. He was there to attend the competition that he founded: the Duke of York Young Champions Trophy. By then the instances of his close associations with Epstein had been widely reported. By then Andrew was under fire, with uncomfortable questions raised in the American media in particular. He belonged to a number of highly prominent men with whom Epstein had associated.

Epstein’s hideously criminal lifestyle has been public knowledge for some time – he used enormous wealth attained by means that merit further investigation to prey and exploit teenage girls, many of whom were in a vulnerable place when he encountered them, for his personal sexual gratification.

Epstein was facing charges of paedophilia and rape, and overwhelming testimony against him told of a life as dark as his death in a Manhattan jail cell.

Before he was charged and imprisoned Epstein was adept at surrounding himself with the extremely rich and prominent from the realms of politics, the arts and business. What better shield of propriety and European glamour for Epstein than a bone fide prince? And not just any prince, but a son of the House of Windsor.

Gothic halls

Little wonder Andy was free to stay in Epstein’s gothic halls in Manhattan whenever he chose. In the most accepting interpretation of Prince Andrew’s recollection of his friendship with Epstein, he came across as unbelievably gormless and blithely indifferent to the crimes his former friend committed. Young lives were ruined by Epstein again and again.

The Duke of York with BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. Everything fell apart almost as soon as bucko began to speak. Photograph: Mark Harrison/BBC/PA Wire
The Duke of York with BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. Everything fell apart almost as soon as bucko began to speak. Photograph: Mark Harrison/BBC/PA Wire

At worst Andrew has yet to convince in his self-defence against the allegation that he had sex with a teenager who was at the time under the coercion of Epstein. He claims to have no recollection of having met the girl. He concedes that a photograph of him with his arm around the teenager appears to be him.

His story stretches incredulity. Even if he never has to answer any charges of criminality his interview betrayed a moral compass that was badly askew if not actually broken.

On Thursday the ever-spiky Stephen Nolan radio show raised the fact that Royal Portrush had not severed its associations with Andrew in the wake of the interview.

A statement was subsequently issued that was left open to interpretation. The headline in The Irish Times stated that Royal Portrush would “consider its links with Andrew”.

The Belfast Telegraph headline read that the golf club “stands by” Prince Andrew. The Irish News headline reported: Royal Portrush golf club ‘to monitor’ Jeffrey Epstein investigation as Prince Andrew remains patron. (Again with that sort of surreal headline, what chance do the creators of The Crown have?)

Nolan has a genius for conducting all sides of any debate, now noting, with a leading tone, that major companies like British Telecom rushed to disassociate themselves from their ties with Andrew after the television interview. Against that he cautioned that Andrew was surely entitled to the presumption of the innocence he so clumsily protested in his conversation with Maitlis.

Dilemma

If the awkwardness of the dilemma facing Royal Portrush was not clear before the Nolan show, then it certainly was afterwards. Public opinion on Andrew now lies somewhere between contempt and ridicule. He serves as patron to almost 200 charities. Senior figures in the English National Ballet are among those lobbying for him to either be removed or to stand down.

Royal Portrush has been under the patronage of the Duke of York since 1892. That tie to monarchy is a part of the club’s heritage. Its members undoubtedly enjoy the prestige associated with the name. Cutting ties with Andrew would represent a radical step.

A statement issued by Royal Portrush pointed out that as it stands there were “no scheduled plans” for Andrew to visit the club in the future. However, that’s irrelevant to his status as patron. Either those in charge of Royal Portrush are happy to have him as the figurehead of their golf club or they aren’t.

Either they are happy with him as the person who was the founder of the Duke of York Young Champions Trophy or they are not.

But there is no real decision to be made here, as they’ll discover when they next sit down and inevitably come to realise that they need to find a new patron.

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