France has Strauss-Kahn, Italy has Berlusconi, and now Britain has Lord Sewel. What’s wrong (or rather right!) with our politicans
It is, even while taking into account the jolly high bar set by previous British politicians who found themselves embroiled in sexual skulduggery, a doozy. The image on page one of yesterday’s UK edition of the The Sun (which once seen, can never be unseen) shows a 69-year-old pot-bellied peer, Lord John Sewel dragging on a ciggie while relaxing in a black, leather, studded jacket and a coral-coloured bra (so this season’s shade) belonging to a prostitute.
Moreover, this eye-popping tableau followed hot on the heels of revelations in the previous day’s paper which served up photos of the (now former) Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords hoovering up neatly chopped up lines of white powder through a rolled-up note, including one snorted off the breast of a call girl.
As sex scandals go, Lord Sewel’s sleazy shenanigans tick every tabloid box: a politician (and a peer, as a bonus), class-A drugs, hookers, cross-dressing, slagging-off of other Westminster poobahs (at one juncture, Sewel savages David Cameron as being “the most facile, superficial prime minister there’s ever been”) – all providing a gold-plated excuse to use the beloved red-top word ‘romp’ in every headline.
And while sympathy must go out to his extended family – he has married three times – who must now deal with the toxic fall-out from these lurid revelations, one can only marvel at the continuing ability of the British political system to produce spectacular sex scandals.
Refreshingly, Lord Sewel is a member of Labour – or was, until he was unceremoniously expelled from the party yesterday – for the long tradition of a politician behaving badly has tended to be the purview of the Tories.
Just look at the litany of Lotharios who have executed the Walk of Shame from Westminster over the years, beginning with Tory minister John Profumo’s dalliance with would-be model Christine Keeler in 1963 which ended in his resignation, and which is credited with bringing about the defeat of the MacMillan government, to the resignation of Tory Minister Cecil Parkinson in 1983 when it was revealed that his former secretary Sarah Keays was carrying his child.
In 1992, another Conservative minister, David Mellor bit the dust following a flurry of controversies, most notably kiss-and-tell revelations of an affair by his former lover, actress Antonia de Sancha.
Then there was the jaw-dropping bombshell in former Tory MP Edwina Currie’s 2002 autobiography that she had a four-year affair with John Major in the 1980s before he was prime minister. (Edwina wistfully described the former pm as “one big man in his blue underpants”, which promptly traumatised a nation).
The US media had Bill Clinton, whom his wife dubbed “a tough dog to keep on the porch”, to keep them busy; Italy were lumbered with the tasteless frolicking of priapic old goat Silvio Berlusconi, while France have self-proclaimed ‘libertine’, former IMF chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn, and sex-cheat-on-a-scooter, the implausible Casanova that is the dish-faced, bespectacled President Francois Hollande.
So, what’s wrong – or more correctly – what’s right with Irish parliamentarians? Despite the fact that each Dáil has no less than 166 TDs and 60 senators, many of them billeted away from home for several nights of the week, sex scandals involving our public representatives are rare.
One veteran observer of Irish politics reckons that politicians are better-behaved now than a few decades ago. “I think the time for torrid sex involving our politicians has faded. It’s much more po-faced now. When politicians drank more – and they certainly did – there was all sorts of carry-on. And of course no such things as camera phones and social media existed to put manners on them,” said the insider.
There was of course the Big One – that of the long-standing affair between Charlie Haughey and Terry Keane. This extraordinary story transfixed the country when the former Sunday Independent social diarist exposed the liaison herself during an interview on the Late Late Show in 1999.
But otherwise, sex scandals have been few and far between in the media – not least due to our draconian libel laws. The relationship between Charlie and Terry was widely known in some media circles, but any experienced journalist understands that there is a world of difference between having knowledge of something, and acquiring sufficient proof to print allegations of any sort of impropriety – sexual or financial – with being hit with a flurry of writs for defamation or breach of privacy.
But some scandals do make it into the headlines. Emmet Stagg found himself in the spotlight in 1994 when Gardai found him sitting in his car in a part of the Phoenix Park used by male prostitutes. The Labour TD was quizzed by the police but no charges were filed and Deputy Stagg’s political career continued.
The most recent controversy led to the resignation of former Labour TD for Dublin West Patrick Nulty last year just before the Sunday World revealed he had been sending inappropriate messages on Facebook, including one to a 17-year old girl. However, the TD stood down immediately, and in a statement said he had sent the message “while under the influence of alcohol”. In this case, the media storm was short-lived.
Terry Prone, Chairman of the Communications Clinic, points out: “There’s no politician right now who would even think of lecturing people on traditional themes such as family values and fidelity, partly because of what happened to the Catholic Church. It’s an invitation for the media to take a closer look at them.”
Prone also says that Ireland is a small country, where anonymity is almost impossible. “Everyone knows everyone else. If a politician was involved with a sex worker, chances are she would turn out to be the cousin of your brother’s dentist”.
She recalls a dinner-party several decades ago, when she left the table and another guest nudged her husband, Tom. “The person said to him, ‘See that Terry one, that’s Charlie’s mistress’, and then proceeded to detail the sort of sex we preferred. At the end, Tom said, ‘That’s amazing – do you know that’s my wife?’ He thought the guy was going to have a heart-attack. He just heard the first name and made an assumption,” she explained.
So in comparison to Westminster, are our Leinster House denizens all paragons of virtue? Nope, paranoid into virtue might be more like it..