A left eye at the funeral of Paddy McGuinness

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The send-off as a political and social event

Bob Gould

The send-off for Paddy McGuinness was of a special order of strangeness. The funeral chapel at Rookwood Crematorium was crowded to overflowing and the event in the Unity Hotel at Balmain later was probably twice the size of the requiem at the crematorium.

There were three groups of people at both events:

McGuinness’s extended family seemed to be mainly left-leaning, Labor-voting people, including a couple of active trade unionists. One of these trade unionists, who was obviously upset, as all the family were at Paddy’s death, said to a friend from the same union who was there with me that Paddy was a grumpy old bloke and a bit irritating but he was family and they loved him.

The second group, in which I include myself, were people from around The Push and other Sydney cultural niches who had known McGuinness for a long time and were coming along to give him a proper send-off despite the fact that they were hostile to his right-wing views in later life. These people, and there was a large number of them, particularly at the pub, were largely left of centre kind of people who vote Labor or Green. To some extent they were also remembering the days of their youth. It’s a truism that funerals are for the living, not the dead.

The third group, who did nearly all the talking at the crematorium, were McGuinness’s more recent right-wing mates, from the ultra-conservative wing of the journalistic and governmental chattering classes. These people are clearly shellshocked by the magnitude of the electoral massacre that they suffered at the hands of Labor in the federal election, and they have the greatest difficulty coming to terms with the new shape of Australian society and politics. This crowd, many of them suited and carefully coiffed, were like a roll-call of neocon punditry, including the right-wing columnist bunch, John Howard, Tony Abbott, John Stone and many others of the same ilk. Apart from Peter Coleman, they clearly didn’t know McGuinness very well, except from the last few years of his life, when he knocked around with them. All the euologists talked about McGuinness in the strange lingo that McGuinness himself used in his later columns, and the strange lingo these neocons use among themselves.

They spoke as if their lunar right, anti-working-class political and social views were some kind of conventional wisdom. They were strikingly like the Bourbon kings who were said to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

John Howard, in particular, was working the room even at the pub, as if he was still running for election, which is eccentric beyond belief.

A female leftist journalist of my acquaintance drew my attention to Howard chatting up Janet Albrechtson, one of the neocon journalistic bunch, who with metaphorical tears in her eyes had reluctantly said Howard should go, just before the election.

The different kinds of people present were often very uneasy with each other. The neocon bunch keep patting McGuinness, and by implication themselves, on the back for their “courage” and “far-sighted views” and for their “bold struggle” against what they call, in defiance of all evidence, political correctness.

The old hands and the people on the left of society who I talked to were pretty angry that they had come to this event to give McGuinness, who they knew for many years, a decent send-off, only to have the event dominated by these increasingly isolated and irrelevant crazed neocons.

At the chapel Bill Hayden was boring and mildly offensive with his claptrap about McGuinness being a friend of the working class, which he extended into a lengthy exposition about how McGuinness had carried on the revolutionary tradition of the Irish rebel Patrick Pearse, who he was named after.

I found this extremely weird because in all the time I knew McGuinness he purported not to be overly interested in matters to do with the Irish national struggle, possibly in reaction to the bellicose Fenianism of his father. (His father’s impish act of calling him after Patrick Pearse, I used to think one of the more engaging things about McGuinness, but he appeared not to agree.)

Peter Coleman, another neocon eulogist, even quoted a chunk from the Magnificat of St Luke, saying it was one of McGuinness’s favourite passages in literature, a proposition I find hard to credit.

One of the more human features of the event was a eulogy by the editor of the Catholic journal, The Annals, a rather energetic tridentine Catholic apologist, Father Paul Stenhouse. He showed genuine emotion about McGuinness’s death, and broke up at the end.

It emerged in Christopher Pearson’s eccentric column in The Australian on February 2 that Father Stenhouse and another tridentine priest who has quite a reputation, Father Ephraim Chifley, and other neocons used to have lunches with McGuinness in recent times. In Stenhouse’s eulogy there was a note of affection for a fellow editor of a slightly cranky small-circulation journal.

Father Stenhouse’s Annals found considerable room a few years ago for some interesting articles by disillusioned Stalinist Rupert Lockwood about the Australian Communist Party and Stalinism. In recent years McGuinness gave Father Stenhouse a lot of space in Quadrant for lengthy, quite erudite, but rather bitter and clearly politically motivated articles about the theology of Islam to justify, by implication, a hard line against Islam in Australia (one of the many bees in the bonnet of neocons). Father Stenhouse’s emotion about McGuinness was obviously genuine.

Cardinal Pell, who was overseas, sent a message to the funeral of his favourite atheist or agnostic.

