President's challenge to voters is proof he's far more than a mere ribbon-cutter
Published 04/02/2016 | 02:30
Nothing could be simpler than converting the Áras into an ivory tower. The infrastructure is in place already, from the time when presidents were content to be silent figureheads.
Once in a while, the drawbridge was lowered for them to cut a few ribbons, and they were always on hand to safeguard the Constitution or dissolve the Dáil.
But - important though a constitutional protector is - they had no meaningful role to play in Irish life beyond that.
However, the notion of the presidency as a hermitage cloistered from the real world was toppled by Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.
Following on, Michael D Higgins has shown himself willing to put his head above the parapet and launch a few missiles over the top.
No longer a place of retreat in the Phoenix Park, then, and no general demand from the population to restore such a reading of the presidency.
But there's no doubt that those verbal grenades lobbed by President Higgins ruffle some feathers - which is all to the good, as far as I'm concerned. Consensus is dangerous terrain. It's useful to have someone articulate, in a respected position, to advance a different perspective to the mainstream. Someone who says: back up, is that the right way to proceed? What kind of society are we going to end up with if we choose that path?
Within the limitations of his role, which he understands perfectly well, President Higgins tries to use his interventions to suggest alternatives. He did it again this week, in the shadow of the General Election - timing that needles some in political circles, but was chosen to nudge the electorate towards reflection.
What he said doesn't strike me as an abdication of his neutrality. He was careful not to point in the direction of any political party. Rather, his words were an invitation to citizens to remember that how they cast their votes has repercussions.
It's politics for grown-ups. There's a distinct shortage of it in Ireland.
The President is essentially powerless - a ceremonial figure. But power and influence are not the same, and the presidency is a useful platform from which to highlight issues. Sometimes what President Higgins has to say is long-winded, so that meaning becomes impenetrable. But his observations this week were unambiguous, and contained both sense and substance.
"Is it possible to have a decent society and at the same time continue to lower taxes for the purposes of securing the best long-term benefit?" he wondered, in answer to questions after launching his report on the President of Ireland's Ethics Initiative. He referred to "people setting their face against tax and using the language that regards it, inevitably, as a great burden".
It's easy to flag up the President's pensions, and the comfortable life enjoyed by any incumbent of the Áras, as a distraction from the validity of his comments. But he has been a lifelong socialist and those words show he retains the core values of socialism. They act as a challenge to his fellow citizens: how do our values shape up?
He is asking us to consider what kind of society we want to create, and the price we are willing to pay to realise it. It is a hint that something must be forfeited if fairness is an aspiration. But if we are swayed by tax cuts, then services will be reduced - and if we prefer a high level of services, there must be taxation to underwrite them.
Meanwhile, political parties are falling over themselves to offer short-term inducements to the electorate. Tax reduction and abolition of every description is promised, from the universal social charge to water and property charges.
Fundamentally, the President is suggesting we remove the blinkers and accept responsibility for the way we use our ballots. That we stop and think. It's a deeply ingrained habit to vote for parties and subsequently disassociate ourselves from their actions in government - even where they have signalled their intentions on the election trail. Generally, we know what to expect when we choose to tick one box ahead of another.
Short-termism is driving this latest incarnation of auction politics. Short-termism works with the Irish electorate - it's why three successive Bertie governments were elected. You'd imagine we were never going to experience hard times again with all the shiny tax cuts dangled - a lunatic hypothesis in view of our exposure to the global economy.
President Higgins made another significant point in the context of communal values.
He said it was important to identify the assumptions underpinning the boom-to-bust period - his subtext being that many of those assumptions still appeared to find favour.
He was referring to the cult of neoliberalism - the father of austerity.
Its disciples advocate deregulation, privatisation and no barriers to free enterprise, irrespective of how much social damage it causes. They urge cutting public services and reducing the safety net for disadvantaged people. They substitute the idea of the common good with individual responsibility.
The neoliberal free market is largely unquestioned by intellectual thinking in the universities, and President Higgins has said previously that academics ought to have more independence and challenge its ideology.
The crisis has not just been economic but intellectual, he has pointed out.
Whether you agree or not, it's worth considering. But a ribbon-cutter, an ivory tower incumbent satisfied with the status quo, couldn't say any of that. This week, I'm pleased to see our President asking us to do something radical. To think.