A year in the Áras: 'I'm not inventing a different version of Michael D Higgins'

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

ON NOVEMBER 11TH, 2011, Michael D Higgins was inaugurated as the ninth President of Ireland, after winning the presidential election on October 27th. In his study this week he reflected on his first year in office. Above the fireplace a prominent space is reserved for a Seán Keating painting of the late Dr Noel Browne, minister for health in the ill-fated 1948-51 interparty government. It is absent currently while the frame is repaired.

“I bought that picture in 1969 from Mrs Kenny in Galway for £200,” the President says. “I was just appointed a junior lecturer in political science and sociology [at NUI Galway]. Noel’s name had been spoken about as a possible candidate [for the presidency] at one stage. So at least he has made it as far as the President’s study in Áras an Uachtaráin.”

How have you found the year?It’s been a very busy year. It’s been very good and it is very exciting. I’m very happy that the public side of it has gone very well.

Are you enjoying the job?I am enjoying the public side of it. Sometimes I don’t make it easy for myself. When I attend public events, it’s my choice not to be taken away to a private room or to be roped off in a way. The security staff are very good, but I’m sure it makes it a little difficult for them at times.

Have you found the office restrictive?No. I have met the Taoiseach about every six weeks, usually [for] about two hours. No one has asked me to change a speech.

No attempt at restriction?None at all.

Do you enjoy the administrative side less?I find it is a matter of relative satisfaction. There is an enormous advantage in having been a former minister. I would’ve known where to go for the heart of a Bill. For example, this [Ombudsman Amendment Bill] that I’ve a question on, I saw immediately that there are four or five words in section 7 that raised a question in my mind. I know how to read the legislation fast. That part doesn’t bother me.

There is a very heavy protocol demand in relation to my visits . . . I probably am a bit more exacting on the quality of the speeches than I need be.

Does the protocol side irritate you?No, only the curtailment of time. From the moment of arrival to the moment of leaving, the President has about 45 minutes. While you might like to see an old friend, you really are operating within a schedule.

In the context of the convention on the Constitution, what changes would you like to see where this office is concerned?The convention is a proposal of Government, and obviously that’s their business, but I do think the sections governing the referral of legislation need to be considered in terms of the differing interpretations in the history of the presidency as to referral.

Different Supreme Courts have behaved differently in the past. I know when President [Mary] Robinson referred a particular matter within a Bill, the Supreme Court chose to leave that matter intact but to change another part of the Bill. For me the one that is really difficult [is when] a matter, having been referred by the President, cannot then be challenged by a citizen.

Do you think the powers of the office should be extended?I could see areas where I think that can be done, in relation to the definition of the role of the President, without constitutional change anyway. I am very conscious that my predecessors, particularly going back to Mary Robinson, were very happy to interpret the text in a way that made an engagement with the public more fulsome than it had been, and I’m happy to push along with that, and I think I can go a bit farther.

There are matters that are not amenable to precise or prescriptive definition, such as the business of the President’s relationship to the public in terms of the President speaking to the public. The President’s discretion is what defines the Presidency. There are 150 invitations coming in a week: there’s a considerable message in relation to which ones that you are accepting.

Do you think the term should be shortened?I do see an advantage in the term of the President not being coterminous with the period of any Government. I think there is an advantage in the office of presidency having a different span. It means that the incumbent from the very beginning, and those who aspire to be incumbents, have to take into account that they cannot in fact be obviously related to one component in politics. It is a fact that they will come from a particular component, and it is one of the things that is important to me as well.

I’m not inventing a different version of Michael D Higgins. But the day the count took place and the returning officer announced the result, I resigned from the Labour Party, of which I had been president. At the same time, I wasn’t going to pretend that I had assumed a new independent existence, because I haven’t.

You bring to something like this what your entire life has been. In my case there are strengths, and vulnerabilities as well. There are fragilities that I would associate with it, because you have a sense of your own biography, what you’ve been exposed to through your life. It gives you a kind of sensibility that you don’t drop in the interests of being formal, that you straighten your back, develop amnesia and start reviewing guards of honour. It’s not like that.

