'I'll exit stage Left, but stay in the wings'
Published 19/09/2015 | 02:30
Joe Higgins sat warily on the blue velvet armchair in the hotel lobby. "It's a bit comfortable looking," he fretted.
Unlike many politicians, the Socialist TD exhibits the same enthusiasm for a photo shoot as most folks would for a tooth extraction. But he was wearing a nice brown jacket as he posed for the camera.
Joe shrugged. "Sure, you've seen it plenty of times - it's one of three jackets I wear in rotation," he explained.
But someday soon now he can hang up his Dáil-wear, for the Dublin West TD has announced he will not be running in the next general election, leaving the coast clear for his party and constituency colleague, Ruth Coppinger.
Yet timing is everything in politics, and it's ironic that Ireland's most high-profile hard-left Oireachtas member is set to bow off the parliamentary stage, just as hard-left Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, moves into the spotlight in British politics.
Both men are 66 years old - only six days separate their birth dates - so is it possible that Joe is contemplating a U-turn on his decision? He shakes his head.
"I've never felt that building an alternative movement of the Left revolved around one personality," he said.
Moreover, he may well maintain a presence in Leinster House, should the winds of change blow favourably for others of his political beliefs. "I will be active, and I imagine for a period of time I will assist with, hopefully, a new intake of TDs in here in relation to the rules and so on, if that's required."
After 40 years of activism, Joe has learned to be cautious. While he proclaims the Corbyn victory to be "hugely significant, showing a pent-up aspiration for change, a genuine voice against austerity," he's very much in a wait-and-see frame of mind too.
"It depends what happens now - if Corbyn becomes a prisoner of the Labour bureaucracy, than he'll disappoint those who put him in there," he warned. "But if he tries to build a new movement on the Left - that is really an alternative to Tories, austerity and such - it'll be hugely significant."
'Not selling out' are the watchwords by which Joe Higgins lives. He's a complex character; on one hand, courteous and thoughtful in conversation; on the other, in the Dail chamber he can be dour and hectoring - or he can eviscerate his target with either a killer put-down or a fluent articulation of the plight of put-upon citizens.
Some of his Bertie-bound zingers have passed into legend, such as his reaction to the news in 2002 that the Taoiseach had declared himself to be a socialist.
"If this conversion was genuine," Joe told the Dáil, "we'd have to go back 2,000 years to find another as rapid and radical. Saul's embrace of Christianity on the road to Damascus stood the test of time, but the Taoiseach's embrace of socialism on the banks of the Tolka hardly will."
Joe brightened at the memory. "Jesus, that was too good to resist," he laughs. "I think it's a good idea when you can to undermine with humour, but you have to be very careful - because you could be portrayed as a jester, particularly when you represent a view that's in a minority."
Enda Kenny caught a lucky break that Joe no longer has speaking rights at Leaders' Questions. But Joe doesn't hold back when it comes to his 'our way or the highway' hard-line stance in the Dáil. He holds both the Green Party and Labour in open contempt for 'selling out' to go into government. "[Green Party leader] John Gormley had an office two doors down from me and we'd be friendly enough, but I used to say to him regularly, 'John, if you get the opportunity, you will go in with them and you will sell out everything that you're now shouting about along with myself in the Dail.' He'd be furious," Joe recalled.
"But it was inevitable, once you submit yourself to the existing system. You have to break it, or capitulate. They capitulated, and everything they stood for was annihilated, and they got annihilated as well. It was the same with the Labour Party," he added.
Since he was first elected to the Dail in 1997, he's taken insults as well as handed them out; he doesn't mind being called a nitwit or a Trot, but he draws the line at being dubbed a Stalinist.
"I knew what I wanted to put forward - the evils of capitalism - and to accuse them of being responsible and to demand change, so it wouldn't surprise me in the least that people would be abusive or sometimes quite stupid. My tradition for decades was absolutely opposed to Stalinist Russia," he said.
It's this adamantine attitude to the struggle against capitalism which has shaped his life; he never married or raised a family. "If you do that you have a very serious responsibility to give them every support they need and spend a lot of time with them - and the life I lived, it was impossible, and it wouldn't have been just or right," he explained. "But I'm happy with the decisions I made."
He's had his share of political splits of course - a speciality of the Left - and the most recent sundering was the departure of Clare Daly from the Socialist Party in 2012.
"It was a huge disappointment," he says - but it's clear no exchange of olive branches has taken place since.
Nor does he like any of the inhabitants of the government benches. "It's not personal. They are agents for financial capitalism, that's how I see them. They wouldn't want to socialise with me any more than I would with them," he stated.
But he reckons the more radical Left are on the march.
"We've a huge task to build a movement, it's really only at the very beginning now. What's happening with Corbyn and the water charges protest, there is potential for us now," he enthused. "So I'll still be active. And you won't see a mellower Joe, either."