Higgins bemoans `key issues' debate


The senior Labour deputy and Galway West TD, Mr Michael D. Higgins, has expressed concern about the emergence of an intolerant "neo-liberal right" which refuses to allow debate on key socio-economic issues.

"I consume, therefore I am" appears to be the message of this new thrusting young Ireland, as reflected in statements from certain Government ministers and high-profile economists, he says.

The absolutist approach adopted by these economists is similar to that once associated with the Catholic Church - "except that it is far more difficult to criticise", Mr Higgins, former Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, has said.

Mr Higgins made his comments in an interview with The Irish Times during a week when he differed with his party leader, Mr Ruairi Quinn, on deregulation of taxis. His opposition to the move is not an isolated stance in his constituency: Galway Corporation voted unanimously last week in favour of a Labour party proposal calling on the Minister of State for the Environment, Mr Bobby Molloy, to review his decision in relation to his home city.

Mr Higgins leaves the country later this week to visit Iraq as part of an Oireachtas foreign affairs committee delegation. The visit was planned following representations to the committee by former UN assistant secretary-general and co-ordinator of the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq, Mr Denis Halliday, and his successor.

Mr Halliday resigned in late 1998 in protest at the detrimental effects of sanctions on Iraqi civilians, and the abuse of the oil-for-food programme, under which oil is exported to purchase humanitarian supplies.

Mr Higgins is disappointed at the Government's weak response to the case made by Mr Halliday. Ireland should also be far more active at international level over the no-fly zone imposed on Iraq by Britain and the US, which is not sustainable, he has said.

"We have heard that 1.5 million have died among the civilian population - more than half of them children - since the sanctions were first imposed," he said. There are also disturbing reports about the health risks posed by enriched material after the war.

"There is an immense moral and legal issue here that also arises in relation to Kosovo - the degree to which you can use the civilian population for the prosecution of sanctions for military activity. The Geneva Convention which protects civilians would appear to be being flouted in both cases."

Mr Higgins said he had raised this with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, who had referred him to the non-compliance of Saddam Hussein with the UN resolution. "The point is I do not support the ideology and politics of Saddam Hussein, and in the 1980s I raised the issue of his actions against the Kurdish population. But the oil-for-food programme is being abused."

He travels at a time when his clinics in his home constituency are as busy as ever - with housing being the most serious issue affecting his Galway West supporters. He has long held that one doesn't have to choose between investigating human rights issues abroad and a humanitarian approach at home, and is not in the least bit put out by a recent TG4/MRBI poll of electors in Galway West, which indicated that he could face a battle for the fifth seat.

Contenders include Senator Margaret Cox of Fianna Fail, hoping to take a third seat for that party in the five-seater, and the MRBI commentary also identified Connacht-Ulster MEP Ms Dana Rosemary Scallon as a potential winner, should she declare, though she recorded 5 per cent in first preferences in the poll. Mr Higgins recorded 11 per cent in first preferences - a 1 per cent improvement on the 1997 general election vote - in a sample ballot paper including Ms Scallon, and 12 per cent on a ballot paper without her.

The Labour Party's housing policy recommends that every local authority should have a land bank, he says. It also calls for a national housing authority to initiate adequate design and facilities, and to upgrade the existing stock built before the 1970s, including the environment of those estates.

"People have watched on and allowed the housing crisis to develop, and it has also completely dislodged the economy. Returned emigrants can't come home now. And having capped wages with the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, they allow house prices to escalate. The downside is that you now have people working from the crack of dawn to the dark of night.

"It is having an effect on families, on neighbourhoods, on social life - in a word, it is as deeply destructive to social cohesion as you could possibly want to be." This was the "sheer force" of the recent series on health written in this newspaper by Maeve-Ann Wren and Dr Muiris Houston, he says.

The Government's increase in capital spending on health is "not enough", and his party believes there should be a single integrated health insurance system - under which the State would cover those who did not have the capacity to buy into it.

A similar lack of debate can be identified in other areas, he says. "There is an extraordinary distrust of the public," he says, referring to the Taoiseach's decision not to fulfil his promise to hold a referendum on Partnership for Peace. A similar "arrogance" was displayed in signing up to the European rapid reaction force, he says.

"There seems to be an extraordinary inability to initiate debate on this," he says. "Why do we have such a low opinion of the public that we can't have public discussion? I am not arguing for some kind of inactive position, whereby if there is genocide taking place over the Border I shouldn't be interested. I do not subscribe to that."

His record on human rights is testimony to this, having campaigned in many parts of the world, including East Timor, Turkey, Gaza and the West Bank and Nicaragua. He was first recipient of the Sean MacBride Peace Prize of the International Bureau in Helsinki, Finland, in 1992.

Since his first involvement in politics in 1969, the most important factor was the quality of debate, he says. "Now there is a contraction of capacity to discuss these issues," he says. The voluntary sector, which is so vital in terms of stimulating debate, is in complete crisis, and people are "on a treadmill that is not of their making".

The new-right economists want to roll back the State, but selectively "from any kind of egalitarian intent", he says. "What they don't say is that they are not in favour of rolling back the State from subventing industry, foreign and native, through export grants, training grants, remission from corporation tax, capital gains tax. They are in favour of the grab-out State."

He says he is disappointed sometimes in "the rage I don't see coming from the academy", referring to fellow intellectuals. If social cohesion is allowed to disintegrate, Ireland could reach a point "where the economy no longer has any connection with politics, and gradually neither politics nor economy has any connection with public morality". Deregulation, whether of taxis or any other industry, is an example of this. "I believe if we don't regulate, we will have a kind of jungle economy."