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Michael D Higgins: ‘How many atrocities are ignored because of trade relationships? Trade should not be defeating human rights’

The President on migration, the Irish housing crisis and how he has his role ‘quite worked out’

President Michael D Higgins sits in an upstairs meeting room in the Terrou-Bi hotel in Dakar in Senegal, where he has spent the past five days on an official visit, and muses about a world to come, and whether it should be one with borders.

“We have to think about borders and states again,” he says. “The nature of the climate effect is such that it isn’t viable to be talking about borders and migratory measures in the way we did before. Everything has changed.”

Does he mean getting rid of borders? “I think it will have to be, in a way.” Higgins spoke twice at the Dakar 2 Summit on food sovereignty and resilience in Africa.

Different types of movement need to be re-examined too. “What is a calculated decision? What is an enforced decision? What is a casual decision?”


“We can’t look at those drowned in the sea ... without realising that something has gone desperately wrong,” he says.

During the week, Higgins held a series of bilateral meetings with Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, Sierra Leonean president Julius Maada Bio, and visited Senegal’s presidential palace to spend time with president and African Union chairman Macky Sall.

On Tuesday he made the boat journey to former slave-trading centre Gorée Island, an experience he describes as “very, very moving”. With him was his wife, Sabina, and minister for development and the diaspora Seán Fleming.

He first visited the African continent in 1974, and has returned multiple times, including two other visits to east and South Africa in his role as head of state, and another – which he recalls during this interview – to Somalia in 1992, during a devastating famine.

About 25 African heads of state attended the three-day food security conference, as well as ministers, diplomats, politicians, representatives of multilateral institutions and NGOs from across the continent. President Higgins was the only non-African head of state.

Last year the world Economic Forum said 278 million people in Africa – or 20 per cent of the continent’s population – suffered from chronic hunger.*

In a speech at the opening session on Wednesday, Higgins described the global food production and distribution model as “fundamentally flawed”.

“How did so many in Africa become so dependent on so few staples, the production, distribution and consumption of which they have so little control? How did the complex dependencies of global value chains develop and how are they being sustained?” he asked. “We have ... not faced the basic structural issues that influence food insecurity.”

That afternoon, he said he was “amazed” at the reaction: while there may be some differences in opinion, African presidents had been coming up to him “one by one” to say they felt his speech “was the speech that Africans wanted”.

“I think what they’re interested in is the criticism I’m making ... You can’t say the responsibility for feeding themselves is on the hungry people of the world.” He says that African governments are trying to “extricate themselves from the system” when it comes to institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, and the World Bank.

The President reiterates his criticism of multilateral institutions. “The World Bank, remember, created the problems in agriculture in Africa. It’s the World Bank who in fact argued against state public education in Africa. [They] said it should be private education, it should be there for investment.” World Bank spokespeople did not reply to a request for comment.

Regarding the United Nations, Higgins calls it “absurd” that the African continent, which “represents 17 per cent of the world’s population and 24 per cent of the young, is not represented on the Security Council” and that instead it is made up of the “victors of World War II”.

“And I think [change] will happen,” he says. Both Africa and South America “have the capacity to say ‘the voices of our continents must be heard in New York’.”

He says the UN now is involved in “the production of tired, unconvincing press comments from meetings that are not deep and too brief”.

“They come in too late. They now have very elaborate mechanisms of consultation ... and I think we need a better, more effective United Nations, and I see the energy for that coming from ... the two heavily populated continents of South America and Africa.”

He says the same can be true at meetings such as the G7: when there are discussions about the environment, food, and peace, “what becomes important is having a statement issued after an hour and a half. We are not giving time ... to the issues that are most threatening ... I think the treatment of the issues is shallow.”

President Higgins says his interest in Africa began in the late 1960s when he studied African migrations in Manchester. Later he became aware of “debt in Africa, odious debt”.

“You can’t really achieve anything of what we’ve been speaking about without dealing with the debt issue,” he says. “During the Covid crisis, for example, there were 62 developing countries that spent more on repaying debt than they did on public health.”

