For someone whose life has been so very public for so long, President Michael D Higgins seems to be bearing up to the relative isolation of the pandemic remarkably well. “I go out with my dog,” he says via Zoom, “and I walk around the periphery here. I see people at the other side of the ha-ha at the edge of the Áras, and we discuss dogs at a much exaggerated social distancing.”
Unable to do public events or visit communities, he has taken to making videos to send in his stead, and has by now posted 62 of them on YouTube.
“I record pieces and some of these are quite long. The disadvantage to me is that you don’t have the audience feedback straight away. On the other hand, maybe people are listening longer. You could look at it as having more complex thoughts imposed upon them. And because this is new to me anyway, I don’t get away with the first version any more. So I have to struggle a bit to tailor pieces, which I do enjoy.”
As a sociologist and public intellectual, he has always been engaged with ideas, but the lockdown has given him a chance to dig deeper, and he seems fired with renewed enthusiasm.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time reading and writing and preparing … I wish I had decades more to write because I’m probably reading and writing more now than I have for a long while.”
He is especially passionate about the prospect for fresh thinking on the other side of this crisis. “I think it has put all of the institutional arrangements into a flux and, as a novelist would see it, it could go either way. One thing I can be quite explicit about is that it would be disastrous to seek to re-create [after the pandemic] the conditions that preceded it.”
He hopes this time the response will be different from the one that followed the banking crash of 2008. In particular he sees it as inevitable that the role of the state in society will be re-evaluated.
“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”
The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”
“I hope that the debate is adequate but I suspect that what you will see, in exactly the same way that the austerity people reinvented themselves, is that it will begin with the suggestion that it will all have to be paid for some time. With a kind of austerity Mark II.” Instead, he insists, “We’re just going to have to handle in a different way the architecture of dealing with the deficit.”
The main purpose of our conversation is to talk about the president’s Macnamh series of public reflections on the decade of centenaries, which continues on February 25th with a seminar on the role and nature of empire.
He is conscious that, while the centenaries that have largely coincided with his period in the Áras have been handled well, “this is without doubt the most difficult period”, covering as it does the contested memories of partition, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
“We started, if you like, with what were the primary symbolic events. And I was very interested in dealing with symbolic exclusions: the role of women, the role of working people; the people on the ground; the people who were split, particularly those who had come home wounded from the first World War who had to hide away.”
The potential for commemoration to bleed into and perhaps even ignite contemporary controversies was shown last year in the debacle over a proposed ceremony to mark the deaths of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the War of Independence period.
What did he make of that? “You take a person who joins the RIC because times are hard. There is a prospect of a living, of an education for the children, there are aspirations for the children to move on. Then you have 1916 and you have the particularly difficult years of 1919-1921.”
But “where I think the RIC thing went wrong is that there wasn’t sufficient attention given to the significance of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans joining the RIC. Because their positions qualitatively changed. To simply say that you were going to commemorate the RIC without having done the preparation by way of looking at it all … It was certainly well intentioned, there was no malice involved, but it was not prepared properly.”
When it comes to thinking about the centenary of partition, he emphasises the destructive role of sectarianism. “There’s a very significant omission in relation to people from diverse traditions in Northern Ireland, and that is in relation to conscience.
“It needs to be stated very clearly that if I was a person who lived my life in Belfast, and I was not Catholic, I would certainly see the form of the Irish State that was created in the 1920s as a challenge at the most basic level to conscience. It needs to be acknowledged – the imposition, not of forms of conscience or its freedom, but a suppression of conscience that took place.”
He also acknowledges that there is a difficulty in deciding “how far can you unravel the sleeve of history”. “Because if you keep pushing back, we go back to the penal laws. And then we’re back to [the peace] of Westphalia and the Thirty Years War in Europe.
“Once religion comes into it, in many ways it is a destructive influence, because it is nothing whatever to do with spirituality or the sacred or the wonder of church. Spirituality has been colonised into denominational forms that are now at war with each other ... ”
He suggests now that, oddly enough, thinking critically about the nationalist story is in some ways easier than re-examining the imperial idea. “It is easier to get a good critique going on nationalism than it is on empire. But it is important because if you don’t do it, you’re at a disadvantage in understanding contemporary xenophobia, racism and other attitudes.”
He is interested in the way “in which perceptions of the other are invoked” in the creation of, and reactions to, empire. “How do people experience strangeness and strangers? There is an explosion in intellectual thought that is associated with the Enlightenment. And I see significant parts of what followed as the Enlightenment gone wrong.
“In order to be able to sustain the violence that was unleashed in Ireland, both sides had an invoked view of the Other. Views of humiliation and indeed even fantasised humiliation were very important from the Irish side.” On the other side, “in the imperial mind set … people are lesser”.
