A journey from the far left to front and centre
Michael D Higgins has finally fulfilled his dream of becoming President of a people he loves deeply, says Maeve Sheehan
Published 30/10/2011 | 05:00
Michael D Higgins has long harboured ambitions for the Presidency and at 70 he has made it. He got there on the image of left-wing elder statesman, of poetic vision and gammy knee that he insisted had nothing to do with age (an injury sustained when he slipped on wet tiles on a visit to an aid agency in Colombia).
Most international media heralded the new President this weekend as the elder statesman, the left-wing human rights activist, academic and poet, arts lover and orator. The Spectator magazine's online blog described him, rather demeaningly, as "the little man who resembles a bard or a leprechaun, depending on your point of view". Our own Mary Banotti, herself a former Fine Gael presidential candidate, couldn't help herself blurting out that "he would make a lovely President. . . I was going to say a lovely little President".
Stature aside, the notion of Michael D as an adorable elfin figure you could put in your pocket is wide of the mark. No politician achieves 38 years in public service -- as councillor, senator, TD and government minister -- on benign socialism and poetic vision alone.
Already yesterday there were dark mutterings about Higgins's "anti-Americanism", with one influential website, Irish Central, suggesting he should steer clear of the US. Higgins "is the most anti-American President Ireland has ever had" at the forefront of "organised protests and rallies directed at America for 30 years".
But Higgins's radical left past hardly featured in what was a fairly toxic presidential contest, with the result that the maverick became the "safe pair of hands" the people eventually chose.
Higgins won his first seat in 1981, after three unsuccessful attempts, went on to chair the Labour Party for 10 years; he was the voice of radical youth, and given a long rope while the pragmatists of the party got on with going into coalition.
Higgins had Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan Sandinista rebel, to stay in his house in Galway in 1989; he protested against Ronald Reagan's visit and railed against both Gulf Wars. Back home, he protested at joining government with Fianna Fail but landed his first cabinet role when Dick Spring signed up with Albert Reynolds in 1992. Higgins was widely heralded as an inspired choice for Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. Des O'Malley predicted that he would "go mad" in office. Higgins was later accused of ploughing 25 per cent of arts funding into his Galway constituency when it represented just five per cent of the population and of "surpassing Fianna Fail in his deception of the electorate" by allegedly claiming the credit for grants awarded to his constituents.
His rockiest moment came after he appointed his pal, Niall Stokes, editor of Hot Press magazine, to chair the Independent Radio and Television Commission. When Stokes's name featured on forms for a fundraiser for Higgins, he had to fight off a vote of no confidence. Higgins said it was all a mistake. But it did no favours for a man once described as supposedly above all that fumbling about in greasy tills, to paraphrase WB Yeats.
Higgins had plenty of landmarks though: he lifted the Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which excluded Sinn Fein from the airwaves; lifted the cap on advertising in RTE; opened Telefis na Gaeilge, which later became TG4; increased Arts Council funding; set up the Collins Museum; and revived the Irish Film Board. He invited Mel Gibson to come into his ministerial office and encouraged him to film his epic, Braveheart, in Ireland as opposed to Scotland. Gibson said afterwards: "This guy was more like an artist than a politician."
He had the politician's sensitivity, however. Settling into his new ministerial powers in 1993, Higgins gave an interview to Joe Jackson in which he railed against critical columns written about him in the Sunday Independent.
He had the "articles on file", he told Jackson. "It was quite chilling to witness the shuddering depths of Michael D's rage. I realised then, if you cross the man, he just might be unlikely to forget or forgive," wrote Jackson later.
More recently, the arts writer Ciara Dwyer felt his sharp tongue after she interviewed him for this newspaper in July. It wasn't her interview that was the problem.
The paper had published an advance news report on his poetry collection before either her interview, or indeed the book, was printed. Higgins rang Dwyer to complain: "He hissed down the phone about an article that I hadn't written. . . What I found strange was he was so mannerly, so gentle and so polite when I met him," she said.
"It was one of those conversations where, when you come off the phone, your stomach is in a knot."
What he was most upset about, according to Dwyer, was the depiction of his childhood as miserable. It was not miserable, he said.
