President Michael D Higgins: four years in

Weekend Read: Michael D’s public success, popular touch and work rate have confounded sceptics who doubted if a 74-year-old with a bad knee could do the job. But behind the scenes are episodes of tetchiness, a high staff turnover, and tension between the President and Government officials

It was a Friday afternoon, two days before Michael D Higgins’s visit to France in February 2013. At Áras an Uachtaráin, in Dublin, and the Irish Embassy in Paris, officials were in regular contact as they put final touches to the President’s tightly choreographed trip.

With the schedule nailed down, speeches ready and Monday’s meeting with President François Hollande at the Élysée Palace confirmed, staff felt that they could wind down for the weekend.

Then Le Monde published a story online. The wide-ranging interview with Higgins, conducted by telephone earlier that week, was a glowing tribute to "Ireland's poet-president", praising his erudition and moral courage in challenging conventional thinking.

But the officials’ eyes were drawn to one line in particular. Arguing that European leaders had forgotten the EU’s social dimension in favour of a “destructive technocracy”, Higgins went on: “We’re suffering from an irrational bureaucratic nightmare. There is an absence of moral courage in Europe.”

The interviewer followed up: was his remark aimed at Hollande and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor? "I would not deny that analysis," Higgins was quoted as saying.

Irish officials were alarmed. Since his election, in May 2012, Hollande had become one of Ireland’s most influential allies in the euro zone. The last thing the Government wanted was to annoy him on the eve of an official visit.

The article was immediately emailed to Iveagh House and the Áras, where staff began to pore over it. Some believed Higgins’s point had been lost in transmission. Others argued that it was simply “Michael D being Michael D”, as one source puts it.

After all, his point was intellectually consistent. Since the 1970s Higgins had been critical of a drift away from the “social Europe” long cherished by the left. To argue that there was a lack of moral courage in Europe while absolving its two most powerful leaders, notwithstanding his admiration for them, would have made no sense.

Officials also knew that the President wasn’t always averse to seeing the mandarins at the Department of Foreign Affairs in a flap.

According to a senior French source, Irish officials spent the weekend working the phones to Paris. At one point the message was relayed discreetly to Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, who had a direct line to Hollande: no offence was intended.

The French side brushed it off, and the incident was quickly forgotten. At their Monday meeting Hollande and Higgins hit it off. Their exchange ran for twice as long as scheduled, and when he emerged into the Élysée’s sunlit courtyard to speak to journalists afterwards Higgins was clearly pleased. “It went very, very well,” he declared.

But it wasn't the first or the last moment of tension between the Higgins presidency and the Government.

Fourth anniversary
Next Wednesday will be the fourth anniversary of Michael D Higgins's inauguration as the ninth president of Ireland. Since November 2011 he has made 32 foreign trips, signed 192 Acts into law, received almost 50,000 guests at the Áras and paid hundreds of visits to communities in almost every county of Ireland, including 15 visits to Northern Ireland.

In the process Higgins has confounded sceptics who doubted that a 74-year-old with a bad knee could withstand the physical rigours of a role whose scope had expanded greatly in the past 25 years.

He has ticked off each of his campaign pledges, including initiatives on ethics and “being young and Irish”, while avoiding serious controversy and emerging as the most prominent critical voice against prevailing social and economic orthodoxies.

Higgins is also very popular. When he arrived at the National Concert Hall for a gig by the traditional group The Gloaming last February, spontaneous applause broke out in the foyer. For any other politician the scene would have been unthinkable.

Staff new to the backroom operation at Áras an Uachtaráin are sometimes surprised by how small and quiet it is. The President works in a book-lined ground-floor study adjacent to two offices occupied by his private staff. Upstairs is the secretariat, where about 20 civil servants run the well-oiled machine that keeps the presidency ticking along.

Then there are the household staff, some of whom have swipe-card access to the private residence (known to insiders as the west wing), and about 10 uniformed gardaí who are posted around the complex. Even with gardening and maintenance staff included, fewer than 50 people could be in the vast, 95-room building on a typical day.

The presidency's position in the constitutional landscape – pivotal yet at a remove – is reflected in its physical location, surrounded by parkland in the Phoenix Park, central but set apart.

Not a smooth transition
The transition to the Higgins presidency did not always go smoothly in the early days. Over the 14 years that Mary McAleese spent as head of state, the staff had built up a strong rapport with her, her husband, Martin, and their three children, Emma, Justin and Sara Mai.