Where the childrens’ referendum is concerned, do you find it an inhibiting factor holding this office?I cannot express an opinion, obviously. But one of the things that I can do is reflect a lot. When I read the [Inspector of Prisons’] report on St Patrick’s Institution, the first thing that I would say to myself was, “How different was this from the reports that were appearing at the end of the 1970s into the 1980s?” and, “What is in there to shift people to wanting to put an end to it?”

You have to exercise judgment. I am President of Ireland. I am not there to just idly create any embarrassment, but I have to say I was horrified and I was equally . . . I find it absolutely challenging, not just to me but to the Irish public.

Your theme for next year is the crisis in ethics and the crisis among intellectuals. What do you hope to do in that context in 2013?There’s a new phase of speeches coming. It isn’t sufficient any longer to say that extreme individualism and unrestrained, unregulated markets create a postethical or unethical existence. [The question] is how are you going to lodge ethics in the society? This raises issues for education, for professional practice. I’m going to try in these next speeches to look at the lodgment of an ethical perspective.

There has been such a sacrificing of trust. Some people threw over what were traditional restraints in the name of being modern. With that alleged modernity came a total suspension of ethical standards. This is certainly true in the case of some parts – not all – of the financial sector, the legal profession. Then over in the medical profession . . .

. . . the political profession?There I think that one needs to address . . . institutional inadequacy. I’ve seen advocacy groups work for 20 years on getting as far as a piece of legislation, but then the implementation of the legislation is frustrated by a whole set of bureaucratic blocks.

And there is a very serious bureaucratic problem in this country, a very serious problem of hierarchy. It’s very fine to ask public servants to be flexible, but there is a hierarchical structure there. There are still many elements of patriarchy, and what I think is extraordinary to me, at this stage of my life, looking back on it after nearly a half a century as a sociologist: I find it shocking the ease with which authoritarianism emerges, and the expressions of authoritarianism. I spoke about it recently to a very senior person, about where people are almost waiting for their authoritarian moment.

In the bureaucracy?Yes, in many cases. Therefore it is sometimes quite difficult to be original, to be flexible, to be very human. It is nearly impossible to be vulnerable. Because the culture of never being caught with a mistake just completely stymies real development.

When a country is recovering you find people are very flexible and innovative and creative. And also people value the warmth of relationships. I find that again in relation to groups I’ve visited, receptions I’ve had here. People on minority issues such as the LGBT people or Travellers.

I draw a distinction between tolerance and the giving of equality. We just have to move on from tolerating difference to giving difference its place as an equal expression in our lives. In many cases the language [used] appears to be benign, but it has a very, very quick full stop beyond tolerance.

Next St Patrick’s Day is the 70th anniversary of a famous address by one of your predecessors, Éamon de Valera, who, as taoiseach, in his “comely maidens” speech, presented a particular vision of Ireland. The values he talked about then, are they the values you talk about now?I think the speech hasn’t been treated fairly. You should place it alongside the Lenten pastorals of the time. There have been more modern versions . . . about meeting your basic needs, respecting the instincts of the human person, the values of intimacy, the importance of place.

The view of a nationalist rural society that Mr de Valera [spoke about] might have looked, superficially, to be something that was about empathy, intimacy and comfort, but in fact the lash of it fell particularly on Irish women, and it fell particularly on those who were too poor and who were the noninheriting Irish.

The Irish people have lost faith in leadership, whatever the context – political, clerical, financial. What do they do from here? I think the debate has to be [about] “how do you source your morality?” Whether it is out of fear; whether it is out of the contingency of the circumstance that you are sharing space with other people in a social sense; or whether it is out of a deeper humanist impulse of love – and one must be free to use that word. I think that is very, very important.

A system based on fear was always going to come under strain, from its assumptions about the human spirit and the human body, but also it would come under strain from its own contradictions.

I don’t believe that spirituality is lesser or has been rejected in Ireland at all. I think that it has been given a different expression. Aristotle said the ethics of friendship make a greater demand than the ethics of justice. Friendship in Ireland is such an important thing. And among the younger people, including those in danger of suicide and in danger of all the other things, you find among them a profound ethical sense of friendship.

There is a transition going on . . . People are pulling themselves back, and they find, in the distress of the journey back to what is real, they combine with other people and other people combine with them. It becomes a kind of defined Irishness.

