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