Thursday 22 March 2018

Interpreting Michael D: what he says and what he really means

HE'S renowned for his quick wit and public speaking skills, but the speeches of President-elect Michael D Higgins can be complicated and academic, making it difficult for the man on the street to interpret what he's saying. During the campaign, he was told to keep his public speeches short and to the point. But, on taking office, he can speak for as long as he likes. He covers a wide range of issues ranging from what a 'real republic' is to philosophy, the arts, human rights and consumerism. Over the next seven years, he will probably refer to all of these issues, and more. In essence, the president-elect wants the following: more people to become involved in how the country should be run; more people to broaden their horizons and gain wider knowledge; people to become less selfish and develop a greater sense of duty to their fellow citizens and not to be driven by money. Here, we cut to the chase and pinpoint some of the key messages the State's ninth president will deliver over his term in office.

Real republic

Michael D has repeatedly criticised how the poorest in society were left behind during the Celtic tiger era.

Ireland has yet to produce a 'real' republic for all the people, he says, with access to power and key decision-making resting with the wealthy and influential, while others are ignored.

He says that every citizen is entitled to basic rights -- which he calls the "citizenship floor" -- which include shelter, food, education; a good and sustainable environment and freedom from fear from childhood to old age. All sections of society must be listened to and catered for, and not just the wealthy. In his real republic, there must be a "life beyond the self" where the most marginalised and voiceless are helped. Every citizen has a duty to help others.


Michael D has repeatedly spoken about the role that every citizen of the State can play in making it a better country, in particular stressing the need to have people with different skills involved in key decision-making. Last month he spoke about the need to "nurture the polymath" -- or encourage people to become expert in a wide range of different areas. The word comes from the Greek polymathes (having learned much), and examples include Leonardo da Vinci -- painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, mathematician and inventor -- and Lewis Carroll, author of 'Alice in Wonderland' who was also a maths tutor at Oxford.

Having knowledge on a wide range of issues means that a fresh perspective can be brought to problems. Collaboration between different fields of study or industry can produce new ideas which will help get Ireland back on its feet.

Active citizenship

Every person in the State should be treated equally, and have a voice to help shape the country. The days of focusing on getting rich for the sake of it are over, and citizens should be responsible for making the country a better place for present and future generations. Everyone has a contribution to make, regardless of religion, background, orientation or income. Everyone should work together to create a different and positive society. This generation is responsible for what happens the next.

Narrow/corrosive individualism

The opposite of active citizenship. Everyone was so concerned chasing the tail of the Celtic tiger they forgot what it meant to be part of a wider society and became obsessed with buying expensive houses and SUVs. Michael D describes this as "corrosive individualism", and it's time to rebuild society, learn to know your neighbours, consult with the elderly and engage with the diaspora living abroad.

"There is a need in Ireland for a radical inclusive society that regards citizenship as built on equality, as valuing solidarity and rooted in caring," he says.


In Saturday's press conference after the official announcement of the result, Michael D echoed German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Mr Higgins asked: "What can we know? What should we do? What may we hope?", referring to Kant's famous fundamental questions for philosophers: "What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope?"

Kant (1724--1804) is a central figure in modern philosophy, and suggested that everyone had moral reason. Moral actions -- good works and so on -- were performed out of a sense of duty.

Chicago School

Michael D is referring to the Chicago School of Economics, a form of economic theory which suggests that the market should be left alone and not subjected to excessive regulation. The president-elect has repeatedly stated that the economic model and light-touch regulation of the banking system, espoused by Fianna Fail, has clearly failed, leaving us with today's mess. The Chicago model is right-wing, he argues, and works against society because it promotes wealth creation for its own sake, without a benefit to the public.

Public space

He's not talking about parks or pedestrianised streets. The public space refers to how society discusses and identifies social problems and, through that discussion, comes up with solutions to political problems. This space should be open to everyone, and not just the wealthy. There are no simple changes that can be made to provide new solutions -- a political vision for an alternative future is a "serious and unavoidable challenge", he says.

Irish Independent

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