Mr Higgins goes to Brussels
WE’VE BOLTED from Buswells Hotel on Dublin’s Kildare Street, opposite the Dáil – too noisy and busy – and are trotting briskly down Molesworth Street when Joe Higgins slows with a heavy sigh: “Oh God, now I’ve to meet these f***in’ Greens.” Walking towards us are John Gormley and his press officer, Liam Reid, pleasant men in good times and bad – now, times are indisputably bad, in their case, writes KATHY SHERIDAN
The pale Green leader graciously extends a hand and a murmured congratulations. There’s an awkward silence while Higgins nods his head hopelessly, like a teacher confronting the same brat caught mitching again. “I saidthey’re comin’ after you, John, I toldyou, I told you nineyears ago . . .”
Afterwards, seated in the sun outside Dunne & Crescenzi’s restaurant, I ask if it would have hurt a winning politician to be nicer to one so recently mulched? The idea startles him. “But I toldhim nine years ago they were coming after him. He knows I told him . . . I told him about the Greens, that if the opportunity arose they would go into government and that they would sell out on every core principle that they claimed to believe in and I was proved absolutely right. They did. Everything. From start to finish, from American troops in Shannon to Dublin buses . . . ”
How does he think Gormley reacted to today’s scolding? “I’d say he laughed nervously,” he says brightly. You could have been more gracious, though. “Ah, he said ‘congratulations’ but sure they don’t mean a bit of it. It’s just political palavery.”
Surely a word of commiseration wouldn’t have irreparably dented your principles? “Why should I? If I betray what I believe or what I say I believe, then whatever retribution people would correctly visit on me, I would deserve. Isn’t that ABC?”
Joe Higgins is normally a courteous man. That much is evident in how he greets even the most intrusive people. He is solicitous for those around him and pours the tea, and looks for a “simple” ham and cheese sandwich (though the Dunne & Crescenzi equivalent, of Parma ham and mozzarella, is evidently appreciated). And it should be said that the Gormley scolding was no triumphalist rant. There is no complacency about his stunning win, funded with a risible budget of €28,000 (which also funded 11 Socialist party candidates in the local elections). The grave, old-fashioned air of doggedness is just as it was two weeks ago. So no champagne then? He smiles. “No champagne.” Anything? “Just a sense that this is another landmark for our work and our mission.”
It’s that rigid prioritising of purist principle over pleasantries for nearly 40 years, the unyielding pursuit of a Trotskyist, hard-left line, from the Militant faction within the Labour party onwards, that makes him an exhausting, interesting and uncommon man. It’s the fact that he attracts votes from corporate types as well as those who recently sang hymns about bringing heathen Russia “back home again”. It’s the piquant notion that a man once described as “a failed person . . . with a failed ideology” is miraculously back on top while Bertie Ahern, the one who characterised him thus, is the one forced to examine himself and his ideology.
“I’m notan unusual man,” Higgins argues, during yet another combative little exchange about efforts to delve into his formative years. “I’m a very ordinary man – nothing special, nothing grand,” he says, surprisingly quoting the words of a song.
Among the passing parade constantly leaning in to congratulate him, a smart, pinstriped D4 type reaches across with a broad smile to shake his hand: “I don’t agree with you but I’m very pleased.” Classic, says The Irish Times; not to mention contradictory. What can it all mean? Looking a tad uncertain, Higgins gives the stock line. “The reason for that was I spent 10 years in the Dáil and many of the clashes I had with the then taoiseach and government were on the issue that crashed the economy, which was the greed of the developers, speculators and big bankers, facilitated and legislated for by Fianna Fáil. People remembered this when the crash came . . . I used to talk about national ownership of the banks and they used to be falling about the place laughing in [the Dáil] – until the banks started to go wallop . . . Why are you laughing?” he asks suspiciously. Because you’ve probably said this thousands of times and somehow manage to sound freshly outraged every time. He smiles wryly: “Yes, but every time you sit down to your dinner you relish it, don’t you, even though you’ve done it a million times? It’s your meat and drink.”
And yet, it doesn’t quite address pinstripe man’s conundrum, this admiration for the man but wariness of the politics. Is pinstripe man wary because you might want to nationalise his large back garden and miniature ponies? “This is caricature, right?” he says testily. Well, what would a Socialist party world look like? “It’s a very simple idea basically . . . If resources were planned and democratically managed, there would be enough and plenty for every human being and a huge development of potential and a flowering of talent and art and everything.” It sounds a lot like Utopia. “It’s not,” he says, blaming the “structures” – capitalism, imperialism, Stalinism – for causing “the awful suffering” in the world. People have to realise their power and take democratic control over major resources, such as the banks and major industries. “We’re not talking about every fish-and-chip shop or every bed and breakfast or your front garden. That would be a caricature.” Are we talking about communism? The problem with calling it communism is that “the idea of communism” has been fatally tainted by “the totalitarian Stalinist monstrosity . . . So I never stand up and say I’m a communist”.
