Is President Michael D Higgins really ‘beyond criticism’?

Analysis: Intervention on housing crisis — ‘a disaster’ — stokes anger among Ministers and officials

The President, Leo Varadkar told Newstalk on Wednesday morning, is “above politics and beyond criticism and scrutiny”.

If true, this is quite the development in the status of the head of state. It is true that the President is regarded as being “above politics”. However, as his latest intervention on the housing crisis has shown again, it is the President who gets to decide where that particular line is drawn.

But for the President to be “beyond criticism and scrutiny” would be affording the office the sort of status that even the Queen of England might regard as excessive. And the queen is a good deal more careful about keeping her nose out of politics than President Michael D Higgins has been.

In any case, what Ministers say about Higgins in private is rather different to what they say in public.


His intervention on Tuesday when he dubbed the housing crisis a “disaster” and pointed the finger at the prevailing economic system which leaves the “basic needs of people” to the marketplace has had exactly the sort of effect he might have anticipated.

Government Ministers and officials have expressed private anger, while publicly insisting that the President is entitled to speak his mind and even that they agree with much of what he said. The Opposition has cartwheeled gleefully in support of the President — “noble” said Mary Lou McDonald. Discussion of his remarks was prohibited in the Dáil amid noisy scenes.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that the people who are defending the President are doing so because they agree with what he said rather than because they think it is appropriate for his office to intervene in such a manner. Mind you, it’s not like the Irish people had no idea what Higgins believed when they elected him. He had a record dating back four decades of left-wing activism, progressive causes and socialist advocacy. They might be more disappointed in him if he stayed silent. Or if he told them they should stop objecting to every housing development.

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There is little doubt he is nudging into the territory of politics and policy, but the Government will just have to suck it up. Ministers know that Higgins is a lot more popular than they are. They also know that it is up to the Government to come up with solutions, whereas the President can simply make pronouncements. The Government also knows two things that worry it a lot more than anything Higgins says: First, that the housing crisis may get worse in the autumn as the numbers of people chasing scarce accommodation rises; and, second, that new supply is taking too long to reach the market and affect prices.

Those who know Higgins well say they expected more of this in his second term.

There are perhaps two further things to mention. One is that the President has signed all the Government’s housing legislation into law, as he is required to do. The second is that this week’s intervention came after he was criticised by the Bishop of Ondo diocese in Nigeria, Jude Ayodeji Arogundade, who described his statement on the mass murder of a Catholic congregation by Islamic militants as “incorrect and far-fetched”.

He was responding to a statement on the killings by the President who said attacking a place of worship “is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change”.

His housing comments have moved the news agenda pretty smartly.