President Higgins critical of those ‘setting their face against tax’

Higgins cautions on essential services being political football ahead of general election

President Michael D Higgins has questioned the emphasis being placed on tax cuts by political parties during an interview with Patsy McGarry on the eve of the general election campaign. Video: Bryan O'Brien


President Michael D Higgins has warned that essential services must not become a political football in the general election campaign.

Asked about the ethics of politicians once again promising to cut taxes and increase public spending he replied: “I can’t obviously comment on the platforms of the parties that will contest the election”, but he asked “is it possible to have a decent society and at the same time continue to lower taxes for the purposes of securing the best short term benefit?”

He continued “people setting their face against tax and using the language that regards it as inevitably a great burden, I’m afraid represents a view of the world that is one that I think really can engage with what we are speaking about in the ethics initiative.”

It was not “only a matter of the political parties. You must ask yourself about the state of consciousness in the public,” he said. “Thinking ethically means thinking about long term consequences as (opposed)to short term benefit or opportunities. But there is a work to be done. Ireland is not an egalitarian society yet,” he said.

President Higgins was speaking to The Irish Times at Áras an Uachtaráin yesterday after launching his report on The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, which he began in 2013.

He described as “great failures of an ethical kind” events leading to the recession in Ireland, with “a number of breaches of trust”. There had been “great failures in professions that had the privilege of being self-regulating . . . It’s right across the spectrum. I think then you have those who were given statutory responsibility. I don’t think there can be any doubt whatsoever that there were very serious lapses there.”

He was also critical of “sections of the media indeed, who spoke about the bubble which was there and regarded every expansion of it as a success”.

It was important “to not just analyse that bad chapter, a decade from which we’ve come, but to actually identify the assumptions we made”.

The good news was that “the public want to get to a new place, and they want to get there ethically. But sometimes they are contradicted because they are being offered short term advantages for themselves which are, if you like, contradicting the best of their social aspirations”.

His strongest words on the recent banking crash were reserved for the European Central Bank.

“How could anybody listen to the debate that has gone on about Mr Trichet’s role in the Irish case without being concerned?” he asked.

“The ECB did not behave in a satisfactory way. I think there are structural problems about the ECB in relation to its single measures. For example, if you have as one guiding principle, the keeping of inflation below two per cent, any serious economic planner would ask you the question ‘has any central bank in the history of the world reduced unemployment or addressed poverty with a single instrument?’ The answer is of course no,” he said.

As well as those structurak problems at the ECB he equally felt that were “real problems about its relationships with those with whom it dealt”.

Just as he was concerned about the ECB’s treatment of Ireland, he was “equally concerned I have to say, as a head of state, about the discourse surrounding Greece. I have discussed it with former (Italian) president Napolitano and . . . other heads of state.

“We were quite appalled at the dismissive language about the Greek people, referring to Greeks and the Greeks and so forth. Those people like myself who acknowledge our intellectual and moral debt to the great scholarship of Greece, you couldn’t but be offended. But the most important point, it wasn’t the language of a union.”

He said that “a superficial look at the different three tranches of the ECB’s relationship with Greece would ask very serious questions as to how they were structured. It isn’t a liberating principle to ask somebody to do something that is impossible. There are people who regard themselves as above the level of paying tax, that includes corporations, it includes very, very wealthy people who removed their taxes from Greece at its time of need . . . and from Ireland.

“What has been provoked in the European Union is a collision between social cohesion and fiscal prudence. It is possible to have fiscal prudence and be socially cohesive but it requires good economics, good social planning and it requires long term thinking.”

He asked “what are the consequences in a country like Greece where over 50 per cent of the young people have neither a job, nor education, or a home, and if we were to say to them we want to tell you that you must commit yourself to 200 years to reduce your debt?”

The big ethical question facing Europe at the moment was the refugee crisis, he said.

“It is capable of testing the most fundamental values that are invoked at the founding of the European Union and its expansion. We now see barriers going up all over Europe. It’s a contradiction of everything the union was founded to do,” he said. There was an “absolute need to not just give lectures to countries like Greece and Malta and Italy but to give them the capacity to deal with those who are arriving at their shores as the point of first entry”.

He praised German chancellor Angela Merkel for taking a long term view but acknowledged “she’s apparently paying the price in the short term but there’s a lesson in that,” he said. “If we were all to retreat to our nationalisms and if we allow all the barriers to go on, what’s left of the union? Yes, the migrant crisis is quite capable of challenging not just Shengen but the very structures and future of the European Union itself.”

On whether the 1916 Rising was ethical he said what “we have to realise is that 100 years ago people were also celebrating a centenary. They were celebrating the loss of independence (in 1800) . . . we should remember that we are remembering people who in turn had a memory.”

He did not think you could arrive at an ethical conclusion about 1916 “by simply testing it against the criteria of a just war, because there are some elements missing from both sides”. Further, “at what point does the reaction become more important than the actions themselves?” he asked.

He also wondered “where is the evidence that the evaluation of empire is taking place and the necessary demands of empire to sustain itself?” He didn’t think “there’s a single serious historian who suggests that World War I was in any since necessary or a good thing or that it protected anything valuable.”

On the consequences of the Rising, he said “a State established itself, as a successful independent State but obviously, as far as I am concerned, it’s achievement is very much in relation to independence and separatism rather than in relation to equality. But, of course, some of the main people who would have driven the equality agenda had been executed.”

As to a second term? He would be delighted to answer that question “at the appropriate time”. For now “I am living intensely in my current presidency.”