Michael D's ode to the presidency

PROFILE:  MICHAEL D HIGGINS: MICHAEL D HIGGINS has always railed against the predictable and lazy groove that people get into…

PROFILE:  MICHAEL D HIGGINS:MICHAEL D HIGGINS has always railed against the predictable and lazy groove that people get into, with no brow-furrowing or thinking required, when describing events, people or phenomena.

Take the easy-to-grab labels for Higgins himself. Poet. Intellectual. Galway West. A bit pretentious. Socialist. Once Labour firebrand. Now Labour grandee. Arts. Foreign Affairs. El Salvador, Iraq, Nicaragua. Radical. Fashionable causes. Presidential hopeful.

But then there are the things in an eventful past that rarely, if ever, get mentioned these days, and don’t just weave in so handily to the common perception of him: Clare man, farm boy, chairman of the Kevin Barry Cumann of Fianna Fáil; leading member of the Legion of Mary in Galway; diehard supporter of Galway United football club. And so on.

What is agreed between all who speak of Higgins is this: now, at the age of 70, he has reached a status where his party colleagues see him as an icon and treasure (evidenced by his victory in last Sunday’s selection convention). There is huge affection for him within the party.

He is an instantly familiar figure with first-name recognition (Michael D is as recognisable as Enda, as Bertie, as Charlie). And the slightly high-pitched voice and the accent that mixes posh with rural Clare has made him an easy target for mimics. It all adds up to a populist reach that extends beyond the confines of his party. Between now and November, he will learn if that reach is wide enough to take him to Áras an Uachtaráin.

His other great trait is passion. When Higgins became involved, there were no half-measures. He is perhaps the last of the great orators left in the Dáil, and a passionate Michael D speech is still something to behold.

But he has flaws. He can be long-winded and over the top. He doesn’t take direction or advice, preferring to rely on his own instincts. And sometimes they are not in tune with a changed political environment. And, say colleagues, he can be thin-skinned, short-tempered and too quick to rage and insult.

He has cut a mellower figure in recent times. But last year a right-wing American commentator with whom he was debating on the Right Hook show on Newstalk so enraged him that he called him a w***er live on air. It was hardly the most appropriate sound bite for an apprentice Uachtaráin na hÉireann.

Higgins, who retired as TD for Galway West earlier this year, has had ambitions for the presidency for well over a decade. When Mary Robinson’s term was coming towards an end, in 1997, his name was widely mentioned. In the event, the party reached outside for the anti-nuclear campaigner Adi Roche.

He pressed to become the party’s nominee in 2004, only to be denied. The party had just come out of a mediocre election and wasn’t flush with funds. It saw its priorities elsewhere.

HIGGINS'S CHILDHOODwas happy but pockmarked by separation, poverty and dislocation. His background was classic Fianna Fáil. His father, a Clare man working in a bar in Charleville, Co Cork, fought in the War of Independence and sided with the republican side in the Civil War. It lost him his job. The patriarch who ran the business in Charleville said of him: "When this blackguardism is over, there will be no job for him here – or anyone else for that matter."

It led to a peripatetic journey, with his own father opening a business in Limerick. But his father’s health deteriorated (alcohol was a factor), and his mother, finding it difficult to cope, had to make a heart-breaking decision. The oldest girls, who were twins, stayed in Limerick but Michael, then aged five, and his four-year-old brother, John, were sent to a farmhouse near Newmarket-on-Fergus, where they were reared by an unmarried aunt and uncle, who were loving and protective. Their mother visited every chance she got.

“It was a broken-hearted experience for my mother, who saw half her children disappear. It was loss. When I write [poetry] now there are parts of myself that were damaged by the experience,” he recalled recently.

The young Clare man moved to Galway to begin his first job, as a clerk with the ESB. He was writing articles and poetry in his spare time, and through the Legion of Mary he met a man named Redmond Corbett, who was so impressed by Higgins that he gave him a loan of £200 to allow him go to university. And so, at the age of 20, he enrolled as a mature student.

He threw himself into the role. He won scholarships; was auditor of the literary and debating society; became president of the student council; and even became chairman of the Fianna Fáil cumann at UCG.

In the late 1960s he met Noel Browne (an idol for Higgins), who asked him to join the Labour Party. “It was entirely consistent with my experience, what had happened in the State, bad housing, poverty,” he later said.

He met his wife, the actor Sabina Coyne, at a house party in Dublin. Coyne, with whom he has three grown-up children, was the most formative influence on his nascent career as a politician and academic, encouraging him, orchestrating his campaigns and strategy, and corralling overly enthusiastic flights of fancy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Higgins would have been seen as a radical but not as hard left. He wasn’t on Labour’s militant left but defend- ed that group passionately when the party was expelling its members in the late 1980s.

A few former members of the party have claimed Higgins’s ideology was tempered by opportunism, and some point to his change of tack on entering coalition. Higgins virulently opposed coalition during the 1980s, but in a very quick transformation he accepted a ministry when it was offered to him in 1992.

Be that as it may, Higgins, as Ireland’s first full minister for arts and culture, threw himself into the role. Des O’Malley said that Higgins would “go mad in government” but it did not happen. He introduced tax incentives for film, set up TG4, and hugely improved budgets for literature, theatre, dance and visual arts.

In a long career, Higgins’s other great achievements have been in foreign affairs. At a crisis meeting of Labour TDs in the early 1980s, the then leader, Frank Cluskey, noticed that Higgins was absent. When he was told that he was in the Middle East on an emergency mission, he quipped: “Trust Michael D to take the easy option. He chose saving the world over saving the Labour Party.”

And then there is his poetry. It’s often parodied by the mimics, but he has had three collections published. The academic Declan Kiberd, writing about the new State that was formed in the 1920s, said Ireland was not a place for poets. Higgins will discover in November if that also holds true for the Áras.

Curriculum Vitae

Who is he?Labour Party grandee

Why is he in the news?He has been selected as his party's candidate in presidential election

Most appealing characteristicsPassion and oratory

Least appealing characteristicsA thin skin and a quick temper

Most likely to say"Under international law, the belligerence displayed against Nicaragua is outrageous"

Least likely to say"History will remember George W Bush and Ronald Reagan with great fondness"