Would you like to? “No, I wouldn’t be hung up on words,” he says, launching into a short history of the Russian revolution, and why Stalin was not merely a totalitarian monster but a PR disaster for socialism. The argument, in short, is that socialism proper has never been properly tested.
THE PRACTICALITIES, however, remain somewhat murky. Given human nature, isn’t there every chance the same old types would slither to the top? “No. You would have much more democratic structures in society at industry level and at different levels, all coordinated, of course, so that targets locally would link with what was needed at national level.”
Would there be a supreme being? “Of course you would have an elected government or representatives who would carry the final responsibility, but they would be subject to recall and to the bodies that sent them.” Isn’t that what we have now? “No, it wouldn’t be a similar system to what we have now where a taoiseach is elected by parliament and he can do whatever he wants . . . That’s not democracy.” Under socialist rule, people who “betray” their mandate would be recalled, in some cases instantly, no ifs or buts.
Are the “workers” – defined as everyone except the “capitalist class, who are the bankers, big industrialists, all the big speculators and landowners” – ever misguided, greedy or even mildly criminal? Rarely. Ask him for any instance where he has criticised workers’ actions in the past 25 years, and he mentions Arthur Scargill’s management of the miners’ strikes in Britain.
The whole media apparatus would be taken into public ownership, with access for all shades of opinion and society, since “a press that is owned by a corporate elite is not a free press”. People’s cultural standards would be gradually raised so there would no longer be an appetite for shows such as as Big Brother, which he loathes – “putting 10 people in some house and watch them kill each other for six weeks . . . Jesus Christ.”
But is it not the working people who sustain the viewing figures? “I’m not condemning the people, not at all. I would say that the sensational is highlighted to an inordinate degree by tabloid newspapers and various forms of media and it’s unhealthy . . . I never got a chance to be taught classical music, or art – never – or languages even, which I find is a huge loss in my life. But if we then have the kind of society that’s run in a different kind of value, it means all those elements would form part of our formation so that, as we grow up, we all would have a higher cultural level, no question about that.”
Since he himself insists on living on the average, net-industrial wage – which will also apply to the Brussels job – we may assume that will be the way of the new world order. His mobile phone is about seven years old, his car is a 1992 Toyota Corolla, his home is a modest, three-bed semi on a private estate in Mulhuddart, north Co Dublin, bought in 1995 “just before the madness started”, with a mortgage that runs until he is 66 (he turned 60 this year). He cannot imagine why anyone would want anything more and insists that’s all any working person wants. Is there a pattern here of romanticising the working people? “No. Ask most people – they want an as-comfortable-as-possible life and dignity and decency for their families.” So who are the millions who play the lottery? “Yeah, I know. It’s ordinary people. I’ve bought a ticket myself every now and then . . . ” Eh? “Of course I have.”
The difference is if he won, he would “devote most of it to the cause, in one form or another”, but gets quite testy when pressed on this. “Look, this is ridiculous. My mother would always talk about the tendency of people who ‘grab’, a minority who grab, whether they be capitalists or what, and she’d say, ‘what do they want it all for? They leave it all after them.’ So I was never interested in big corn airgead, no big stacks of money. It doesn’t interest me. I like to have a decent, dignified life and once I have enough for that, that’s fine. What do I want more for? What do they want to amass their bloody hotels and homes in Barbados and Switzerland, and become tax exiles for? For what?”
The unprompted mention of his mother or anything personal is unusual. But he does concede that at 92, his mother is noteworthy for her stamina at the count. “Yeah, all the young ones were nodding off around her . . . Great woman. She was taken out of school at 12 in the 1920s and that was a bloody hard life. Jesus, the way they worked on the farm, everything was done by hand, dawn till dusk.”
HIS BACKGROUNDis small farm, rural Ireland, “50 acres arable, 50 acres bog”, in Lispole, Co Kerry. “In summer, when the young fellas in the town were going swimming after school, we’d be going home to change our clothes to go out spreading manure, bringing in the spuds, something like that.” But people were “largely equal” and the meitheals – the co-operative approach to turf-cutting and making hay – were an early lesson in how a co-operative approach to society can accomplish far more than individuals.
