Many first-time visitors to Leinster House abruptly halt in their stride, as if tasered, when they encounter Michael D Higgins’s portrait hanging in the hallway. The painting by Mick O’Dea is arresting, depicting a small, owlish man posing in front of towering bookshelves laden with the sort of fat volumes that only really clever people are wont to read. The image implies: “Here is a wise man — hark his words”. It may take a return visit to Leinster House for passersby to wonder why such a garrulous intellectual has remained silent within its portals since he became the country’s President 11 years ago.
Bunreacht na hÉireann allows the President, who is one of the three components of the Oireachtas, to address the Dáil and Seanad. Both of Higgins’s predecessors availed of the provision. The last time was in December 1999 when Mary McAleese spoke in the Dáil chamber as the world teetered on the cusp of a new millennium. Emoting for Ireland was her forte. When she spoke, unscripted, in front of television cameras after the attack on New York’s twin towers and after the mass-murdering Omagh bomb, she expressed for and to the people the shock and grief that many were still too numb to name.
While Robinson made the presidency relevant to the people and McAleese brought her emotional intelligence to it, Higgins’s flair has been his daring in stating home truths
In her Oireachtas address in 1992, delivered in harmony with the early rumblings of the peace process, Mary Robinson told TDs and senators they owed it to future generations to reflect on “self-definition at a time of redefinition”. If ever there was such a defining moment, it is now. Since Michael D Higgins moved into Áras an Uachtaráin in 2011, Ireland’s axis has shifted. We have endured a lethal pandemic. Our planet is on life support. There is a war in Europe. Extreme right wingery has become a force in society. The population has exceeded five million for the first time since the Famine. The once unthinkable Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael Coalition Government has brought the curtain down on Civil War party politics. The number of people with no homes keeps growing and inflation has engendered an air of fretfulness. Most seminal of all in the domestic sphere, is that Brexit has planted the prospect of Ireland’s reunification on the planning agenda. This is a time when the President should, as Fintan O’Toole described one of his primary functions on this page during the week, “articulate our ideals and values” to help Ireland plot its future.
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A nation needs to stop and contemplate, every so often, who it is and who it wants to be. President Higgins has the people’s democratic support. Voters deem him so good, they elected him twice. He has a mandate, unlike that of King Charles in the United Kingdom, whose mother’s funeral Higgins attended on Monday. Seeing him in London was a reminder that the Irish President has addressed Westminster’s house of parliament as well as Scotland’s parliament at Holyrood, to great acclaim. He has addressed the state parliament of Western Australia, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the UN general assembly. But he has not formally addressed his own people, unless he thinks that occasionally shooting the breeze with Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show suffices. As a former TD, senator and minister, surely he appreciates the gravitas a Leinster House setting would lend his message to the nation.
While Robinson made the presidency relevant to the people and McAleese brought her emotional intelligence to it, Higgins’s flair has been his daring in stating home truths. The Government — bristling after he lambasted its failure to resolve the housing crisis “disaster” — may not agree but few could dispute that his parsing of Irish history during the centenaries of the state’s foundation has been emollient and instructive. As the decade of commemorations draws to a close, retrospection will make way for vision and a need to consider the state’s next 100 years.
Higgins’s putative successors are already limbering up for the next contest — one that might feature a reborn Fianna Fáiler called Bertie Ahern — and will, in time, create distractions from the current presidency
As a candidate in the 2018 presidential election campaign, Higgins was challenged about why he did not address the Houses of the Oireachtas during his first term of office. He indicated he would do so in his second term. Now, more than halfway through his final tenure, one wonders why he continues to wait. If pestilence and predictions of the planet’s death have not proved seismic enough, maybe he will feel moved by the conjecture about a united Ireland referendum and this island’s situation beside an increasingly independence-leaning Scotland and forecasts that the misnomered Commonwealth will soon start to crumble. Also, as the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, his thoughts about the debate on Ireland’s military neutrality, which was ignited by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would be worth hearing. The constitutional prohibition on the president’s involvement in political debate and the requirement that any Oireachtas address is delivered on the advice of the Government should not be impediments. Robinson’s Oireachtas address was a tour de force in examining the national conscience without straying beyond the limits of her office. The current President has shown himself undaunted by the traditional restrictions on free speech for the state’s first citizen among equals. Besides, the public would not tolerate any attempt by the Government to censor him.
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Higgins’s putative successors are already limbering up for the next contest — one that might feature a reborn Fianna Fáiler called Bertie Ahern — and will, in time, create distractions from the current presidency. Michael D is not known for reticence. He has the appearance of someone who has been locked in a room with only his thoughts for a very long time and is ready to burst with them. In Leinster House, depending on who you talk to, there is trepidation and glee at the President’s predilection for saying it as he sees it. His trenchant and repeated criticism of EU economic policies rankled in Brussels while, closer to home, his refusal to attend a church service in Armagh marking the centenary of the Northern Ireland state left the Department of Foreign Affairs crimson with embarrassment. Yet the people have consistently backed him in opinion polls.
The President has a rapt audience of listeners who respect what he has to say. He should return the compliment and speak.