McGuinness presents a theological problem to people like Stenhouse and Pell. The general Catholic approach, theologically, is that anyone who turns their face against god goes to hell, and there wasn’t much sign of McGuinness going back to the church on his deathbed, as the conventional Tridentine Catholic ritual demands.

The Catholic theologians, however, give us sinful people and sceptics a bit of a let-out. They allow for a perfect “act of contrition” before the moment of death, which seems unlikely in Paddy’s case (or for that matter in mine), but they also allow for something called “invincible ignorance” for members of other religions, the unbaptised, and people who just don’t understand the nature of god. Perhaps Paddy gets a guernsey in that team, who knows?

The funeral was also attended by Robert Forsythe, the Anglican bishop of South Sydney, a very determined Calvinist, who also contributed to Quadrant in recent times. Forsythe is one of the leaders of the robust Calvinism of the Sydney diocese of the Anglican church. For the Calvinists there’s no room for the iffing and butting softness of even the Tridentine Tykes. The Sydney Anglican Calvinist theology incorporates a blood-curdling notion of a god who selects humans for salvation or damnation at the moment of conception.

Maybe, to Forsythe, McGuinness was predestined for salvation but just didn’t know it.

I’ve attended several send-offs for agnostics and atheists held in Catholic churches for family reasons, the most notable one being for Fred Hollows, which was dignified and warm, and largely attended at the Catholic end by Vatican II kind of Catholics. I’ve never seen a stranger event than Paddy’s send-off from the religious angle.

McGuinness’s send-off underlines starkly the way the political landscape has changed in Australia, marked by the federal election. Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark in the night, the absences from McGuinness’s funeral were politically significant. It was notable that there were no current Labor politicians at the event, and Abbott, who is very much on the outer, was the only current Tory politician present.

Despite Paul Keating’s tasteless and vitriolic attacks on McGuinness within a couple of days of his death, and the more moderate but still sharp criticism by Bob Carr, the fact that Keating and Carr feel that it’s possible and necessary to launch such broadsides is a clear indication of a big shift in Australian politics.

It was notable that Gerard Henderson, the leader of the rival right-wing think tank, and the main competing right-wing pundit for many years, stayed away from the event.

Clearly, the more significant fractions of the ruling class and big business in Australia, including a big chunk of the Liberal and National parties, are busily trying to disassociate themselves from neoconservatism. They want to do business with the new federal Labor government, and the state Labor governments, and cultivate the more right-wing elements in those governments to achieve political results in the conservative interest, which can no longer be achieved through the neocons, due to fundamental and deep-rooted changes in the composition and outlook of the majority of Australians.

The neocons with whom McGuinness associated towards the end of his life are now a back-number although they’re still potentially dangerous to the working class in some possible conjunctures in the future.

The real battles for rebels, progressives and socialists will now proceed against the softer form of right-wing politics, in the broader labour movement around matters such as industrial relations, refugee policy, indigenous affairs, cultural affairs, privatisation, civil liberties and international matters such as the Iraq war.

In this context, the significant symbol of which is the broadening struggle in the Labor Party and the trade union movement against electricity privatisation in NSW, the neocons who were patting themselves on the back at McGuinness’s funeral are no longer important.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee

In his report on McGuinness’s funeral in The Australian alongside the sickening photo of a smiling Howard locked in serious conversation with Bill Hayden, Imre Saluszinsky makes a kind of end-of-history observation, asserting that the Sydney intellectual rebelliousness associated with the name of John Anderson is probably extinct with the death of McGuinness.

Saluszinsky is having himself on. What the funeral really marks is the bankruptcy and relative political isolation of the neocons with whom McGuinness chose to associate later in his life.

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2 Responses to “A left eye at the funeral of Paddy McGuinness”

  1. Brolga Says:

    Quite extraordinary the amount of commentary on the death of this man.

    Bob Gould is quite the Jane Austen of the Left!

    Seriously, though, this is a neat piece of writing.

    Find it most hard to imagine Howard et al actually in the the Unity pub. But then it’s been a long while since I lived in Balmain and it’s changed a lot.

  2. james Murray Says:

    Paddy’s oft forgotten characteristic was his loyalty to his friends, and his courage in expressing views which did not follow an ideological pattern at all. Unlike some commentators, he did not fulminate for effect but feared no one when conviction impelled him. His acts of quiet generosity had no publicity, and there was a touching shyness about a man who could appear gruff as a cover. He was a consistent defender of people with whom he often disagreed fundamentally but whom he believed had a right to be heard. His greeting of ‘Comrade’ had a deeper meaning than a jocular reference to earlier ideologies. I am proud to think that he considered me among his friends. James Murray SSC

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