The Christian Brothers secondary school in Dingle had “dedicated” teachers, but nothing inspirational, he says. Yet at 17, he went straight into a seminary of the Sacred Heart missionary order. “I came up in the 1950s and 1960s. The influence of the Catholic Church was fairly all-pervasive in rural Ireland. The Catholic Truth Society and the Messenger of the Sacred Heartwere about the height of our cultural nourishment. We used to go through the fields and bogs to deliver them.” He would have been just the same at that age as the child of a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia or a Buddhist family farther east, he reckons.
After three years, he was sent to a Catholic college in Minnesota, to a campus, like many others, in liberal, anti-Vietnam ferment. “The war was a hugely formative thing in a whole generation of youth. That the church establishment was supporting that war inevitably had repercussions.” After two years, vocation left behind, degree in hand, he returned to Ireland intent on being a secondary teacher. He approached “some infamous character in UCD – a Jesuit priest”, who was in charge of the H.Dip. programme there and it quickly became evident that the hugely self-regarding Irish system would never accept an American degree. “So that priest sent me out of the room and as I was leaving, he said ‘four years of a hard night’s slog will get you there’.” This was clearly a bitterly wounding episode in Higgins’s life – a self-declared atheist now – so casually condemned to sweating his way through an unnecessary new degree in UCD as a night student.
“I had to start again and I did start again. I studied English, French and economics by day, full-time.” To pay his way, he first spent a year labouring, laying down runways and hangars at Dublin airport, then in succeeding summers, in Sydney and the US. That old doggedness again.
As a mature student of 23 in UCD, he eschewed student politics and joined the “left wing” of the Labour party where he refined his political ideology into “a more developed socialist activism . . . I rejected republicanism, the Two Nations crowd and set my course . . . I’ve stayed pretty consistent since then.”
He did finally make it into teaching, at Emmet Road and North Strand vocational schools in Dublin’s inner city and lasted three years. “The first grey hairs I got in my head were from teaching. That was tough. Very, very tough. I found I was dealing with problems that originated outside the classroom, in society. That’s why I left teaching. I was dealing with the problems of a sick society and I wanted to get to the source of those problems.”
He worked with the well-organised Militant group within Labour, helping to produce Militant’s paper, “living on a shoe string”. On the dole? He doesn’t say. “I had some savings, I was paid a basic wage, just enough to live. That’s why I couldn’t buy a house until 1995.”
Was he ever tempted to marry? Higgins has been linked with a political activist, according to an acquaintance, but the subject is ruled completely out of bounds. “I never really discuss my personal issues, that’s a firm rule. I don’t use my personal life like some politicians, parading their families around the place, including their young children, and I don’t like that. I would have a very strict delineation between what’s personal and private and what’s public and political.”
Has he made a vocation of his politics? “It’s not an obsession or a religious choice.” But is it a 24/7 occupation? “It’s demanding,” he concedes. “It can become a bit all-consuming. That’s true, no doubt about that.” For entertainment, he might watch a video or a movie. “I used to go to the movies a lot. The last one I saw was the two-part series of Che[Guevara]. When I watch television, it’s usually current affairs, maybe documentaries, or if I had time, the wildlife programmes by David Attenborough, fascinating, nature programmes. I’m aware of Coronation Streetbut I wouldn’t be following it regularly like my mother.”
He is anxious not to be portrayed as a “monk”, yet he gives nothing away, beyond a bland reference to enjoying travel – primarily for work purposes to Sri Lanka and Latin America – over the years. Golf? “Oh God no. My late brother Liam brought me to a golf course once in west Kerry and after about five holes, I just couldn’t see the point of it.”
Liam was one of the brothers who famously played football for Kerry. “He had two All-Irelands for Kerry, he was a teacher in Dingle, a commentator on Raidió na Gaeltachta and then on Radio Kerry sports for years. Everybody in Kerry and in GAA would have known him.”
Liam died two years ago from oesophageal cancer. Asked were they close, the answer is classic Joe Higgins. “Yeah, you know . . . I liked him. We didn’t have a massive . . . He was a very interesting guy. He was a great conversationalist, general knowledge; he was a very popular man.”
Of his eight siblings, three have died tragically, two of them aged only 35 and 37. “My younger brother died from alcohol-related disease. My sister’s death is a mystery, maybe a brain haemorrhage, but we never discovered what happened her. She was a very young mother.”
By now, the sun has disappeared and it has grown cold when a woman approaches our table and proceeds to outline, at great length, her organisation’s particular problems. He listens respectfully, rummaging through his bag for a card with his e-mail address.
With an eye on a Dáil seat, Brussels or Dublin or the nature of the query will make no difference to Joe Higgins. “I’m a nervous flyer, but it will have to be done.”