Higgins delivers lecture at University of Manchester two months after minor stroke

Presidents says heated Gaza debates put ‘burden’ on Ireland’s Jewish community

President Michael D Higgins, who suffered a minor stroke eight weeks ago, on Wednesday delivered a speech lasting more than one hour to a crowd of more than 500 people at the University of Manchester.

Touching on themes including the protection of academic freedom, the rights of migrants, and the need for food security and land reform in Africa, Mr Higgins delivered the inaugural John Kennedy lecture at the university, which he attended as a postgraduate in the 1960s.

Earlier, he warned world leaders that they must “grasp the nettle” of working out the borders of not just a future Palestinian state, but also the future borders of the state of Israel.

The President also decried the “heavy burden” being borne by Ireland’s Jewish community during the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza.


Mr Higgins warned that Irish Jews should not be “dragged in to” heated debates about the conflict. “They are not Netanyahu,” he said, referring to Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who has vowed to continue the war in Gaza.

“I think that [Ireland’s Jewish community] is being dragged into being asked: ‘whose side are you on?’. I think that is a very unfair burden to put on the Jewish community. I know them, I meet them,” said the President.

Speaking to reporters in Manchester on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Higgins, who recently had a “mild stroke”, said he was “delighted” with a statement issued on Tuesday by Micheál Martin, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, who was in Egypt at a border crossing into Gaza

Mr Martin said on Tuesday that Israel was imposing “unacceptable restrictions” on humanitarian aid into Gaza, and that Israel was engaging in the “collective punishment of a population for the crimes of Hamas”.

“I strongly agree with him,” said Mr Higgins. He also criticised Israel over the persistence of conditions in Gaza that have led to widespread malnutrition among children.

“If this is becoming part of a tactic of confrontation under war, that is outrageous. It is scandalous what is happening. It breaks my heart. It is clear that those who have blocked aid are responsible for the death of civilians.”

Israel has repeatedly denied that it is engaging in collective punishment of civilians, and says its aim is to destroy Hamas.

Mr Higgins suggested world leaders must make another concerted push for a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and to finally settle the borders of both nations.

“What Israeli state are we speaking about? What is it in relation to the West Bank, the Golan Heights, in relation to the approved further settlements and confiscated houses in East Jerusalem? This is the nettle that you will find leaders in Europe slow to grasp. But it will have to be grasped and it will be difficult.”

Mr Higgins revealed earlier on Wednesday in an interview in The Irish Times that he had suffered a “mild form of stroke” at the end of February, which had resulted in a week of hospitalisation. He said left him with some mobility issues on his left side, which were improving.

Further addressing the issue in his Manchester press conference on Wednesday afternoon, he said he hoped to be fully fit again “by June”. He said he had carried out almost all of his duties while receiving treatment, and had only scaled back attendance at sports fixtures.

“But I will be back pitchside again within a matter of weeks,” he said.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times