McAleese knew the household staff and their families, and would make a point of marking milestones in their lives. Her cheerful, informal style set the tone for the place, and everyone from protocol to catering staff knew how she wanted things done.

The arrival of a new president after almost a decade and a half unsettled many. The secretariat had always been close knit but prone to backbiting; now people were jostling for position, unsure of their place in the new order. “Everyone felt insecure,” says one insider.

Higgins himself found it a difficult adjustment, according to multiple informed sources. Having had almost total autonomy to say and do as he pleased in what he calls his “previous life”, he now found his freedom severely curtailed.

Every minute of his day was planned. Protocol officers would instruct him to stand on a particular twirl in the carpet when greeting guests. His security team needed notice if he wanted to go for a walk. He missed Galway, and his settling in was delayed by a knee operation a month after the election.

It didn’t help that, like many politicians, Higgins can be irascible. He had inherited a year-long diary of presidential engagements that he hadn’t chosen himself. At times he seemed to distrust the Civil Service, and would dress down his own staff or officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs in front of colleagues, sources say.

For protocol officers the rehearsal before every major event at the Áras could be particularly tense, with even the position of the furniture enough to set off a row.

“There was inevitably a transition period where a process of accommodation was required, some settling down. There may have been some tensions that went with that,” says one source.

“It was awful,” says a second source.

“Extremely difficult”, says a third.

“Morale was low,” says a fourth.

The Áras did not wish to comment on these accounts.

You need your own people
One of the unusual features of the transition was that Higgins did not bring his own staff with him. Some close observers think that was a mistake. McAleese and Mary Robinson had confidantes at their sides, people who knew their bosses' minds and were trusted to take decisions and push the agenda.

The presidency is a “very, very lonely job. It really is,” says one source. “It’s a goldfish bowl at one level. Everything you do is noticed. But it’s very isolated. You have a Civil Service, and they work very hard, but they are civil servants. They think differently. You need your own people.”

Higgins did bring in Kevin McCarthy, his driver on the election campaign, as executive assistant. Wally Young, who had served under McAleese, stayed on as media adviser. Several months into 2012 Higgins hired three key staff: the development specialist Mary van Lieshout as adviser; the former RTÉ press officer Sarah Martin as communications manager; and Ray Treacy, a civil servant, as head of speechwriting.

In the early years of the presidency the “inner core” management team consisted of van Lieshout; Young; Martin; Adrian O’Neill, Higgins’s secretary general; and O’Neill’s deputy, Loughlin Quinn. McCarthy was not in the group, but he was, and remains, influential.

In addition to his routine tasks, such as managing private correspondence, McCarthy is seen by some staff as the President’s eyes and ears in the building. He is the only staff member who dines not in the staff kitchen but with the President and Sabina Higgins in the breakfast room in the household quarters, according to one insider. His office, along with that of Higgins’s private secretary, is next to the President’s study.

McCarthy’s position has caused some resentment, especially among Áras veterans. But others admire his workrate and level-headedness. “My view of Kevin is entirely benign and positive,” says one source. “He’s very, very good at keeping Michael D calm.”

McCarthy is a former Labour Party activist and cousin of the Labour TD Michael McCarthy, for whom he worked as parliamentary assistant for many years. When Higgins began campaigning for the presidential Labour nomination in 2011 Kevin McCarthy had by that stage left his job in the Oireachtas and would have known Higgins, given the proximity of his office to Michael McCarthy's in Leinster House. He volunteered to drive the candidate around Ireland in his Volkswagen Golf.

According to an often-told story, McCarthy once stopped the car in the middle of a heated discussion between Michael D and Sabina, saying he wouldn't go another mile until they calmed down.

Staff churn
Whereas Presidents Robinson and McAleese retained the same core staff for each seven-year term, staff turnover since Higgins came to office has brought big changes at the Áras.

Treacy left after just six months in the job. O’Neill and Quinn departed after Higgins’s successful state visit to the UK in April 2014. Martin left last month, and Young is due to depart this month. Two members of the household staff have also moved on.

Van Lieshout quit in November 2013, after less than two years at the Áras. The Sunday Times reported claims that part of the reason for her departure was that she found it increasingly difficult to gain access to the President without going through McCarthy. The Irish Times cited a source who said the story was "100 per cent not right".

