Sunday 15 September 2019

Shane-less: The sly art of the political photo-bomb

Sports Minister Shane Ross is getting a roasting for hogging Katie Taylor's limelight this week. But it's not the first time a politician has muscled in on sporting glory, writes Ed Power

Shane Ross lingers behind Katie Taylor as she returns home to Dublin Airport. Photo: Frank McGrath
Shane Ross lingers behind Katie Taylor as she returns home to Dublin Airport. Photo: Frank McGrath
Enda Kenny, seen here with Brian O’Driscoll, was a master at the cringeworthy photo-op
Ross’s fly faux pas at the rugby
Leo teaches Chris Hadfield how not to hurl
Charles Haughey with Roche on the Tour de France podium

Ed Power

There's shameless and then there's Shane Ross. Or so goes the consensus after victorious boxing champ Katie Taylor arrived at Dublin Airport to find the Minister for Sport primed for the mother of all photo-ops.

But, as was almost inevitable, his efforts to get his face into nearly all of her triumphant videos have backfired spectacularly. For the past 48 hours, the internet has been lit up with Photoshopped images of Shane Ross congratulating Neil Armstrong on his moon landing, peering over Katie Taylor's shoulder in her passport picture and peering out from the crowd as Muhammad Ali stands over an unconscious Sonny Liston.

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As a politician, Ross is no stranger to elbowing his way into someone else's ticker-tape parade. But for all his other talents, basking in the glow of a great sporting achievement is a dark art he hasn't fully mastered. He's ever so slightly rubbish at crashing a party.

Recall when he mixed up the Kearney rugby brothers? Or the time he posed for a picture at an Irish rugby victory with his fly slightly undone (trust us, if you've seen the snap, you won't be forgetting in a hurry).

But he can at least console himself that he isn't alone.

When, in 2014, future Taoiseach Leo Varadkar thought it might be a good idea to show astronaut Chris Hadfield how to play hurling, the results were… well undignified hardly does it justice.

Holding the hurley - being from Castleknock, Varadkar may well have described it as a "hurley stick" - this up and coming young politician swung it in a manner that suggested it had been recently greased in treacle. Hadfield, who had literally spent the past six months orbiting the planet in a metal box, was the one who looked like he might do a job in the half-back line should it come to it. Over his shoulder, Varadkar swatted the sliotar as though it were primed with explosives.

Among recent political figures, the only one who could really carry off the cheeky photo-op was Enda Kenny. His genius trick was to pull the same vacant expression no matter the circumstances.

Whether tossing a rugby ball with Brian O'Driscoll, challenging Chinese leaders to a poc fada contest or greeting a delegate of newly arrived alien overlords (I may have imagined that one after eating a stale doughnut), Kenny never deviated from his thumbs up, nobody-at-home grin.

This was high-gormlessness of the first order and it was completely beyond parody. Had it been Kenny waiting at Dublin Airport for Katie, he would have dialled his Father Dougal grimace all the way up and nobody would have objected. It's hard to become a Twitter joke when you've already made it clear how at peace you are with looking silly in public.

The same could be said of Bertie Ahern, whose 'Dub in the street' routine endured up until the 2008 financial meltdown (by which point he had already of course moved on from the Taoiseach's job).

Prior to the economy crashing, burning, burning some more and then exploding in slow motion, Ahern's persona of flinty Dubliner was a magic shield that protected him through photo-ops of all scales on the cringe spectrum.

He could gate-crash the football in Croke Park or engage in some mutual back-slapping with Bill Clinton without fear of a Shane Ross-level meme storm. It was a neat trick - one Ahern took maximum advantage of until his legacy turned to ashes and the IMF came knocking.

Which is probably just as well. Social media is bonkers enough as it is. Would you really want to dive in knowing you might be surprised by a Photoshopped picture of Bertie with pyramids/herds of wildebeest/exploding super-nova etc etc as a backdrop. That's a future Black Mirror episode, right there.

All of which of course pales against the acknowledged master of the audacious glad-handle. There can be only one - and that one is, of course, Charles Haughey. His finest hour in this regard was the closing day of the 1987 Tour de France, where he popped up to congratulate Stephen Roche and made it look as if he was the one deserving of all the commendations rather than the chap in the yellow jersey who'd just cycled the length of France.

"There was lots of dealing with the Irish Government in the last days of the race," cycling official Pat McQuaid would tell the Irish Independent in 2015. "On the Friday, [the Taoiseach] was going to come over, but then on Saturday, we didn't know if Stephen was going to hold on to the yellow jersey. So the decision wasn't taken until the Saturday evening. I remember getting the phone call from his advisors saying he was coming and we had to deal with that with the organisers of the tour." Roche duly placed first - and Haughey was up on the podium faster than Shane Ross pegging it from the short-term car park to Arrivals.

"So Stephen wins and is up on the podium and the Taoiseach goes straight up and congratulates him," continued McQuaid. "And, of course, Stephen didn't know anything about this and was surprised to see him!"

Haughey was slick in all sorts of less admirable ways, so perhaps we should be grateful that the present generations of politicians are so terrible at photo-ops. History teaches us that leaders who can insert themselves into these situations without a hint of embarrassment are the ones we really needed to watch.

Irish Independent

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