He suggests that even working-class people in England came to accept that notion. “It’s a kind of glow that comes down from the symbolic world of empire: to suggest to people that you are part of this thing together, and we won’t say it too loudly but we’re all feeling superior.”
The question of imperial legacies is not a specifically Irish one. How does he view the current controversies in Britain and the US about memorials and statues that glorify figures from that past?
“On the statues, a sophisticated response to them in my view would be to keep them as an image of a terrible mistake: if you remove them they’re going to be put somewhere and they’ll eventually be resurrected by somebody.”
He would prefer “trying to construct a narrative of why it is that they are there” but recognises that this is not easy: “As to whether such sophistication can be possible when you have contemporary racism, I do think that’s very interesting and where I hope it will go is [the realisation] that imperialism isn’t over.”
“If I was asked to analyse the People’s Republic of China, it has many of the characteristics of empire, there’s no doubt whatsoever. So therefore you can’t say that imperialist tendencies are over. Then, it’s a different thing, but if you go through forms of hegemony in relation to the communications order … you have an instrument of domination. Whether you want to call it an empire or not, it’s just a matter of debate.”
He anticipates that, while the seminar on empire will generate “some engagement”, there will be even more on the topic of his next seminar, social class.
“The biggest difficulties I am anticipating are in relation to social class because I come on very strongly in saying that one of the weaknesses of Irish historiography is its inability to handle social class.”
He has been struck in looking at the membership of the IRA, for example, “how many of them are shop boys, how many of them were second sons or third sons” who are not going to inherit the family farm, “and then how many of those who would emigrate afterwards”.
His big regret, indeed, is that he does not have the time left to write a big book on class in Ireland. He thinks of the priest on Sunday “reading out the church collections: somebody gave £20. ‘There is a man for you’, the priest would say. And he would gather speed as he went on down the list and he would be barely audible when he came to the half crowns.”
He points even to the way, in his youth in Co Clare, there were gradations of respectability in sport: “I myself played handball and I remember its relationship to hurling. I played poor handball in Newmarket-on-Fergus. Some of the fellows had been in jail. People would say to me, more or less, it was the criminal classes and yourself were playing the game.”
This class system was formative in his own life, but so, he thinks, was the legacy of the Troubles and the Civil War. “I saw in my own work in El Salvador and elsewhere that people learn violence, and the techniques of violence.
“I remember that I was in Palestine and I was asking about prisoners’ rights. Al Fatah had prisons that had Hamas prisoners in them. They were using techniques that have been used against both of them by the Israeli authorities, but more importantly there is an additional quality that happens. There’s an upping of the violence – as happened in the Irish case.”
“People change within themselves. It’s so complicated when we come to the Civil War. My father was in the IRA and my uncle was and my aunt. My uncle Peter was involved from the very beginning but then he joins the national army [during the Treaty split]. My father spent 1923 in the Curragh. He was involved in the Cork No 2 brigade, but he continued on in the anti-Treaty side. And he was interned and had a very difficult time.
“It changes people. I don’t believe my father and my uncle ever reconciled. And I think it had an effect on all of us.”
He still betrays his anger at the way the State dealt with the personal traumas of those who had been involved in the fighting. “My father in his pensions application saying: not many will hire someone after they’ve been interned. And he would use the language of the time: ‘after I’ve been idle for a year’. Before the Civil War he had an income of £130 a year. And after being idle, as he put it, he started life all over again on £50 a year.”
“The way in which people were treated was just awful stuff altogether. After 1934, when there was a second opportunity for people who had been excluded to apply again [for a State pension], none of that was resolved until, in my father’s case, the 1960s. The letters sent out to people: the bureaucracy was having a field day. Twenty years on: ‘Can you produce your witnesses?’ ”
Losing the plot
He acknowledges that, in dealing with all of the complications of the past, there can be danger of losing the plot: “It’s easy to use words like diversity and all the rest of it but it’s about how much complexity can you take?”
Yet he has a touchstone that takes him back to his years as a TD. “I had people come into those advice centres on the Saturdays and the only thing they wanted was simply to be treated with respect, to be listened to, to be listened to by another human being. And it didn’t cost any of us anything.
“What you could do to help them might be limited in a way but – those moments of conversation at which they were equals.” It is, he says, “the same way in relation to people and differences” of historical perspective.
He returns, too, to a sense of that emotional connection in thinking about the way the country is getting through the pandemic. When he met Pope Francis during his Irish visit in 2018, the pope somehow noticed on the president’s desk something that he had written: “Why should I thank someone for quenching the music of the heart”?
“And when he sent me a card afterwards thanking me for the conversation, he said: ‘I am glad the Irish have not forgotten the music of the heart’. The music of the heart is very important in what is coming out now, and I think maybe the best of the Covid response will be driven by that.”