After 50 years in public life, the President talks exclusively to the ‘Sunday Independent’ about homework, poverty, commemorations – and a changing Ireland
President Michael D Higgins has strongly criticised those involved in “sowing hate” by stoking anti- immigration sentiment around the arrival of refugees in Ireland, saying: “It is unforgivable and must be opposed.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the Sunday Independent at Áras an Uachtaráin, the President accused far-right elements involved in objecting to the housing of asylum seekers at recent protests of “whipping up fear”.
“What is unforgivable and must be opposed — publicly, vocally and unequivocally — are those who are trying to take advantage by sowing hate and building fear. We are in a position now where we have elements who are not interested in solving the long-standing problems within communities or the new arrivals. You mustn’t give them the opportunity.
"The best way of not giving them the opportunity is to fill the place up with services. These people who are going around whipping people up and so forth, you didn’t see them previously making a case for housing, or for women’s rights, or for equal rights of any kind.
“It’s just what you see as low-grade opportunities… The interesting thing about it is how they can arrive and then move on to the next site.”
Mr Higgins was speaking on Thursday, one day after a high-profile protest in Finglas which saw several hundred people gather outside the local garda station.
One masked speaker told the crowd: “There’s no point standing here outside a garda station, you have to go to where they’re f*****g staying and burn them f*****g out.”
Asked about the scenes at various protests over the past number of weeks, the President said he was well aware of what was playing out publicly in various communities nationwide.
He described some of the scenes as “tragic”, pointing to Ireland’s long history of emigration — and he called for tolerance.
It was only right that Ireland give refuge to Ukrainians fleeing war, he said.
“The sheer volume of what came in, in terms of the Ukrainians — that couldn’t have been anticipated. You have to try to be ahead of the need, before it manifests itself. You need to be ahead, you have to try and build up the services.”
Looking to the past, he said, can often provide guidance for the present day. During his work with the Combat Poverty Agency decades ago, “people would say, the last thing you want is a war among the poor.”
Has he considered offering accommodation to refugees at the Áras?
‘What I said, really, is that the time at home should be as creative as possible’
That is a matter for the Office of Public Works, he said.
“This is where the President lives. But the whole thing is run by the Office of Public Works. Sabina and I live in the extension to the house here. These rooms are for formal purposes. I’m sure the OPW was among the bodies that was consulted. But it isn’t my decision.”
Two weeks ago, he found himself in the news again after telling primary school students at St Kevin’s in Littleton, Co Tipperary: “I think as much as possible that [homework] should happen in the school.”
‘President calls for homework to be banned’ ran one headline, as opinion columnists weighed in and the letters pages in newspapers had plenty of correspondents keen to have their say.
But, he now says, he did not call for a homework ban at all. “What I said, really, is that the time at home should be as creative as possible. Books and music are so important. The anxiety levels in Ireland are high where they don’t need to be. The teachers are very good.”
Still, while he might not be fully endorsing a homework ban at primary-school level, a majority of those asked in the Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks opinion poll, conducted on the same day as this interview, were in favour of the idea.
The 81-year-old former Labour Party arts minister expressed concerns about the mental health struggles among some teenagers in Irish society.
‘The Presidency is an important office... it was always under-resourced.’
“At second level, I think there are issues of loneliness… I was very, very concerned at all the issues… around youngsters and the health services. It would take some very bold steps in an uncomplicated way — that’s what we need to do now.”
Asked if his comments were in reference to the recent Kerry CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) scandal — which has exposed serious failings of services to children with psychological problems — Mr Higgins said he could not discuss current policy.
Transgenderism, he agreed, is another issue that has come to prominence among young people during the tenure of his two-term presidency.
Asked if he had a view on the ongoing stance of secondary school teacher Enoch Burke outside Wilson’s Hospital School in Westmeath in recent weeks, he again declined to comment, other than saying: “We should have all moved past absolutisms by now.”
Michael D is now mid-way through his second, and final, seven-year term. The role of the office is apolitical and the holder acts as a representative of the State and guardian of the Constitution. Does he feel his office has enough powers?
“The Presidency is an important office. I think it has been used well by my distinguished predecessors. It was always under-resourced, from Douglas Hyde’s time. It could be better resourced, I think, frankly.
“The other side of it is that it is an independent office. Government has its departments of state. We have to work together in respecting each other’s autonomies.”
The week before last, he travelled to Senegal to participate in the Dakar 2 Summit, the theme of which was ‘Feed Africa: Food Sovereignty and Resilience’. The event was attended by 34 African heads of state and government, and President Higgins was the only non-African head of state present. He delivered both an opening and closing address.
The developing famine in the Horn of Africa, and many of the problems associated with global warming linked to this crisis, are matters he has been passionate about for several decades.
Back at the Áras, he praised the Irish people for their generosity, in terms of donations to humanitarian organisations helping people affected in Africa. But, he said, more needs to be done, particularly in terms of awareness about the unfolding situation in Africa.
“There are people dying there as we are speaking. Irish people, when they know, they are wonderful… We need to inform ourselves better about this.”
In relation to global warming, he does not believe it may already be too late for the planet.
“No, I do not think we are at the point of no return — but we are at a point of balance. It has been very difficult to keep the debate about climate change and sustainability in the public focus. Particularly where the discussion is about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Back to domestic matters, it is 100 years since his father, John Higgins, was arrested during the Civil War. The date was January 26, 1923, and Higgins Sr was interned at the Curragh camp for 11 months, until December 21 that year.
During his first term, John Higgins’ son participated in a range of events around the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
During his second, he identified two key periods for historical examination — the War of Independence, and the Civil War and early days of the State. He hosted a series of six seminars under the title ‘Machnamh 100’ which saw historians and academics consider matters previously excluded from historical accounts, including the role of women and class.
The first three seminars covered the War of Independence and were published as the book Machnamh 100 – Centenary Reflections, Volume 1.
The second set of three seminars, on the Civil War and the early days of the State, was completed in November and will be published as Machnamh 100 – Centenary Reflection, Volume 2 in the coming months.
On June 1, it will be 50 years since he was appointed to the Seanad by the then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, not long after a second unsuccessful run for the Dáil. Eight years later, he was finally elected to the lower house, as a TD for Galway West, at the fourth time of asking.
What does he regard as his most significant accomplishment during his half a century in public life?
“The time I found most satisfying was being out in communities. It was never dull.”