Johnny Adair Ate My Hamster
A drag queen known as Samantha finds his pet Chihuahua, Bambi, shot dead in a loyalist feud. The quality of the detail is the giveaway. The Peace Process brought celebrity to the previously faceless paramilitaries. Giving them little or no real political power meant that their visibility was often fated to be in the embarrassing sabbath vacuum between news and fluff. So while The Sunday Life was talking to Johnny Adair about allegations that he may have had a gay relationship (‘There are hundreds of women who’ll vouch for the fact that Johnny Adair is not gay’, Adair told The Sunday Life reporter, speaking from Maghaberry), The Observer was managing to be only marginally more articulate and no less sensational. In keeping with its readership’s presumably liberal interest in sexuality, it threw in the twist picked up from the details of David Lister and Hugh Jordan’s book on Adair – that Sam Duddy, one of Adair’s ‘associates’, as the newspeak goes, had another life as a drag queen and that his dog’s death had been the darkly comic moment in the nasty saga of the intra-loyalist conflict.
Whatever the difference in the size of the newspaper, or its readership, pets, sex and paramilitaries are an irresistible combination for the Sunday papers. Michael Stone’s ponytail, Johnny Adair’s shaved head (The Sunday Life, never missing a trick, reports rumours that it is kept shining with floor polish) are the quirks waiting to be made the trademarks of celebrity, a kind of visual catchphrase which sticks in the mind as long as celebrity itself. Of course the terrorist has always had the potential to turn into a caustic version of the photogenic celeb, living a life of intrigue and possibility beyond the view of the state. Belfast had its fictional versions at least as far back as James Mason in Odd Man Out. Since then dogs, both Mad and toy, seem to have played an unrevealingly significant role. The dissolute Belfast male celebrity role has had its supreme moments in George Best and Alex Higgins. With the postmodern uncertainty of the Peace Process the self-destructive sportsman has been replaced by the unedifingly ironic, and yet altogether more destructive icon of the paramilitary whose private life is gleefully laid out in public, raising the possibility that Geordie and the Hurricane were symptoms of a Belfast celebrity-wish treading water until the real thing appeared.
When Mo Mowlam went to the Maze the terrorist celebrity became an inevitability. The cameras following sheepishly would soon learn their trade in these places, just as those being filmed would sharpen up for the cameras. In parallel we could trace the moments when apparently paramilitary lives started to become public, and note how uncannily this maps on to the Peace Process itself. So back in 1997, in the innocent old days before the Good Friday Agreement, An Phoblacht could happily carry the text of a speech by Gerry Adams setting out the republican agenda for future negotiations and in the same issue publish an article on the environmental horror of new holiday homes springing up in County Clare. A few years later and such a juxtaposition would have a frisson, since Adams’ holiday home in Donegal has become his pulp media equivalent of Stone’s hair and Adair’s lack of it. Adams’ celebrity status is of course of a very different order to that of loyalism’s sons. Such is his respectability that he has reached lists high enough up the alphabet for the holiday home controversy to be appropriate to his fame. So The Sunday Business Post, in a feature on holiday homes in Donegal in 2002, had this: ‘Rossnowlagh, Portnoo, Bundoran and Dunfanaghy are among the most popular coastal locations with holiday home buyers in Donegal. Residents of the county, home to Ireland’s largest Gaeltacht, include Gerry Adams and Daniel O’Donnell. Sex in the City star Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick recently paid over €60,000 for a two-bedroom cottage on the outskirts of the tiny village of Kilcar.’ The irony is that Ken Maginnis may have started this nonsense in the first place. In 1996 he used the House of Commons to raise the vote-winning issue of Gerry’s out-of-town pad: ‘It is no wonder that Mr. Gerry Adams has disappeared from our television screens. Perhaps he has gone to his holiday home – one, I assume, he purchased out of the savings from his social security benefits – down in Cooley in the Irish Republic.’ Different house, same issue. But look what the years have done, turning Adams’ private life from political outrage to style supplement material.
Loyalism, on the other hand, has tended to find its niche in either tabloid scandal or the broadsheet’s equivalent, a faux disdain for tackiness which allows for coverage of the same story. In the days before he and Adair were non grata in Belfast, John White explained Adair’s charms to CNN: ‘He feels he has been made a scapegoat. Johnny Adair lives a charismatic life, verging on flamboyancy, but he has done nothing illegal.’ All the structures of minor celebrity are here; we can take sides on the personality and be directed to its simple textures (though saying you’re flamboyant is hardly the best way to be flamboyant). But the gnawing reminder is there, that illegality covers a multitude of sins.
The cult of paramilitary celebrity has become an act of willed Peace Process amnesia. The more ludicrously cartoonish Stone or Adair become, the more glossy magazine Adams is made, then the more we can forget what they stand for. Creating images of those a society previously couldn’t admit within its ken can only, it seems, be done by the distant form of knowledge which is celebrity, even glamour. But this only reveals a society in which there are no co-ordinates for seriously placing these men. And such a desperate lack of a way to imagine or speak about the paramilitarism of our past in the present means the media makes it up as it goes along, and because of this gets it wrong. Wrong not only by indulging in chihuahua trivia and Gerry’s holiday home redecoration, but seriously wrong enough to remind us, maybe, that this parodic version of fame is part of our society’s current inability to remember or know itself. When Michael Stone’s book None Shall Divide Us was published (‘an explosive book on my life as a loyalist gunman’) UTV broadcast ads for it, swallowing the new found celebrity status Stone had achieved, forgetting who might be watching and why the man was famous in the first place. The ITC investigated complaints by relatives of those killed by Stone at Milltown and upheld their complaint – UTV had already taken the ad off once the complaints had been lodged, and apologised for the hurt caused. But the momentary lapse tells us all. With no way to account for the past, the North has its media as its conscience; so headlines will dazzle inanely for a while longer, and sex, dogs and drugs will always sell.
[The Vacuum, 2004]