Higgins was born in Limerick city. His father, a veteran of the War of Independence, had been interned in the Curragh, and suffered ill-health. He was eight when his father took ill and he and his brother were taken to live with his uncle and aunt on a small-holding in Newmarket-on-Fergus. They were poor. Other children occasionally shouted at them, when passing, about their broken windows. He was working as a clerical officer in the ESB in Limerick when his sick father was transferred from Ennis hospital to "what was in common parlance" the poor house to die.
In 1962 he signed up for University College Galway against his family's advice and went to England to raise the money. He worked as a wine waiter in Sussex and came home to start college.
Mary Kenny, then a radical, left-wing journalist, recalls the young Higgins as "a very pleasing, radical, clever and intelligent sensitive person." She said: "I thought him a kindred spirit." Although she regarded him as "soft-left", he would never have been one for annihilating the bourgeoisie, for instance.
She considered him "almost priestly" in his demeanour and "correct" in his "personal conduct". In 1969 she threw a party in her flat in Ballsbridge in Dublin. She cooked a gigantic pot of curry. Michael D Higgins met his wife, Sabina Coyne, an actress and founding member of Focus Theatre. "I made their match unbeknownst to me," Kenny said.
Sabina later told The Sunday Press how they talked about "texture and the image of things" and they "held hands to lend support to the cause of the discussion". Higgins and the late Labour minister Michael O'Leary, gave Sabina a lift home that night. The next thing, Higgins started sending flowers to the theatre. Romance blossomed during a production of Uncle Vanya. They discussed Hermann Hesse. They married in Haddington Road church in Dublin in 1974.
She described their domestic life with four children: "He's not the kind of man to disappear behind a newspaper. He loves to be in the middle of everything. He prefers to work in the kitchen in the middle of the house even though we have an office in the house. There are papers all over the place. The children love him to watch The Simpsons and Spitting Image with them. It's times like this that keep us going through the rest of life, which is pretty hectic."
They tried a macrobiotic diet but Higgins's lifestyle wouldn't stand up to it. And when they watched something upsetting on TV together, she would be "weeping" and "he'll be going mad".
Higgins is genuinely liked. He is said to be charming and witty company. It speaks volumes that many of his fellow travellers in Leinster House and in his constituency remain good friends with him.
An old political foe on the other side of the fence said Higgins was popular because he never personalised issues, was good company and a great speaker. One of his biggest talents was for telling people what they wanted to hear, in soaring language, he said, while privately acknowledging that what they wanted wouldn't materialise.
Another political rival -- who also remained a lifelong friend -- seemed to suggest that he was off dealing with international relations while the rest of them were up to their elbows in the stuff of rural constituencies. "He had different concerns to the sort of issues the rest of us would have to be dealing with," he said. Higgins, it seems, managed to dance between the raindrops, out in the storm but never quite getting wet. And that talent helped win him the Presidency. He remained aloof at all times from his scrapping rivals.
The worst he had to endure was scepticism about his health, when he tetchily dismissed questions about his age as "crude" and "insulting".
His schedule would have tested the mettle of people half his age, according to his campaign team. He was up at 6am to prepare for early morning interviews, would "go throughout the day right up to the evening", according to Joe Costello, his campaign manager, and "as a man who finds it difficult to go to bed" would often stay up until after midnight. His minimalist performances on the television debates were harder to pull off than they looked. "An awful lot of work was done behind the scenes," said Costello.
Higgins was at the centre of it. "He has a very strong practical streak that didn't come to the fore in the campaign. He got stuck into the mechanics of the campaign, the nuts and bolts of the itinerary, suggesting amendments here and new directions there, right down to the smallest detail. He was exacting, on those around him and on himself as well," he said. "There was no suggestion of him being controlled or managed."
Michael D Higgins has been ready for this moment since 2004. President Mary McAleese upset his plans by staying on. Then he wanted to warn the nation of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger. Now the message has moved on.
In his latest collection of poetry, Higgins wrote of escaping his own early difficulties: "My life would change. I was busy trying to survive, to escape. But life's not always like that, is it?" he wrote. "Today there are those who are deeply hurt, so badly that they cannot see beyond their own pain." His point was that hope lies in solidarity; a simple message, but it obviously worked for him.