Published in the Sunday Business Post 26 July 2015
What is Michael D. Higgins’ presidency for?
With four years of a seven year term almost served, future historians may struggle to identify what impact Higgins made as President.
No one is allowed say this out loud. Michael D., as he is affectionately known, is a nice man. His popularity is measured by his 1,007,104 votes received on the last count of the 2011 Presidential election, making him Ireland’s first ever ‘political millionaire.’
His raw passion and absolute certainty in his ideological viewpoint took no prisoners. American tea party advocate Michael Graham discovered this to his cost in a Newstalk radio debate which has amassed over two million YouTube views.
There is the everyday man appeal to Higgins that is instinctively attractive to a public that has ripened political disillusionment into naked cynicism. The photograph of the President queuing at the ATM machine endears him to the public. So too his trips to Eamonn Deacy Park to watch League of Ireland mid-table squatters Galway United.
At a reception in the Áras an Uachtaráin last June I witnessed first hand the genuine warmth Irish emigrants had for their President. An Australian friend fought back inconvenient tears after posing for yet another photo.
And yet. What has his Presidency achieved? What is it that defines his tenure as first citizen?
Historians will point to Mary Robinson’s ability to broaden the office of President. She leveraged the Presidency’s soft power thereby harvesting popular authority to legitimately but delicately encroach on national political questions. Her candle in the window of the Áras became a symbol of the Irish diaspora but also a modernising Ireland that embraced Mna na hÉireann.
Mary McAleese’s two terms as Irish president were symbolized by the theme of “building bridges”. The Ardoyne born President focused her Presidency on Northern Ireland. “I bet you never thought you’d end up here!” was how McAleese broke the ice to a Unionist delegation from Omagh in the early 2000s. My stanch Unionist friend still recounts this story with pride. Crossing the welcome mat at the Aras was the first time in his life setting foot in the Republic.
What paragraph should be written here that summarises the impact of Michael D. Higgins’ presidency?
A cursory look at the archives of French national newspapers Le Figaro, Liberation and Le Monde yield zero articles for the President’s speech on climate change in Paris last Tuesday. “We need to break away from a destructive relationship with the diversity that is life on our planet towards a new paradigm of existence” the President informed the prestigious audience which included French president François Hollande.
The President also made reference to the “age-old human institution of ‘the commons,’ the interdependence and shared responsibility it encapsulates.” I have no idea what that means.
His impact internationally appears rather mute. The Economist continuously get his name wrong, omitting his middle initial D. The Financial Times have not made any reference to the President in almost a year.
The left leaning Guardian, a newspaper of the President’s ideological bent, are less than complementary. On the occasion of his inauguration, British poet Carol Rumens excoriated Michael D.’s poetry as “mad-dog-shite.”
His historic visit to meet the Queen in April 2014 warranted a Guardian profile piece with the sub heading, “Higgins is far from a figurehead leader.”
The main thrust of that Guardian article focused on the achievements of his Presidential predecessors, the President’s social and educational background and how he met his wife Sabina (the journalist Mary Kenny introduced them at a party).
The Guardian article also made a passing reference to a London School of Economics speech where he derided neoliberalism. This intellectual debate appears to be a theme of his Presidency.
“After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of State Socialism, itself a distortion of the utopian impulse, indeed a dystopia, an extraordinary hubris emerged by way of response which led to the articulation of what was little less than a utopian vision of the Right,” says Higgins.
The intellectual references for his speech were firmly on the left. Karl Marx, Max Weber, Benedetto Croce, Jürgen Habermas, Ernst Bloch, Émile Durkheim, Adam Smith, Bertrand Russell and James Connolly were all approvingly mentioned.
That LSE speech sent the tone for this Presidency. It was not so much that his intellectual reference points were sourced from the same cerebral ideological well. Rather, it was the meandering, bewildering and unfocused nature of the speech.
Although just twelve pages long, the speech drew inspiration from over twenty-five different philosophers, sociologists, politicians, academics and playwrights. Perhaps like his Presidency, the central theme becomes lost when the message is ill-defined and vague.
For instance, 2014 and 2015 marked the President’s special initiative on ethics. The President sought to “develop an ethical discourse that places human flourishing at the heart of public action.”
Some 44 seminars were hosted in academic institutions across the country on topics such as ethics in journalism, disasters, food, religion, sport, environment, synthetic biology, data collection, public places, housing and the economy.
The ethics initiative is well meaning but what precisely does it mean?
The President’s website has a photo of Higgins with young people holding blurbs which define their ethical priorities. “We need to talk about ethics because as a society the ethical use of animals is a reflection of humanity.” Another proclaims that ethics is necessary because “Irish women and men need truth in their lives.”
The President’s ethics initiative has not set Ireland alight. A recent Irish Times letter writer lamented that “the ideas of President Higgins are not given enough exposure in public discourse.”
Perhaps that’s because the Irish public is a little lost as to what exactly Michael D. Higgins’ presidency is for. His lack of focus distracts from its impact.