I’ve always said that Irishness expressed in the arts and culture abroad and in music and theatre, the visual arts and all the rest of it, makes an appeal to excellence, because it is striving to reach some kind of universal standard. In precisely the same way, a highly ethical version of the institutions and of institutional decisionmaking, of the way that people deal with each other, would be a great version of Irishness as represented abroad.

We have to be truthful. When I do an analysis on migrations, and when I say the 1.5 million [Irish] that Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh described as “Protestant and prudent”, who went to North America before the Famine and there settled, and suddenly the 1.5 million who came in [during and after the Famine] . . . and they’re very poor and they’re in squalor. And when these two tidal forces meet each other in Boston and the other cities, it wasn’t often with a kind of “fáilte romhat anseo”. There were real conflicts there.

This kind of Irishness – let’s look at its positive side – will be able to deal with people of all races and all cultures and it will be able to deal with people who are marginalised, I think perhaps better.

A moving away from a Catholic nationalist basis for Irishness?Yes. In the seminars that are taking place in relation to Irish history, an issue that arises – not in Ireland at all but all over the world – [is]: can nationalism as a system deliver an equality of citizenship?

Was the presidential election campaign a gruelling experience from your point of view?The fact that it was so long made an extra demand. The campaign for me was 18 months. It was a long time on the road. It was an extraordinary, great experience. I feel I got into touch with the people.

I started more strongly; then other candidates came into the field. Polling day was on Thursday, but I actually knew on the Friday things were going to be all right. I was in Henry Street, and it took me two and a half hours to finish the thing.

It was an ugly campaign. Why?I think it was because of the highly personalised nature of the coverage. People were saying to me, “Why didn’t I do the more tackling thing?” and whatever. I wanted to win the presidency on a platform that could be the kind of presidency that, if I won, I could deliver on. But I do think it was very wounding on other candidates.

Next year is a centenary that will probably be close to your heart, that of the 1913 Lockout Yes, I’m working on a speech on the Lockout. I’ve given one already about the 1912 Lockout in Wexford. I think it very, very important that it be truthfully represented for what it was: an immense confrontation between people who wanted capital to have no responsibility and workers struggling to have even the most minimal power to protect themselves.

You may have seen recently the challenge by Prof John A Murphy to those who would use history for political ends in the context of these centenariesI totally agree with John A Murphy. John A Murphy has it right. We are not there to put [on] a gloss – what I call a false amnesia. If people contest versions of history, you offer your version and you’re judged by your peers. And then in turn if it becomes a principle you live with, you construct at most an amnesty and you say, “We agree to differ.” But the one thing you don’t do, you don’t falsify.

I know a lot about this. Remember, my father and my two uncles were in the War of Independence. My father was on the republican side and spent 1923 in Newbridge prison, on the Curragh, and my uncle was on the Free State side in Renmore Barracks. They never talked about it. But I think if we are to talk things through, we are talking about a parity of revisionism, where the revisionism is not just a case of such a self-examination by one side as will make them amenable to the other. It is about both sides facing the task of a self-interrogation of history.

The 1913 Lockout, the role of the tenements, O’Casey and, also, both the adequacies and inadequacies of nationalism: that has to be faced. In addition to that, the different response of the church. Was it the role of the church to suggest a fatalism to the poorest of the poor? Or was it the function of the church to compare them to the Gallilean carpenter, as the odd one did?

Home and away

Since assuming office President Michael D Higgins has received 7,889 visitors in 184 groups at Áras an Uachtaráin. He has undertaken 129 visits in the Dublin area and 199 visits in 18 counties across the rest of the State. He has paid seven visits to Northern Ireland, and during one such visit, to Belfast in June, he met Britain’s Queen Elizabeth for the first time.

He has visited Britain twice. He visited New York and Boston on a trip to the US last May, and Poznan in Poland during the Euro 2012 championship, last June. Last month he visited Chile, Brazil and Argentina on a 12-day visit to South America.

He is expected to make the first official State visit by an Irish President to Britain, probably in 2014.

Online

This is an edited transcript of a longer interview that appears on irishtimes.com

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