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Saturday 23 August 2014

Outspoken President keeps his eye on the ball

Michael D Higgins grants Group Political Editor Fionnan Sheahan exclusive access to Aras an Uachtarain

Fionnan Sheahan Group Political Editor

Published 12/10/2013 | 07:24

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‘THE people knew what they were doing." President Michael D Higgins' comment on his outspoken nature being in line with the intentions of the voters succinctly sums up how he interprets his role.

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It also tees up his defence against critics who have raised eyebrows over his habit of speaking out.

Sitting in his office in Aras an Uachtarain, he is surrounded by books and pictures. Outside the large window is a view stretching to the Dublin mountains.

Despite the revered location, it resembles an academic's room on a university campus.

"I like this room. It is a comfortable room for me to work in," said the President.

Behind his desk, on the organised bookshelves, are rows of law books.

Over to his left, though, is a growing collection of books, not arranged with quite the same level of order. This bookshelf holds volumes he brings up from his home in Galway.

President Michael D Higgins strolling with Fionnan Sheahan in the grounds of Aras an Uachtarain.
The President in his office. Below: the treasured photo from the Irish Independent of the President and his family on the night he was elected.

He says one of the "biggest dislocations" of moving was leaving his books behind.

Whenever he returns home, he comes back with a box of books under his arm.

Family pictures and a photo of him outfitted in Victorian-era clothing pop up here and there around the office.

Hanging by the window is a picture of Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott performing at a concert in 1982 - a throwback to his days as a columnist with ‘Hot Press'.

Beside his computer is a picture from the Irish Independent of the President with his family, from the night he was elected.

He says he likes it because each of them is doing something different, posing in contrasting fashions, which sums up the family dynamic.

He starts work at 8.30am and works on forthcoming speeches, his diary of engagements and reading about legislation passing through the Dail.

Almost two years into life in the Aras, the President says the part of the job he loves is talking to people about their lives.

His well-known love of soccer means he frequently pops up at League of Ireland games, in St Patrick's Athletic's ground, Richmond Park, or Bohemians' ground, Dalymount Park.

"I just don't go to the internationals. I go to the league games because it is at the league games that you will meet the families that have, in fact, kept soccer going for generations and are finding it hard," he said.

Getting out and meeting people is what informs his commentary on society as he regards "being able to relate to the situation" as highly important.

"I do not speak on Government legislative proposals, let us say, in relation to unemployment or poverty or housing.

"But I have to and will speak about the feeling and circumstances of the people as I am encountering them as President because I am directly elected by the people. That is important to me.

"My conversation with the people is a conversation I had over more than a year-and-a-bit. I tried to convey that in my inaugural address and it is what I continue to do," he said.

The President meets with Taoiseach Enda Kenny about once every six weeks to two months and the pair discuss the legislation passing through the Dail and Seanad.

He says he is aware of where the line is drawn in his role on not commenting on policy. But he appears singularly unapologetic about speaking out where he feels it is appropriate as he continually stretches that line.

He says he is simply trying to "make a contribution to thinking through where we are".

"What I am saying is the strategies of the Irish Government are the Irish Government's business. But the state of employment or unemployment and its consequences in poverty are my business and it is my business to try and, when I speak for Ireland, in relation to Europe, or when I speak for Ireland abroad, you know, to do so," he says.

But the President raised some hackles with speeches at the London School of Economics, the Sorbonne University in Paris and the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which were interpreted as critical appraisals of governance and the causes of the economic collapse.

"All I am simply about is that you can have a view and you can say, ‘this is just a blip now and we will get back to the way we were.' What are the assumptions about it and so forth?

"It opened up a debate. So isn't that what people want?" he says.

"I have great belief in the people that they will, if you put a reasonable set of options to them, well, democracy, that is what it is about. But I am not imposing my own view.

"But I think it would be very disingenuous if I said I didn't have a view, when in fact I have spent my whole life in this area. And also, I would argue as well, the people knew what they were doing. They had other options," he observes mischievously.

The next debate he is opening is on ethics. Following on from a keynote speech in DCU last month, he says the debate will be joined by third-level institutions across the country.

Later this month, the President heads off on a fortnightlong visit to Central America, taking in Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador, on a diplomatic and trade mission.

HE will deliver a major speech at a conference in Guadalajara, but points to his contribution in accompanying businesses and colleges seeking to develop trade.

"I have to, as it were, travel both strands. And I do," he said.

"It isn't just a case of doing an intellectual analysis alone.

There is real stuff and it is getting done and it brings results."

He doesn't contain his disdain for the Celtic Tiger period, referring to it as "the decade of hubris" and describing it as an "aberration".

"I think the way the citizens are spoken to - are treated - is a mark really of the character of a country. And I had noted, I might tell you, in the time of the hubris of our temporary wealth, people were talking to other people in a way that was in a way kind of short of an aggressive push towards what people should be doing," he says.

The President champions the cause of communities across the country that are trying to make a difference.

"There are people thinking and doing and changing. There is stuff happening in communities all over Ireland and it is very good," he says.

After a long career in the Dail, it's not the politics he pines after, but the chats with TDs on a Wednesday night awaiting the vote, where he would discuss random topics - like country music with Labour TD Kathleen Lynch or soccer being played at Croke Park with party colleague Jack Wall.

"I miss the friendships," he says.

Following a lifetime of passionately speaking out about domestic and international affairs, he clearly finds himself biting his tongue, even if he doesn't admit it.

He already has plans for writing on topics of importance after his term in office is up.

"There probably is no doubt that in the future I will write about this period. It's a period that is very, very interesting. I think there are great changes going on." The President says he has views on the future of the United Nations and the Security Council, the relationship between the European Union and the emerging economic blocks, the significance of China's interest in Africa, world hunger, international law, humanitarian intervention.

"These are all issues that are obviously in my mind but I deliberately stay away from anything that the Government is engaged in," he says.

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