In Catholicism the last rites are a precursor to death; a sick or dying member of the faithful is anointed with a blessing to free them from their sins and prepare them for their meeting with God. This country’s unwritten rule of not speaking ill of the dead is to some degree an extension of that; Ireland, still carrying the baggage of its religious upbringing believes that those who have died have been absolved and so have no ills to speak of. Another more understandable and admirable explanation of the rule is as a mark of respect to the deceased’s family for whom the situation is difficult enough.
When a public figure dies, however, this rule can prove itself to be a roadblock to discussion; someone who lived a controversial life cannot be fully understood unless their ills as well as their glories are accounted for. The public and political debate that has followed on from the recent death of Charles J. Haughey has shown that this unwritten rule still has its place in our country and the former Taoiseach’s passing has become a prime example of the fact that the quickest way to the public’s heart is through our graveyards.
The life of Haughey, especially in recent years, has been a great source of contention and controversy. His death, on the other hand was met with a respectful refrain, with ‘now is not the time’ being the mantra of politicians and media alike. GUBU, the Arms Crisis, the tapping of journalists phones and his curious financial dealings were treated as footnotes to a career filled with economic reforms, aid for Irish artists and contributions to the elderly of the state; that is if they were mentioned at all.
As time now passes on his death it is becoming increasingly apparent that the right time for an honest assessment is not something we are likely to find. Politicians remain unwilling to raise the issue for fear of the backlash; to be seen to be taking advantage of death for political reasons is not worth it, especially when there are no votes to be made in the process. The media has been respectfully careful too but any attempts it may make at discussing the career of Charles Haughey in its entirety are likely to be seen as cynical.
We are now undergoing a process of denial and ignorance as a gloss gets painted over important incidents in our political past; a sort of whitewash that obscures the blemishes and accents the triumphs. Just like the death of Liam Lawlor, a man equally vilified by his opponents for often similar reasons, what once was disgust has transformed itself to unqualified respect; they may take into account the ‘wrongs’ but they only do so in order to outweigh them with the largely incomparable ‘rights’. Where people once cried corruption they now say the man was nothing more than a “chancer”, an “auld rogue” and perhaps even a victim. Of course in his death Lawlor did become the victim of a horrific accident as well as a vicious and poorly informed news story, which may be part of the reason why the discussion afterwards was so cautious.
Since Haughey’s burial the tributes have continued and the attempts to somehow remember a man from an era of Irish politics we could probably do with forgetting have been set in motion; a statue at the IFSC, the renaming of the Port Tunnel or a tribute for him within the Irish art community have all been fielded. While many of these ideas are unlikely to become any more than idle banter the fact that they are even being considered says that the process of contemplation and discussion on one of modern Ireland’s most controversial figures has already been bypassed. The public has all but forgotten the wrongs and it does not seem to want to be reminded of them; unsurprisingly Charles J. Haughey has managed to escape yet another potential crisis in his career.
Those turning 18 in time for the next general election will have only been 4 when Haughey retired from politics and their memories of the man are sure to be inexorably linked to the word ‘tribunal’; with the gloss firmly in place those 4 years old today will probably be forgiven for seeing Haughey as an iconic statesman of the highest calibre by the time they reach voting age. Perhaps at that stage, however, it will finally be the time and place to talk honestly about the man.