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Sunday 18 June 2006

The State funeral was the behaviour of a banana republic

MY favourite quote of the week came from a fellow in New York who, in a letter praising Charlie Haughey, told Irish Times readers that he was a sans-culotte. If that's true, it's no wonder Charlie had to get his shirts specially made.

My second came from Ben Dunne: "Whether I like it or not, I feel that some of my behaviour in the past had an effect on Charlie's life, and a bad effect and that saddens me."

Talk about self-effacement. He gives Charlie £1.3m out of sheer generosity and then beats himself up for it.

Ben gets the third prize as well for pointing out that, "One of my weaknesses unfortunately is my brain."

Many of us who spent much of the last few days in a state of moral outrage over the national outbreak of piety and hypocrisy for a deceased ruffian, have ended up laughing.

One such was a friend who watched every minute of the Haughey funeral.

"You could see from the sheer brazenness of the proceedings, and the selection of readings, that Charlie planned every part of that funeral," she said. "The choice of Donnycarney, rather than the Pro-Cathedral, seemed a modest gesture, but was in fact made because Donnycarney church is much bigger. What can one say but that 'nothing in his life became him like the leaving it'."

Haughey would have been delighted by some of the contributions of bit-part players. Shameless acolytes were there in abundance. He'd have been thrilled to see Beverley Flynn, a woman after his own heart, leading the walk-past of the coffin and The Monk bringing up the rear.

It might have been a suitable end for Haughey, but it's embarrassing for us and raises a big question about State funerals.

The stark truth is that to give such an honour to a thief, a bully and a tax-evader is the behaviour of a banana republic. And it's clear from the empty seats in the church and the sparse crowds, that many Irish people see it that way.

It's deeply embarrassing to see the President breaking off an official visit to Africa to honour a man who consistently betrayed his country.

It is even more embarrassing that she seems happy to do so.

Michael McDowell said the other day that the State funeral was entirely appropriate, because it had been offered to all former taoisigh. Two questions here:

First, what would a Taoiseach actually have to do to have that honour withdrawn? We know that being publicly shown to be a crook is clearly not enough. But had Haughey been sent to jail for perjury, would that have disqualified him?

Or had he been proved in a court to have been criminally on the take like Ray Burke, would that? Or are we saying that to have been the Irish prime minister really does put you above the law?

If Bertie runs amok with an AK47, mows down the rainbow warriors of the Opposition and then turns the gun on himself, will he still get a State funeral?

Knowing Irish sentimentality, I'd say he probably would. "Sure, God love him," the plain people of Ireland would say, "he must have been very upset to do something like that. And you wouldn't want to upset his family."

Would we give a State funeral to a Taoiseach who served for only a month? A week? A day? An hour?

What politician would have the nerve to make the inevitably arbitrary decision that the length of service didn't justify it?

So it looks as if the answer to the first question is that the State funeral is an absolute right that's been conferred on taoisigh in a fit of national absent-mindedness.

The second question is, why don't we stop giving taoisigh State funerals? Why don't we emulate most other countries and reserve this highest of honours for heads of State?

It isn't Bertie Ahern's style to address difficult issues, but the next Taoiseach really should. Obviously, it would be unfair to change the rules retrospectively, so don't panic, Albert, no one's suggesting you won't get your turn.

But is there any reason why, say, Taoiseach Enda Kenny or Taoiseach Brian Cowen or Taoiseach Pat Rabbitte or Taoiseach Martin Ferris could not say that he renounces that right for himself - and encourages all serving politicians to make a similar pledge.

He could, in effect, shame all future taoisigh into following his example.

Of course, Ferris wouldn't be so self-effacing, but surely the others would.

In a spirit of generosity, I mustn't end without saying something good about Charles Haughey. At least by making the issue of State funerals a matter of public concern, he really has done the State some service.

Charles Haughey: obituary

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards