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Che stamp hypocrisy: 'A centre-right government selling us the iconography of leftists'

It is a few steps backwards from Bertie Ahern calling himself a socialist, writes Odrán Waldron.

Odrán Waldron Journalist and writer

WE ALL KNOW the image. We’ve seen it everywhere, from college apartments to dog tags to Rage Against the Machine hoodies.

Jim Fitzpatrick’s portrait of Che Guevara has been a countercultural icon since its creation in 1968. One place that nobody, not even the most optimistic members of left blocs worldwide, could have expected to see Che’s black eyes peering out from is the top corner of an envelope. It has an official An Post watermark, the sign that this had been signed off on by an Irish government.

It makes sense for us to honour Che

Before the left versus right arguments, it must be pointed out that it makes sense for Ireland to honour Che Guevara. First, there is the commonality between the people of Cuba and Ireland. Both are inhabitants of island nations historically beholden to their imperial neighbours who achieved independence through guerrilla warfare.

Secondly, there is the obvious connection of the world famous portrait having been done by an Irish artist. Lastly, there is the oft-acknowledged “blood of Irish rebels” in Guevara’s veins. Many cite the above quote from Guevara’s father when tying him to Ireland, but few realise how accurate it is.

Che was the great-great-great-great grandson of Patrick Lynch, of the Lynch tribe – one of Galway’s fourteen tribes – who fled Ireland in 1740 after a downturn in family fortunes following defeats against the Cromwellian and Orange forces. Ireland has long honoured members of its diaspora, no matter how distant. The country is sworn to neutrality in matters of international relations, so if we can honour John F Kennedy, which we do, we can honour one of his opponents in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A Fine Gael cabinet paying homage to a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary

The stamp’s first print run was sold out within a week, news of which was gleefully spread online by the Irish left. It was predictably supported by the mainstream faces of the left, from Adams to Murphy, and opposed by those on the right such as Senator Neale Richmond of Fine Gael, who called Guevara a “barbaric murderer” on RTÉ’s Six One News.

Yet, what concerns me isn’t the content of a postal stamp, but rather the people selling it. It is, as Fitzpatrick said, “spectacularly interesting” that a Fine Gael cabinet, so diametrically opposed to the politics of Guevara, would approve an official government product paying homage to the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary.

It is reminiscent of last year’s centenary celebrations for the Easter Rising, when Fine Gael sold us stamps bearing the face of James Connolly, a Marxist.

Jay Z’s tone-deaf appropriation of Occupy springs to mind

It is expected that normal companies and business people will latch onto radical movements and sell them back to us – Jay-Z’s tone-deaf appropriation of Occupy Wall Street springs to mind – but there is something more cynical to it when a government does it.

A centre-right government selling us the iconography of leftists seems to me an attempt to own both sides of the debate, an attempt to nullify criticism by way of hinting at sympathy with those who are against them. It is a few steps backwards from Bertie Ahern calling himself a socialist.

Nobody will begrudge Jim Fitzpatrick, who avoided the temptation to copyright his artwork until 2011 in order to put a stop to its “crass commercial” use by others, for selling his work to the government. The life of an artist is precarious and Fitzpatrick has made the image available for free download for personal use. His is an intent that is pure, as his eloquent defence of Guevara on RTÉ showed. I don’t believe the same can be said of the government.

It is fitting that the stamp was released during the same week as the Budget. People can criticise the violent means of both Guevara and Connolly, but it is certain that neither would have responded to a housing crisis with thirty-one new housing units, nor would they have planned to ban public worker strikes.

The one-two punch of stamp and budget showed us that Fine Gael can give us the picture, but they can’t give us the man.

Odrán Waldron is a freelance journalist and fiction writer from Kilkenny. He is a host on the podcast Central Access Scheme.

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Odrán Waldron  / Journalist and writer

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