Edited transcript of interview with President Michael D Higgins

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

On October 27th 2011 Michael D Higgins was elected ninth President of Ireland and inaugurated on November 11th last. In his study this week he reflected on his first year in office.

Above the fireplace a premier position is reserved for a Sean Keating painting of the late Dr Noel Browne, Minister for Health in the ill-fated 1948-51 Inter-party government. It is absent currently while the frame is repaired.

The President recalled “I bought that picture in 1969 from Mrs Kenny for 200 pounds. I was just appointed a junior lecturer in political science and sociology (at UCG)…He made it at last. Noel’s name had been spoken about as a possible candidate at one stage. So at least he has made it as far as the President’s study in Aras an Uachtarain.

I knew him in all his strengths and his difficulties. And Phyllis too, because after Noel died Sabina and I stayed in touch with Phyllis, who was a very elegant and wonderful person. They both had great hearts. So many of the people who did such good things…

Sabina was always a public person both as an actress and as my partner in everything. Also someone who believes in the stuff and really is, even more than me, a person who loves meeting people. 

Patsy McGarry: Q.How have you found the year?

President Michael D Higgins: A. It’s been a very busy year. Sometimes there is hardly any time to reflect on one whole week’s work but it’s been very good and it is very exciting…..I’m very happy that the public side of it has gone very well.

Q. Are you enjoying the job?


A. 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. I have been 40 years with people meeting me and I haven’t any intention of changing it. The security staff are very good but I’m sure it makes it a little difficult for them at times. But it’s my choice in fact actually to spend as much time as I can (with people), and I do that.
 
Q. Have you found the office restrictive?
 
A. No. I have met the Taoiseach in what I call my Article 28 meetings. Article 28 in the Constitution says the President shall be informed of matters international and domestic. Curiously, it’s in that order in the wording of the Constitution. We have these meetings about every six weeks. They last usually about two hours.
 
No one has asked me to change a speech. I initiate the structure of the speeches myself.
 
Q. No attempt at restriction…?
 
A. None at all…very often what I seek in the papers (speeches) is to have some kind of authenticity in it. I’m not reading a flat, bland speech. If it does come across as that, well it’s my own responsibility entirely...
 
I like the public side of it. I was inclined to say `yes’ ….without perhaps being fully aware of the day to day administrative side that I have to do here. There is an administrative side….kind of day to day things.         
 
Q. Do you enjoy the administrative side less?
 
A. 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 Bill (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…..there can be a whole series of inquiries about these… There’s a kind of perfectionism as well which doesn’t help me to some extent. I do look at everything..…I probably am a bit more exacting on the quality of the speeches than I need be…but at the same time I think it is important to do it in a certain way.
 
Q. Does the protocol side irritate you?

 
A. No…..only the curtailment of time. Usually.………from the moment of arrival to the moment of leaving the President has about 45 minutes. A lot has to happen in that. You have to adjust yourself to the fact that, while you might like to see an old friend…that you really are operating within a schedule that other people have worked at.
 
Q. In the context of the Convention on the Constitution what changes would you like to see where this office is concerned?
 
A. 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.….. Where those referrals have taken place there is an issue in so far as is the Supreme Court’s opinion sought on the section or matter referred to within the legislation? Is the Supreme Court’s opinion to be offered on the totality of the legislation? …Does the Supreme Court see the value of a written explanation of its decision?
 
……..And, certainly the notion that the President in referring legislation is closing off the option of citizens’ challenge,….I think those articles might well be looked at.
 
Q. When the President refers a piece of legislation to the Supreme Court you’re saying the Supreme Court should only deal with the specific matter the President……..
 

A….no, no. ..different Supreme Courts have behaved differently in the past…..I know when president Robinson referred an entire bill that was a decision then by the Supreme Court to look at the whole bill. There was a referral of a particular matter within a bill and the Supreme Court chose to leave that matter intact but to change another part of the bill….Then you have the next part.…for me the one that is really difficult, a matter having been referred by the president the matter cannot then be challenged by a citizen.
 
