Stephen Collins: Higgins risks damaging the presidency

As the representative of the Irish people the President has a duty to put his opinions aside and represent the whole nation

There is a stark contrast with the way President Higgins has used his office to promote his particular analysis of politics and society with the way his two predecessors behaved in the office. Photograph: Reuters/Pool/Maxwells

There is a stark contrast with the way President Higgins has used his office to promote his particular analysis of politics and society with the way his two predecessors behaved in the office. Photograph: Reuters/Pool/Maxwells

 

President Higgins crossed a line with his overblown tribute to Fidel Castro. While there was no official response from the mainstream parties, there is considerable anger in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at the way he presumed to speak on behalf of the Irish people in praise of a ruthless dictator.

It was entirely appropriate for the President to offer his condolences to the Cuban people on Castro’s death, but his description of the communist ruler as “a giant among global leaders” without any reference to his appalling abuse of human rights has caused deep disquiet.

During his half a century in power Castro executed opponents, jailed tens of thousands without trial, suppressed religious freedom as well as freedom of speech, and persecuted gay people.

He certainly did positive things for the mass of Cuban people, including reform of land ownership and radical improvements in the health and education systems, but any assessment of his rule cannot ignore the brutal suppression of human rights that prompted more than a million Cubans to flee their country.

By blithely ignoring these abuses in his glowing endorsement of Castro, President Higgins failed to represent the fundamental values that underpin the Irish Constitution which he was elected by the people of Ireland to espouse.

Downplay

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan sought to downplay the President’s tribute as a personal opinion, but Michael D was not speaking as a private individual but as a representative of the Irish people.

President Higgins has been leading up to this for some time. Since taking office he has delivered a succession of speeches infused with a strongly left-wing interpretation of politics and society that has been a trademark of his approach since he entered public life in the 1970s.

He has delivered pointed criticism of the EU’s approach to the economic crisis, has made clear his disdain for globalisation, and even entered the general election debate with comments about taxation just as it was about to kick of last February.

The President could not have been expected to abandon the left-wing ideology that has guided his political life when he was elected to the highest office in the land. However, as the representative of the Irish people he has a duty to put his personal opinions to one side and represent the nation as a whole.

It was notable that the President’s remarks on Castro were publicly endorsed by Sinn Féin and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, but met with a stony silence from the established parties.

Opponents

There is a stark contrast with the way President Higgins has used his office to promote his particular analysis of politics and society with the way in which his two predecessors in the office behaved.

When Mary Robinson was running for the presidency her opponents claimed she would not be capable of being a President for all the people because of her long record as a Senator in promoting liberal causes from contraception to divorce.

“Is the left right for the Park, ” was the final Fianna Fáil slogan of the campaign as the party attempted to frighten people into believing that a Robinson presidency would be a confrontational one that would demean the office.

Robinson lived up to her promise to be a president for all the people. She didn’t forget the liberal and left-wing causes she had always espoused, but she was conscious of her duty to represent people who would have disagreed with her as well as those who supported her views.

By adopting a much higher public profile than her predecessors she transformed the way the institution of the presidency was viewed by the people, and she was easily the most popular politician in the country during her term of office.

When Mary McAleese ran for the presidency in 1997, there were again fears that if elected she would pursue a narrow agenda focused on her concerns as a Northern nationalist which had clearly motivated her political career.

It was claimed that if elected to the presidency she would be nothing less than “a tribal time bomb” with the capacity to do serious damage to the peace process.

Peace process

The opposite turned out to be the case. Like Robinson, McAleese never forgot her origins but she quickly made it clear that she would be a President for all the people and, along with her husband Martin, worked tirelessly to support the peace process.

Her most spectacular public success was the role she played in paving the way for the historic visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland, but she also worked behind the scenes to promote peace in Northern Ireland and to bring people from the two communities together.

It was a tribute to the way McAleese had established such a rapport with the electorate and all of the political parties in the Dáil that she was given a second term without a contest.

The terms of office of both Robinson and McAleese showed that it was possible for politicians with strong political views and proven records to rise above party or factional feeling once they were elected to the highest office in the land.

Like his predecessors President Higgins is popular with voters. He has carried out his public duties with a bit of style and his natural likability has won people over.

However, if the Castro episode is repeated he will have to be called to account for the way he is using his office regardless of the damaging political fallout.

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