Unfortunately, we made an excessive reliance on the market to solve our housing situation

—  President Higgins

When asked if he feels it is morally important for him to engage with Africa in his current role as Ireland’s head of state, the president responded: “Very much so.”

“It’s absolutely essential for me, because Sabina and I are activists in relation to, let us say, climate change. And we’re activists in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals. We run occasions regularly in Áras an Uachtaráin trying to do this.”

In his first conference speech, President Higgins referenced the history of white supremacy. When asked if it still exists today, he says: “It has reduced, and reduced very significantly, but it hasn’t disappeared.” Now, he says, some of the “crudeness” might be gone and it has changed in that it is “expressed in terms of ‘otherness’.”

For example, he says, “Africa was treated very badly in relation to Covid, and you would every now and again hear people saying ‘Believe me, if you gave them the vaccines, they wouldn’t distribute them’. I find this so offensive.”

Later, he also says that he is glad a vaccine production facility is opening in Senegal, but that people who say that “certain types of intellectual property rights ... must defeat [human] rights” display “a very limited view of the world”.

As a young sociologist, Higgins says he taught the first courses in Ireland on the sociology of migration. “The social studies have a kind of inbuilt bias that the natural condition of people is to be sedentary, when in fact literally it’s quite the opposite. The unusual person is the person who hasn’t moved.”

He says eight million people left Ireland over 100 years. “The biggest gift we have to give is that we are a migrant people,” he says.

This week, he emphasised that it was important for Ireland to welcome people fleeing unsafe countries “without distinction”.

Regarding the lack of available accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees in Ireland at the moment, he says “it isn’t only a case of Ireland”. Yet, he says, “international migrants are protected under international law”.

Later, he adds that “unfortunately, we made an excessive reliance on the market to solve our housing situation”.

To Irish people living in poverty who may believe that refugees and asylum seekers are being prioritised over them, the president says: “I’d ask them to please think again about that ... My appeal is not one to selfishness, that we’ve been through this ourselves ... We have in fact actually to make our commitment to a common humanity.”

He remembers leaving secondary education and working as a clerk, while looking for scholarships to continue his studies. “There are many, many times in my life, like late at night in many cases, and I would be nearly hitting my head off the wall wondering ‘how are you getting past these difficulties?’”

He says we should define our country not just “as a community of vulnerabilities” but also “as a community of capacities ... We should set no barriers and we should put no barriers in anybody’s way.”

The President also has a message for black Irish people, who may be dealing with racism at home today. “Stay strong,” he says. “Get past it. Stay curious. And know that whatever exceptional marginal abuse will ever come near you, there’s a vast, vast majority of people dead and alive in Ireland who in fact are with you and understand your migratory experience, and want it all to work for you.”

In a broader sense, he says that one of the “biggest danger[s]” right now is the “growing realm of the unaccountable”, which allows some people to suffer while others disconnect.

“Technology that is unaccountable. Forms of investment capital that are unaccountable. People who have no connection with people who are dying today in Africa will be looking for money for their investments in relation to [them]. Forms of elite dictatorship and so on are not being questioned because people think there are trade disadvantages.”

He says the “realm of the unaccountable” shows “why democracy was never, ever, ever a finished project” and gives as an example “the military industrial complex ... The only people gaining are from war and the threat of war.”

Does he have thoughts about the treatment of people on Europe’s borders, and allegations that the European Union, and by extension the Irish Government, are implicated in crimes against humanity as part of their attempts to keep refugees and migrants off European territory? “Of course I do.”

“How many abuses and atrocities are in fact being ignored, are simply regarded as sometimes we could leave aside for the moment because of trade relationships? Trade should not be defeating human rights,” he says.

The population of Africa is expected to reach roughly 2.5 billion by 2050; it is currently about 1.4 billion. By that time, one quarter of the world’s people will be African. “When I look at Africa, all these young people ... how is all this energy to be used?”