Q. Do you think the powers of the office should be extended?
 
A. 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 think the different presidents….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. It’s quite tight and prescribed in relation to an address to the Dáil or an address to the nation, in which case permission of government is sought.
 
The presidency enjoys a very high level of esteem among the public. There are lots of things we do. You must remember the initiative I’ve had on `Being Young and Irish’....Next year…..I will be addressing the issue of ethics.
 
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. Also, if I say that I am free to give speeches as long as they are neither discomfiting nor advocating Government policy, these choices are important and they are very important to me.
 
Q. Do you think the term should be shortened?

 
A. In my personal opinion I do see an advantage in the term of the President not being coterminous with the period of any government. If you take it that a government lasts four or five years,..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.
 
The day the count took place and the returning officer announced the result I resigned that day from the Labour Party of which I had been president…..At the same time I ran the campaign, having been put into the field by the Labour Party. So I wasn’t going to pretend that I had assumed a new independent existence because I haven’t. Therefore the fact that what I was saying during the campaign is what I am saying now …has been a strength.
 
There’s a long spectrum of opinion that I should say nothing at all and just read out whatever is handed to me. There’s another group of people who think that I should be rattling cages and so forth. I’ve given a lot of thought to it. 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…
 
…I was the only person of the left for a long time in the west of Ireland and I had taken a particular position in relation to different issues.…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.
 
Q Coming from that background and where the next referendum, the Childrens’ Referendum, is concerned do you find it an inhibiting factor holding this office?
 
A. I cannot express an opinion, obviously. But one of the things that I can do as well is reflect a lot….when I read the report of St Patrick’s Institution the first thing that I would say to myself `how different was this from the reports that were appearing at the end of the 70s into the 80s?’ and `why would it take 30 years…what is in there to shift people to wanting to put an end to it?’
 
You have to exercise judgement. 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…because you’re President you’re not removed from the contradictions that slap everyone in the face.
 
Q. 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?
 

A. There’s a new phase of speeches coming. They will take the argument onto the next stage. The London School of Economics speech (on February 21st 2012) was on the role of the public intellectual. The one of gave in NUI (Janaury 21st 2012) was about the universities in a time of crisis and then I spoke in Trinity (February 3rd 2012) at an economics one on investigating the assumptions of economics.

But what I have to do now in the next part is to take on the question `what is achievable, both in the short to medium term, in terms of making changes that will give us a more ethical life together’

I actually think that Leonard Cohen is useful there. You know that song he has about `the cracks that let in the light’..….It isn’t sufficient any longer to say that extreme individualism and unrestrained, unregulated markets create a post-ethical or unethical existence. It is how are you going to lodge ethics in the society? This raises issues for education, for professional practice.

I actually think some of the areas where I worked are losing now. I believe that the commitment to human rights, for example, was much stronger in the 1990s than it is 20 years later. Therefore I’m going to try in these next speeches to look at…the lodgement of an ethical perspective. For example, and it is a good question, can economics be made ethical? Can efficiency, innovation, adaptation be delivered in a way that is ethically driven? Can education itself transcend neo-utilitarian excesses to the point at which it takes account of the total person in a holistic way?

Then you move on..…..There has been such a sacrificing of trust, complete loss of trust in some professions…..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…….
 
Q. What about the political profession?
 
A. I think that one needs to address….institutional inadequacy. How is a legislative proposal initiated and where does it come from? How is it processed and is it processed with participation? How is it administered? 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…
 
Q….in the bureaucracy?
 
A. Yes, oh 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, and I think it is from what it has been plunged into by a false model of a speculative economy, 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 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.
 
Q. 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 there, are they the values you talk about now?
 
A. I think the speech hasn’t been treated fairly. It was an easy mark in a way. It was given at a particular time. If you want to give it a context you should place it alongside the Lenten pastorals of the time. There have been much more modern versions….about meeting your basic needs, respecting the instincts of the human person, the values of intimacy, the importance of place.
 
On the negative side of it…is a neglected piece in history, the period around the passing of Mr de Valera’s constitution in 1937 and how very near he was to losing the Constitution which of course brought the Presidency into existence….the fact is they very nearly lost….because of women’s votes….
 