The controversy abated when van Lieshout issued a statement saying that she had left on "very amicable terms with everyone" and that she had gone to pursue other interests. Her statement did not specifically deny any claims in the Sunday Times report.

Taken together, the changes mean that all members of the original senior management team have been replaced. O'Neill and Quinn were succeeded by Art O'Leary, formerly secretary to the Convention on the Constitution, and the civil servant Conor Ó Raghallaigh. Liam Herrick, former head of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, is the President's adviser, and the aid specialist Hans Zomer is expected soon to take up a new position as head of communications, a merger of the roles held by Martin and Young.

Higgins's current head of speechwriting is Aziliz Gouez, a French academic and researcher. Another official, Deirdre Nally, also writes scripts.

Tensions behind the scenes have contrasted with the success of the President’s public performance. Michael D and Sabina are greeted with warmth wherever they go, and close observers say they have hit their stride in the past 18 months.

Sabina, whose recent engagements have included a visit to Roma women and readings in public libraries, has carved out a role for herself and is a constant supporter of her husband.

Michael D has tried to maintain as normal a life as possible. He goes to the ATM once a week, gets his hair cut in town and has been known to pop into the Irish Film Institute for coffee. He speaks to friends regularly and tries to make it to Dalymount or Richmond Park on a Friday night for some League of Ireland soccer, a long-time passion.

With the passing years, the Áras believes, his themes and ideas are increasingly gaining traction in public discussion, and he is making good on his vision for a "presidency of ideas".

A presidency of ideas

Those ideas, set out in hundreds of speeches, are familiar to anyone who has followed Higgins's career. One theme is that the roots of Ireland's economic collapse go much deeper than failed policies; they are the result of the assumptions that underpin our approach to fundamental questions of the State and society.

Recent years saw the rise of a strain of individualism that “tended to value the worth of a person in terms of the accumulation of wealth rather than their fundamental dignity”, Higgins said in his inauguration speech: “Now it is time to turn to an older wisdom that, while respecting material comfort and security as a basic right of all, also recognises that many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured.”

It is a progressive and essentially optimistic critique. Higgins returns constantly to the idea of a “sustainable social economy”, a society that is “ethical and inclusive”, one that allows creativity to flower.

In speeches that range across history, literature, economics and sociology, and demonstrate a close reading of the latest work in a range of fields, Higgins has spoken passionately on Irishness, ethics, the diaspora, the future of the European Union and human rights.

To the exasperation of some Government officials, his message can be almost identical in private.

At one meeting with a foreign business leader, according to a source, Higgins dutifully conveyed an agreed talking point about a credit-rating agency having upgraded Ireland, but he then went off script to say he personally disagreed with the methodology employed and had a principled problem with the rating agencies themselves. (In public he has criticised them as overly powerful and undemocratic.)

"It's like the Father Ted 'Song for Europe' episode," says the source. "You're thinking, Just say the f**king line."

The same official says that, on the international stage, Higgins can be especially strong on issues he is passionate about, and his strengths can open doors for Irish agencies while generating goodwill for the country. He is less comfortable at business events, says the official, particularly when he is asked to trot out the Government message about the recovery.

Although the internal tensions of the presidency’s early years appear to have eased, interviews with 16 well-placed sources suggest that relationships can still feel strained. Higgins can be generous but also tetchy, says one, particularly when he feels that officials are trying to make him do or say something he is uncomfortable with.

“He can be terribly charming, witty and great company, but he can be desperate when he feels cornered or he feels you’re not doing enough.”

Challenging speeches

Higgins's academic speeches can be brilliant but also dense and challenging. "He doesn't couch it in language that people can get. It's very difficult to read his speeches, for example, without a reference book at your elbow," says one strategist.

He is liable to wrap straightforward ideas in sentences like this: “In combining the tasks of conscientisation with a commitment to original thought and compassionate and emancipatory scholarship and teaching, public intellectuals can help bridge the space to that Utopia and its praxis that we all, as vulnerable inhabitants of our fragile planet, need.”

Higgins is also capable of moving and inspiring an audience. The short, elegant address he gave at a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth during the State visit in 2014 was widely praised. He has received rapturous receptions at the European Parliament, the Sorbonne, the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa and, in September, at the United Nations in New York, to name just a few examples.

“He made a very passionate intervention in New York, and they loved it. He did us proud,” says an official, referring to the president’s speech on development aid.

