Miriam Lord: First Citizen on the verge of going full-blown Michael D

President lets loose on the housing ‘disaster’, to the delight of Opposition politicians and the dismay of Government Ministers

For God’s sake, don’t be encouraging him! Once he gets the taste for controversy again there’s no knowing where it might end. A minor contretemps with a Nigerian bishop was enough to set him off this week. Now there are fears that our beloved First Citizen is on the verge of going full-blown Michael D and who knows where that might end?

It’ll be highly entertaining, one way or the other. It has been a difficult few years for the President, forced to endure a lengthy Covid confinement in splendid isolation, subsisting on a pitiful diet of soporific online symposiums and the occasional flicker of remote adulation. Recently re-released to the wild, he is slowly regaining his confidence and rediscovering his public. Time is of the essence now for Michael D, who has three more years to run of his 14 in office. It won’t be long now before speculation begins about his successor. He will want to go out with a bang.

Tuesday’s passionate but highly controversial speech about our chronic housing situation might be the start of Michael D’s Big Bang. There he was, out in the open in the three-piece tweed with a live microphone and a sheaf of speaking notes to be sacrificed, swivelling on his heels and sweeping his arm in the air while getting splendidly worked up over a pressing social issue.

“I have taken as well to speaking ever more frankly in relation to housing because I think it is our great, great, great failure. It isn’t a crisis any more. It is a disaster,” he quivered, fully aware that his comments would strike right at the heart of a Government on the rack for its handling of the ongoing housing shambles. (President Higgins is one of the few people who can get away with a sentence which begins with “I have taken to” but does not end with “the bed”.)

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald doesn’t get out of bed and into the Dáil these days for anything less than a Taoiseach

“Building homes is what is important. It is not to be a star performer for the speculative sector internationally or anything else,” he seethed to cheers and applause. The face which launched a thousand tea cosies was cutting loose. And Opposition TDs, who are never done demanding a change in Government housing policy and ideology, were absolutely thrilled. They had just received a presidential imprimatur and they were going to revel in it. Sinn Féin, Labour and People Before Profit drove home his point during Leaders’ Questions.

The Taoiseach wasn’t present as he was on active manoeuvres in Cork, so neither was the Sinn Féin leader, who doesn’t get out of bed and into the Dáil these days for anything less than a Taoiseach. But Mary Lou McDonald made it to the Kildare Street gates of Leinster House for the launch of Saturday’s big Cost of Living Coalition marches. She couldn’t say enough nice things about former Labour firebrand Michael D. The President’s observations on the housing crisis are “blindingly obvious”, she said. “I commend him for that type of honesty.” The words “honourable” and “noble” were mentioned.

They must have been cock-a-hoop in the Áras. Meanwhile, there were media reports of “furious” Government Ministers grumbling about Michael D “crossing the line” and getting away with murder because he is way more popular than they are. But nobody went on the record because they can’t publicly diss the President.

But there were dark mutterings from Government TDs that the Taoiseach will have to take him in hand and remind him of his role, which is supposed to be above politics. However, such a lofty stance is not mandatory for the incumbent, who is never knowingly unconstitutional.

With all this talk of Cabinet fury, it was disappointing to see mild-mannered Paschal Donohoe padding out to bat during Leaders’ Questions. He doesn’t do furious

So what might the Tea Sock say to the Tea Cosy when next they meet? They’ve known each other, and the measure of each other, for donkey’s years. Micheál Martin, when asked about Michael D’s incendiary remarks, wisely said he was following protocol and would not be making any comment.

With all this talk of Cabinet fury, it was disappointing to see mild-mannered Paschal Donohoe padding out to bat during Leaders’ Questions. He doesn’t do furious. Instead, he repeatedly understood the people’s pain and promised the Government is doing everything in it power to “respond back” to the challenge.

Back out on Kildare Street, Richard Boyd Barrett was going all out to drum up business for the cost-of-living protests. The President’s anger “needs to be channelled” and Saturday’s marches are just the ticket. Homeless campaigner Peter McVerry came along to add his name to the protest, his noble and cantankerous Jack Russell adding continuous vocal support to the speakers.

Speaking of dogs, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, who managed to weave Micheal D’s intervention into his contribution while not upsetting the Ceann Comhairle by mentioning the President by name, told the Minister for Finance that he is “the best boy” (after Tiny McVerry and Sparky Lord, obviously, although Tiny is a girl, but we’ll leave it at that). “You are the best boy in the class,” snarked Pearse. “You have led the charge for this Government and successive governments in rolling out the red carpet and providing tax incentives for institutional investors.”

Labour’s Ivana Bacik couldn’t get through her slot without alluding to her party’s pride and joy in the Áras. “It’s no wonder that President Michael D Higgins has described our housing situation as a housing disaster. It’s no wonder that he is referring to failures of Government policy.”

Boyd Barrett was so delighted with Michael D that he wanted to examine his comments at length. The Ceann Comhairle pounced. “It is inappropriate to analyse or critique any statement made by the President here, in this House,” he told an incredulous Boyd Barrett, who couldn’t have dreamed of a better promo act for Saturday’s demos.

The Labour politicians are really happy to see one of their own sticking it to the Government. “My Michael D T-shirt still hangs proudly in my office. His critics aren’t worthy to lace his shoes,” tweeted Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, posting a picture of old T-shirts on hangers, which was a bit sad.

Leo Varadkar, former taoiseach, current Tánaiste and soon to be taoiseach again, gave a typical response to the President’s damning remarks. “I think some of what he said was true, quite frankly.”

If only Leo were in a position to do something about it…