Friday 30 September 2016

Park life: half-time and all to play for

After the two Marys, Michael D had a lot to live up to in the Áras. As the President reaches midterm, we look at how he's measuring up

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

Michael D and Sabina at the Service of Remembrance and Reclaimation for the 40 children who were killed in the Easter Rising 1916
Michael D and Sabina at the Service of Remembrance and Reclaimation for the 40 children who were killed in the Easter Rising 1916
Michael D and Queen Elizabeth on the president's historic State visit last year
The president at the Áras with his two dogs, Shadow and Brod

Exactly half way through his term of office, President Michael D Higgins shows no sign of flagging in his enthusiasm and energy. There is still a sparkle in the eyes as he meets members of the Polish community in the State drawing room of the Áras on a Tuesday afternoon, with tea and miniature scones topped off by strawberries.

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It is his second public engagement of the day.

President Higgins is presented with a gift of a picture that has won a Polish-Irish photo competition, showing a father feeding a baby.

It may be a routine event in the life of a President but Michael D has that politician's knack, renowned in such leaders as Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern, of making everyone he meets feel special.

Earlier in the day, he shows the same enthusiasm in St Patrick's Church in Ringsend as he meets schoolchildren who each hold up a sign showing the name of a child who died in the 1916 Rising.

If Mary Robinson's presidency was about placing a light in the window for the diaspora; and Mary McAleese about building bridges, Michael D's presidency is about coming to terms with our past during a decade of commemoration, and pointing the way to a more hopeful future.

Much of his presidency has been preoccupied with anniversaries: the centenary of the Lockout; the outbreak of the First World War; Gallipoli; and the most important event of all, the upcoming centenary of the 1916 Rising.

Among his 12 public engagements this week, there were two Easter Rising events, and ceremonies to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Marking these occasions without stirring up old hatreds requires all of Michael D's political nous, and sensitivity to historical nuances.

He tells the congregation at the 1916 memorial service for the children (organised by Joe Duffy): "It is critical that we recall the past, but remember it in a way that is ethical and honest, that is inclusive of the stories of all, including those who filled the streets."

He emphasises that this should not be a time for recrimination, but a time to rebuild the Republic on an ethical foundation.

That is likely to be an abiding theme in the coming year.

If it was all about lofty sentiments, one might get bored, but there is still a mischievous glint in the eye, and he has the air of a man who does not take the ceremonial trappings of the office too seriously. The President is amused when a local resident greets him: "Welcome to Ringsend, home of football."

The President likes to relax in the unfashionable pursuit of watching Airtricity League soccer.

He tells me: "I like to boast that I live equidistant from Dalymount Park and Richmond Park (home of St Patrick's Athletic). When I go to matches, I know a lot of the fans and their families, and I knew their grandparents."

After the ceremonies in Ringsend, it is back into the presidential limo and off to the Áras to the meet the Poles.

As I arrive at the residence in the Park, two presidential Bernese mountain dogs, Brod and Shadow, stand sentinel near the front door to greet me. The President and Mrs Higgins are avid dog lovers, and they are also surrounded by cattle from the national herd, who lazily graze the pastures at the front of the house. As well as that, there is a presidential swarm of bees.

One of the President's aides tells me: "The dogs are good because they don't jump up on visitors."

They have needed to be on their best behaviour. President Higgins estimates that since he took office on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2011, he has welcomed up to 70,000 people to the Áras.

"I am very comfortable with people, and fortunately Sabina is even more sociable than I am," he says.

Later, as the Polish visitors are given a guided tour of the building, the President meets me in his book-lined study. He shows me pictures of three of his heroes.

On one wall is Sean Keating's portrait of Noel Browne, the socialist politician who encouraged a young Michael D to join the Labour Party back in the 1960s. It is often forgotten that our President was a convert from Fianna Fáil, having flirted with the Soldiers of Destiny as a student.