The view of a nationalist rural society that Mr de Valera (spoke about) might have had 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 non-inheriting Irish.
 
I think it is wrong to use the speech as the fulcrum of the debate between modernity and tradition. It is not necessarily tradition and it is not necessarily anti-modern in all respects. It has to be taken in context.
 
Q. The Irish people are reeling psychologically, ethically, and financially/economically. They have lost faith in their leadership, whatever the context – political, clerical, financial… What is the way out?
 
A. I think the debate has to be in many cases…almost in supermarket terms…how do you source your morality? Whether it is out of fear, whether it is out of 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. …
 
In relation to the sources of spiritual strength and...the related question of morality, a system based on fear, a system based on the inculcation of 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. They are making their way back to a version of the different religious systems ….that are themselves not authoritarian and condemnatory.
 
In relation to the professions. There are two different plateaus. One is that you want to be treated fairly and justly, because that is the way you would like to be treated yourself.  It’s a kind of an appeal to the norms of reciprocity. But there’s a big difference between that, which is admirable in itself, and saying for example you want to see people behaving ethically in business and in law and in decision making and in politics because that is the way the whole of society will benefit.
 
There is a transition going on….people are pulling themselves back and they find in fact in the distress of the journey back to what is real, they combine with other people and other people combine with them and so forth. In a sense that is a recovery that is important and 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 decision making, of the way that people deal with each other, would be a great version of Irishness as represented abroad.

Because we have to be truthful. When I do an analysis on migrations and when I say the 1.5 million (Irish) that Gearoid O’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/after the Famine) primarily from the west of Ireland 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.
 
So this kind of Irishness….let’s look at its positive side. It 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.
 
Q. A moving away from a Catholic nationalist basis for Irishness?
 
A 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? All I’ll say at the moment is if historians address this issue they will say that it is neither inevitable and indeed it is quite contestable that if nationalism is to deliver a property-owning society without limitation then in many cases you could well argue that those egalitarians.…have found themselves brought to a place that can’t yield any promise for them.
 
Q. The (presidential election) campaign, was it a gruelling experience from your point of view?
 
A. I think that the fact that it was so long made an extra demand. The fact that we had an internal contest for the nomination meant that I had to take to the road early…the campaign for me was 18 months. It was an extraordinary experience…..I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Kevin McCarthy who did 20,000 kilometres with me in his Golf.
It was a long time on the road. It was an extraordinary, great experience. I accepted all invitations to speak at all of the third level colleges and given the fact, at my age and everything, I got a great reception from those colleges. I feel I got into touch with the people.
I started very strongly then other candidates came into the field…polling day was on Thursday, there had been polls on the previous Sunday, but I actually knew on the Friday things were going to be alright. The Friday before that (polling day). I was in Henry St and it took me two and a half hours to finish the thing, people were coming up…..Then you had the debate on the Monday night and it was pouring rain…..But I had a feeling that everything had gone right and that people had in fact decided…I think they had decided just a week out from polling day.
 
Q. It was an ugly campaign and this has become a feature of presidential election campaigns in recent times. Why?
 
A. I think it was because of the highly personalised nature of the coverage. As well, I knew the risk I was taking. Remember, I said I wanted the presidency to be a presidency of ideas. 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 that. That suits me then because there is a consistency between the offer and the delivery.
 But I do think it was very wounding on other candidates.

Q. Next year President is a centenary which will probably quite close to your heart, that of the 1913 Lockout.
 
A. 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.
 
Q. 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 centenaries?

A I totally agree with John A Murphy. John A Murphy has it right. We are not there to put a gloss, what I call a false amnesia. If people contest versions of history, you offer your versions 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 and, who knows, in times our narratives revisited from one side or the other can be amended and we move on to a new position. But the one thing you don’t do, you don’t falsify. That wouldn’t work and it wouldn’t be a contribution at all.
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 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, if you like, 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. And that’s the way it will be.
 
The 1913 Lockout, the role of the tenements 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 Galilean carpenter as the odd one did?