At a graduation ceremony at the University of Liverpool in July, in front of hundreds of families, Higgins judged the mood perfectly with a speech that recalled that he was the first member of his family to go to university. (He enrolled in University College Galway as a mature student after growing up in poverty in Co Clare.)

Crossing a line

What little criticism has been publicly aired about Higgins falls into two categories: those who disagree with his views and those who believe that his comments on current issues cross a line.

David Quinn of the Iona Institute has called Higgins "the most obviously political president we have had so far" and taken issue with a number of his comments.

The journalist Dan O’Brien, accusing Higgins of becoming “increasingly political and partisan”, cited a speech in which he “extolled left-of-centre thinkers” and “implicitly traduced” non-leftists.

The Constitution gives the head of state considerable room for manoeuvre in what he says and how he says it. It’s impossible not to read Higgins’s comments on issues such as privatisation, homelessness or the importance of learning history, for example, against the background of current debates. Still, insiders say that he takes great care not to intrude on Government policy.

The President has given an example: if there were legislation in relation to the minimum wage, for example, he would not comment on it. “But I can and do feel free to speak about poverty, inequality, mental health and so on.”

Higgins is unapologetic about putting forward his own views, pointing out that he received more than a million votes – more than any previous president – and was upfront about the presidency he envisaged.

“What would be very inauthentic would be if you said, ‘I must now have no opinions.’ I do, and they’re very strong opinions at times,” he told in 2012. “It’s a matter of respecting the dignity of the office and the appropriateness of the office.”

It can be a thin line. Government Ministers were alarmed when, on a visit to London in February 2012, Higgins commented on the possibility of summoning the Council of State if the Government proceeded to ratify the fiscal treaty by legislation rather than by referendum.

There was fury in Government Buildings in November 2012 when, in the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s death, Higgins, reflecting the public mood, said his wish was “that there be some form of investigation which meets the needs of the concerned public and meets the needs of the family and meets the need of the State”. (At the time the Government had set itself firmly against a public inquiry.)

Yet the Government has never complained to the Áras about anything Higgins has said. The explanation is partly practical, says one source: for years the Government was firefighting to contain an economic crisis, and it had bigger problems on its agenda.

It also helped that Labour was in government. Its Ministers were more relaxed about Higgins’s utterances, which often happened to tally with what they were saying behind closed doors.

One insider explains the thinking as follows: a comment from the President "will get page 6 of The Irish Times. It'll be fine. It'll just be Michael D being Michael D. Whereas if we make a big Haughey v Robinson thing about it, then it's going to be much more controversial and draw much more notice to the point he's making."

Donncha O'Connell, a law professor at NUI Galway and a friend of Higgins, says that there are some constitutional restrictions on the President, such as the right to address the joint houses of the Oireachtas or to travel overseas. But there are "certainly no bright lines in the Constitution that are crossed every time the President utters an opinion on something that is mildly controversial".

O’Connell believes that Higgins has made good on his commitment to put ideas at the heart of his presidency and says that he has been very careful to avoid partisanship.

O’Connell also disagrees with the suggestion that Higgins’s speeches can be inaccessible. “One of the difficulties in modern public discourse is that if you engage at any level of seriousness, and you move into any level of complexity, you’re going to be criticised for losing clarity in your message.”

On this the Áras is encouraged by the public reception – not least among young people, who seem to admire Higgins’s authenticity, one of his allies suggests. “I think there is a real appetite out there for what he is trying to do.”

A second term?

With Higgins having passed the halfway point of his seven-year term, reporters have begun to ask about the possibility of a second term. In the US last month he said that his answer was "neither a yes nor a no" and that he would address the issue "in the fullness of time, when it's appropriate".

It’s a topic of conversation among staff at the Áras, says one source, but so far colleagues have been given no inkling of his thinking.

Higgins is a sociologist, a political scientist, a poet and a public intellectual, but he is also a veteran politician who knows how to win elections. He will be well aware that it makes sense to keep people guessing, according to one former colleague.

If Higgins is tempted by a second term, “it’s in his interest to say little for as long as possible, because as soon as he says he’s running again, parties have to make decisions about whether to challenge him. So the longer he strings it out the better.”

During the 2011 campaign Higgins indicated that he would not seek a second term. At his final press conference before polling day, however, as the public mood clearly moved in his favour, a reporter put the question one last time.

The candidate paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “One can never predict the love of the people,” he replied.