Sunday 24 September 2017

Lise Hand: Theatrically high-brow but a fierce defender of causes he believes in

Lise Hand

Lise Hand

THE 'D' in Michael D Higgins could stand for 'Different'.

Our current president is quite a contrast to his predecessors on many levels – not least in his active engagement with the media and his willingness to wade into various issues and controversies relating to his country.

Since his election in October 2011, when he trounced the other candidates with over one million votes, the former Labour Party TD has proved to be one of the more unorthodox residents of Aras an Uachtaran.

Even before his election, he was one of the most recognisable figures in Irish politics – both for his diminutive stature, head of white hair and his distinctive, much-imitated voice, but also for his intellectual pursuits, his penchant for poetry and his firebrand politics.

He became an object of some fascination abroad upon his election to the Aras. 'The Washington Post' somewhat frivolously observed, "local satirists sometimes depict him as an elf, hobbit or leprechaun talking in riddles and verse".

Michael D has always cut a colourful dash.

His personal history is compelling; he grew up in difficult circumstances in counties Limerick and Clare, before immersing himself in academia. He became involved in politics in UCG, and after a stint in the Seanad, was first elected to the Dail in 1981.

And he quickly established himself as an ardent patron of the arts, as well as a robust champion of civil and human rights issues – the two things dovetailed in 1993 when as Arts Minister he scrapped the controversial Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act that forbade the voices of Sinn Fein members to air live on radio and TV.

He married his wife, Sabina, in 1974 and the couple have four children: Alice Mary, twins John and Michael Jnr and Daniel.

There's always been a bit of the Galwegian boho about Michael D, and so it caused no ripples at all during the presidential campaign when he admitted that he had smoked a bit of dope while in college in the US, and on another occasion he referenced what he described as his "rock and roll drinking years".

Also during the campaign, a two-year-old video surfaced of the candidate (then Labour TD) eviscerating hard-line US Republican broadcaster Michael Graham over issues such as healthcare and education. His voice rising, Michael D got stuck into the broadcaster's scare tactics, telling him: "Be proud to be a decent American rather than just a w****r whipping up fear." The video promptly racked up over one million hits on YouTube.

Although his first year in office was quite low-key, President Higgins began to comment on current events, beginning with remarks last November concerning the various inquiries into the death of Savita Halappanavar, and continuing with comments on the abortion debate and on the EU's austerity policy.

The nimble-footed president now regularly dances up to the constitutional line between government and state, but has so far deftly avoided crossing to precipitate a clash with the Coalition.

He is a mass of contradictions – softly-spoken, deeply intellectual and almost theatrically high-brow, but also a scrappy defender of causes he believes in. And he's clearly unafraid to deliver a kick to our European overlords, which has further endeared him to a put-upon public.

The 'D' in Michael D may stand for many things – but Dull isn't among them.

Irish Independent

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