"Noel Browne was a friend. I bought the portrait in Galway from Mrs Kenny by instalments."

He is just as proud of a rare photo of two of his other heroes, Rory Gallagher and Phil Lynott, on stage. "That is them playing together in Punchestown in 1982."

That appeals to the rock 'n' roll side of the President's personality. Back in the 1980s, Michael D could be seen shirt undone to the midriff, rocking to the music at festivals such as Slane.

The President's inner sanctum, the study at the Áras, reflects his personality.

There is a warmly cluttered atmosphere with speeches piled high on the desk, post-it notes hither and thither, and the computer is pushed to the side.

"I wouldn't be the best with technology. I like to write things in long-hand," he muses, pointing me in the direction of a large bottle of fountain-pen ink.

"I am looking at two government bills at the moment," he says. "People think that all I have to do is just sign them, but there is a lot more to it than that."

When Michael D became President three-and-a-half years ago, there were concerns that, physically, he might not be up to the job.

Early in his presidency, before he had an operation, he moved awkwardly on his feet. Now he has a spring in his step.

In his first year in the Áras, the once voluble politician was actually criticised for being too low-key. It was not that he had put a foot wrong; he welcomed visitors with a charm and hospitality that is perhaps the best quality demanded of the office.

However, some of his admirers had hoped that he might rattle the gates of the Áras a bit more in the early months. The profile of the presidency often depends on who happens to call around, and the turn of events beyond the Head of State's control.

Presidents cannot be outspoken on specific government policy, but they can set a tone.

After a relatively quiet start, in terms of the profile of the office, the Higgins presidency fizzed into life in spring of 2013 when he made a speech to the European Parliament.

It was described as a "dizzying mix of fire and brimstone, history and poetry, and hope and despair".

He warned of the dangers of Europe becoming a kind of Darwinian experiment or, as he put it, "an economic space of contestation between the strong and the weak".

He described the response to the economic crisis as "disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity".

He says now: "I make no secret of the fact that I am still concerned about the future of the European Union.

"Stabilising the euro may be a necessity, but it is not the fullness of the project."

President Higgins has managed to avoid public rows with the government. He says he meets the Taoiseach every six or eight weeks, and these are useful "two-way discussions", where he offers his own opinions.

The President feels entitled to speak out on issues such as poverty, but he is limited in what he can do to remedy it.

He plays a much more significant role in fostering good Anglo-Irish ­relations, and in that respect, he has taken up where President McAleese left off.

He is keen not to glorify World War I and regards it as a "great catastrophe", rather than the "Great War".

He quotes approvingly the Irish nationalist MP and World War I soldier Tom Kettle, who hoped the tragedy of Europe would be "the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain".

It took a long time coming, but on his successful State visit to Britain, President Higgins could boast that this vision was being realised: "The ties between us are now strong and resolute."

And then he promised to cement this friendship by cheering for England during last year's World Cup finals.

It was characteristic of his lightness of touch, appropriate to the moment. Small wonder that at half-time in the Áras, it looks like the President is winning.

Landmark dates

November 2011: Mr Higgins is inaugurated, urging people to build "an Ireland we all feel part of, an Ireland we all feel proud of". Two days later he travels to the North for a school choir competition.

October 2012: Mr Higgins is criticised by some pundits for failing to make a big impact and rattle the gates of the Áras.

April 2013: The President seems to find his mojo with a speech to the European Parliament, where he denounces Eurocrats for their response to the economic crisis, as "not equal to the urgency of the task".

April 2014: Mr Higgins is lauded for his role in first State visit by an Irish President to Britain.

December 2014: The President carefully navigates the issue of human rights on a State visit to China.

January 2015: Protesters against water charges hurl insults at the President as he visits a school. One calls him a "midget parasite".

April 2015: Mr Higgins travels to Turkey to remember the 3,500 Irish soldiers who died at Gallipoli, standing alongside Princes Charles and Harry at the commemoration.

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