Food and fuel prices across the continent have soared in tandem with the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Climate change is also fuelling floods and droughts, with President Higgins pointing out that sub-Saharan Africa is responsible for about 0.55 per cent of global emissions, yet nine of the 10 most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world are there. This week, he called it “tragic” and “unjust” that those who contributed the least to climate change were suffering the most from it.

He also called for this century to be “Africa’s century”.

In a 2020 speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs, Higgins said Europeans needed to reconceptionalise development models in relation to Africa. He said there was a need to move away from “programmes of aid in the past that were externally imposed, conceived of and applied without due cognisance of history and the context of Africa as a diverse, fast-changing continent”.

Asked about the work of Irish aid agencies, and whether they are in need of reform, he says: “What I think is wonderful, some of the NGOs on the ground have an ability to get quickly into the field and where the greatest urgency is.” He praises their reports as “a great source of alert in relation to what is happening”. That has the impact of increasing humanitarian aid from Ireland, he says.

“The issue is related to the structural side of it ... We can, in fact, actually all agree on the immediate humanitarian urgency, but can we do any of that if we don’t have a change in relation to international banking, in relation to the interest rates, the structure of the bonds that are available in Africa?”

Later he adds: “It isn’t a case of allowing Africa not to starve or to survive. It’s about [enabling] Africa to do new things in the world, delivering sustainability and delivering new models of economics.”

President Higgins is very critical of the global economic system. He calls the neoliberal model of capitalism “one of our biggest obstacles”.

“First of all [it] was bad economics, most people agree on that now ... but running along with it was a very, very, very strong emphasis on individualism ... I have to tell myself that we can change ... There are aspects of international capitalism that are simply obscene.”

I announced an agenda before the election: I said this is going to be a presidency of ideas. It’s going to be transformative. So people knew what they were voting for

—  President Higgins

“It has been saved several times. Saved by the welfare state, saved by innovations of the state, saved by different forms of social contract. When you look at the Oxfam figures and even in the case of Ireland ... it’s a miserable life, this life of extreme individualism.” This is a reference to figures released this month by Oxfam Ireland, which say that, since 2012, the richest 1 per cent of the Irish population have accumulated 70 times more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent.

President Higgins says he likes the programme of former student protest leader, 36-year-old Gabriel Boric, who was sworn in as Chile’s youngest ever president last year. The leftist campaigned with ideas about “burying” Chile’s market-oriented economic model, bringing in tax and mining reforms, and introducing tougher environmental regulations. “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave,” Boric pledged. He has since encountered big hurdles, including failing to get a new constitution passed by referendum.

Higgins reiterates that it is necessary to challenge unjust structures. He recalls participating on human rights-related visits to various places and “the difficulty of walking away ... We’re not tourists of the poverty of the world,” he says. “We have to be people [who] are trying to use our brain to elicit the structures and reveal them and offer other ones.”

To young activists who want to create change, he says: “Use the energy wisely but also pay due respect to those who have struggled already ... It is very important in the community of struggle for people to combine energy with listening to the people whose honourable efforts might not have been as successful.”

In terms of whether he ever says things that could overstep his mandate as president, President Higgins says: “I have it quite worked out.”

“I announced an agenda before the election: I said this is going to be a presidency of ideas. It’s going to be transformative. So people knew what they were voting for and they knew my record, which had been one very much on human rights issues, international equality and that. But also issues at home.”

Being a minister before his current role was helpful, he says, as was his past as a political scientist and a sociologist.

He says that although politicians act in consideration of their parliamentary term, “I’m taking the longer road for the whole thing, and I’m the protector of the Constitution ... It isn’t my function to decide what’s the best kind of legislation ... but my big role ... has been how I choose to represent Ireland at home and abroad.”

He says he often sees hopelessness in people’s faces. “You do not take the hopelessness out of the people’s faces by residual actions. That’s part of the responsibility and the obligation of the State ... There are times of reversal but there are many times of great achievement.”

*This article was amended on January 28th 2023 to correct an error