BIOGRAPHY:Former senator, TD and now President, Michael D Higgins has travelled a long and hard road and transcended political differences during more than 40 years in public life
PICTURE THIS: a smoke-filled county council chamber on a Friday afternoon in Galway. The year is 1984, and US president Ronald Reagan has been invited to Ireland.
A Labour Party councillor takes to the floor to speak with passion about his opposition to the visit, about Reagan’s arming of Contras in Nicaragua, about the evils of US imperialism.
A south Galway colleague slipping out of the chamber pauses momentarily at the press bench. “I haven’t an effin’ clue what he’s talking about,” the councillor whispers to the journalists. “But, feck it, it sounds absolutely brilliant!”
Whether it was rural representatives with local roadworks on their minds, or half a dozen residents debating a planning application on a wet winter’s night, no issue was ever too small for that councillor, the future President Michael D Higgins.
Nor was he ever afraid of making his views known during more than 40 years in public life – be it on the political landscape in El Salvador, the blockade of Gaza or fish farming in south Connemara.
It explains why there’s a mixed sense of both celebration and loss in his home city at his elevation now – a loss expressed over recent days by party colleagues such as NUI Galway lecturer Donncha O’Connell and former Irish Film Board chairwoman Lelia Doolan.
"One of our finest citizens has become first citizen," Doolan says. "He has new responsibilities, but one hopes he won't lose his wiseness, and his sense of madness, and his unmistakeable wit . . . and it is in his character to be resilient." Michael Daniel Higgins's resilience was tested early, as he has documented in his poetry and in his book, Causes for Concern(Lilliput, 2007).
Born in Limerick in 1941, he was sent at the age of five, with his brother, in a black Ford 8 car (he even remembers the registration plate, IE 3283) to live with his unmarried uncle and aunt on a small farm in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare.
His father, an intelligence officer for a north Cork IRA battalion during the War of Independence, had taken the republican anti-Treaty side during the Civil War. His health suffered, he was unable to get work, and he was hospitalised and never recovered. The two young boys saw their parents and two sisters on sporadic trips to Limerick.
Higgins would often quote Seán O’Casey’s belief later that poverty was a disease that got into a man’s bones. “And no matter what that man becomes afterwards, it never leaves him,” he told Irish Times western correspondent Michael Finlan in April 1978.
He has credited his teacher William Clune at Ballycar National School, Co Clare, with being a formative influence. “He knew the names of plants and bushes in Latin, Irish and English and, on sunny days, he would take the whole school to the top of a hill to show them the history of the local area. He had an integrated approach to everything before that word was invented,” Higgins has written.
After secondary school in St Flannan’s College, Ennis, Higgins worked in a factory at the Shannon industrial estate before he was called on January 6th, 1961, to a grade eight clerk post with the ESB in Galway.
“St Walburgas” was the name of his first digs in the city, and though he was not familiar with the saint, he wrote of how he “came to admire the particular cultural contribution that the Galway landladies made to Irish life”.
His home from home was with the O’Connor family where, he said, he was “influenced, protected and tolerated”.
After two years in his post, an ESB colleague gave him £200 to study at University College, Galway (now NUI Galway), where he became chairman of the Fianna Fáil cumann before a meeting with former health minister Dr Noel Browne convinced him Labour was his natural home.
He took commerce and economics for one degree, took English literature and language and sociology for another, and studied at both Indiana and Manchester universities before returning home to teach at third level. What influenced his move into politics – more than anything he read – was, he said, “the waste of humanity that accrues from stopping people from developing their potential”.
His first of several bids for a Dáil seat was in 1969 – the year when he and others assisted in reviving the Labour Party, initially in Tuam, where it had always been active, and also the year when he met Mayo-born actor Sabina Coyne at a party in Dublin hosted by journalist Mary Kenny. The couple married five years later, and had four children – Alice Mary, twins John and Michael jnr, and Daniel.
In 1981 he was finally elected a Labour TD, and held his seat in the February 1982 election, but lost it in November of that year – when he was also defeated in his bid for Labour Party leadership by Kerryman Dick Spring. In 1982, he opposed the eighth amendment Bill which sought to formally recognise the rights of the unborn in the Constitution, and was then targeted by conservative groups who distributed thousands of leaflets in Galway West with names of candidates who were “sound on abortion”, and omitting names of those who were not.
He was twice mayor of Galway, and became a senator twice – on the university panel and (in the 1970s) as nominee of Fine Gael taoiseach Liam Cosgrave.
He began writing a column for Hot Pressmagazine in 1983, and made his mark on international social justice issues during the 1980s for his opposition to the Reagan visit.
He lobbied for the establishment of an Oireachtas foreign policy committee, became one of its long-standing members, and among the observer trips abroad he made were Nicaragua, Chile, Cambodia, El Salvador and Iraq. In the latter case he and colleagues including Fianna Fáil foreign minister David Andrews and Fine Gael’s Paul Bradford lobbied for the release of 36 Irish Parc staff held hostage by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Also in 1990 he was central to hosting the visit of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, which included a trip to Galway where then bishop Eamon Casey hosted a meal and sang a song – reciprocated by a poem which Ortega recited.
He went to Somalia with then president Mary Robinson in 1992, and that year was also first recipient of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize awarded by the International Peace Bureau in Finland.
At local level, he made an early commitment to social issues such as inadequate housing in the Rahoon flats, and had a passion for the arts. In 1985, when then Galway mayor Bridie O’Flaherty criticised a nude scene in an arts festival play staged by the Spanish troupe Els Comediants, he countered that she had “no mandate” to “drag us all back into the Dark Ages beyond censorship”.
In Labour, he was always on the more radical wing. In June 1984, the senator and then party chairman had spoken publicly of his party’s need to oppose the growth of the “enormous conservative force that is Fine Gael”. The biggest threat to Labour nationally was the “personality cult” built around then Fine Gael leader Garret FitzGerald, Higgins said.
“The Labour Party – even within the government – must make every effort to blow this opportunistic personality cult out of the ground,” he said, and noted that “personality politics” had evolved to the point where there were “two demons”, Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey and FitzGerald, competing with each other in the “guise of angels”.
“One of them is supposed to have lost his right to heaven through pride,” he told Michael Finlan, and “the other acts as though heaven was the exclusive property of himself and his party”.
He had to temper his views on Fine Gael after he was returned to the Dáil in 1987. He was appointed the first minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht in the 1993 coalition with Fianna Fáil, and retained the post in the subsequent coalition with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.
At his welcome home party in Galway he was greeted with a new Saw Doctors number written by Leo Moran, a former sociology student of his, entitled Michael D Rocking in the Dáil.
He defied the forecast by Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley that he would “go mad” in government. He repealed the section 31 Broadcasting Act restriction, established the first Irish language television station, Teilifís na Gaeilge – though it gained him only two extra votes in several Connemara Gaeltacht boxes in a subsequent election – and made attempts to challenge elitist attitudes to the Irish language by what he called the Brístí Breidín (tweed underpants) brigade.
He promoted the film industry, luring the producers of Braveheartto Ireland, and he acquired Collins Barracks for the National Museum of Ireland. In opposition, he was on several Dáil committees, succeeded Proinsias De Rossa as Labour Party president in 2003, and became party spokesman on foreign affairs in 2007.
He marched in Dublin against the Iraq war in 2003, and after the jailing of the Rossport Five in 2005 his sense of justice, and concern for the environment, led him to support members of that community opposed on health and safety grounds to the Corrib gas project – travelling with them to meet Corrib shareholder Statoil and oil/gas trade union leaders in Norway in 2008.
During that time, he maintained links which transcended political differences – to the extent that non-Labour members of the business community supported his recent campaign fundraisers. He attended matches and was president of Galway United Football Club, made films about Noel Browne and Montserrat in the Caribbean, sought to unite the Galway arts community during attempts to establish an alternative arts festival in 2006, supported multicultural education, and criticised developer-led visions of Galway which threatened the right to public space.
However, there were hiccups, such as rifts within Labour over councillor Catherine Connolly’s decision to run as an independent when she failed to secure a nomination to stand as his running mate in the 2007 general election.
He did not stand in the general election this year, but his successor Derek Nolan topped the Galway West poll.
His campaign to become president began decades ago, according to some family members, or at least as far back as 1990, according to some colleagues. In 2004, then Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte rejected his nomination bid on the basis that incumbent Mary McAleese was unbeatable. Former party handler Fergus Finlay, who stood against him for a party nomination, wrote warmly of his success late last month in the Irish Examiner.
Last year he smashed his kneecap during a fall in Colombia, but managed to make a joke of it during his election campaign. His campaign ideals had already been outlined in his last Dáil speech of January 25th, 2011, when he spoke of a need to renew the Republic and establish “a floor of citizenship below which people would not be allowed to fall”.