Saturday 25 May 2019

'I'm my own person' - why Alice Mary is not just 'the President's daughter'

Senator Alice Mary Higgins talks to Niamh Horan about sexism, protests, a vicious assault - and why it can be easier to work abroad

Senator Alice Mary Higgins, daughter of President Higgins, below, says the most exciting part of her job is listening, engaging and working with people. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Senator Alice Mary Higgins, daughter of President Higgins, below, says the most exciting part of her job is listening, engaging and working with people. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

The starting point of any good profile interview begins with the subject's childhood.

Whether they're a butcher or a banker, a person's home and parents provide the blueprint to their life. Barbara Walters gives another good reason for it: it will relax any interviewee.

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Unless, of course, you happen to be the President of Ireland's daughter.

For Alice Mary Higgins, it is akin to taking to her toenails with a pair of rusty pliers.

A simple inquiry about her formative years growing up under Michael and Sabina Higgins gives rise to grimaces, awkward silences and pleadings to make the interview less about her family and more about how she was shaped by "the wider community".

My hopes of hearing what it was like to come of age in a bohemian household - where a theatrical Sabina held court among well known actors, and a political activist father introduced her to the world of Fidel Castro, rock gigs in Slane and Greek poetry - disappeared faster than the tiny macchiato which Alice gulped between my questions.

For all the claims that she is a woman intent on leveraging her famous father for her political career, the accusations couldn't be further from the truth.

She will say that she grew up in "an activist house" and that she first marched for a cause at the tender age of five. She will also acknowledge "my family were part of starting those conversations" around social and political change in Galway. By 15, she was marching for repeal of the Eighth Amendment; by 16, she was protesting against the Gulf War; and by the time university came around, her fight for social change had turned to legalising divorce.

During last year's repeal vote, she says: "I found a book that [former Health Minister Noel Browne] had given me when I was young. It was called Against the Tide and he had written a message in it when I was a teenager saying that he hoped there would be waves of young women coming [along] and that the tide would turn. He was writing it at that time just to a young woman - but it really struck me because I literally found it on the weekend [of the vote]."

In person, 43-year-old Alice Mary Higgins is warm, animated and down-to-earth with no hint of the 'to-the-manor-born' background that she has been accused of having. She bounds into Balfes restaurant in the Westbury Hotel, apologising for being late because she had to find somewhere to lock her bicycle. "I've had three stolen already," she sighs. "I don't get emotionally attached any more."

It is somewhat of a luxury that she spent a hefty 10 years in university - initially studying English and Philosophy in UCD, a Masters of Philosophy and Theatre in Trinity, then a Masters of Sociology in New York, followed by work for a PhD in Sociology - but she speaks of "waitressing tables" to make ends meet.

While in New York, she stood on her rooftop and watched the World Trade Center crumble. "At first I didn't believe it, then it became real. I remember people going to donate blood," she recalls. "We all piled into cars," only to be met with the news that there weren't many survivors.

Her impressive CV as she seeks a European Parliament seat in the Dublin constituency can't be denied. She has spent four years working as the coordinator of the Comhlamh Anti-Racism Project and for Le Cheile, an Artists Against Racism initiative, as a campaigns and outreach officer. She has also worked for Older and Bolder, where she defended the State pension, and she spent a year as a consultant for Action Aid Ireland. At Trocaire, Alice Mary advocated on climate change, food security and peace-building and she has worked with the National Women's Council of Ireland. Then, of course, there is the little matter of being deputy director of her father's first successful presidential election campaign. That's all before becoming an Independent senator where she is noted for her work on data protection.

During her time in the Seanad, she has seen her share of sexism: "Of course I have been affected by it," she says. "If you speak strongly, people perceive it as aggression." She adds: "I have had people tell me to 'relax' or 'don't worry'.

Is that sexism?

"I think sometimes when it is said to women," she says, "it's framing it in a way that it's you being emotional."

She has felt "annoyed" when men got credit for her ideas. Coined by a friend of astronomer Nicole Gugliucci, the word 'hepeating' describes a situation where a woman's thoughts and ideas at work are ignored until a man steps in and repeats what she has just said. "I have had situations where men quoting me have been quoted [in the media] instead of me. I have raised issues and put issues on the agenda and somebody else gets up and speaks after me and says: 'As Senator Higgins said…' and then I have seen newspapers reporting it and I have thought, 'If you were watching the debate [you would see] I literally said that'. In fairness, my male colleagues in the Seanad have acknowledged a good point from me and said that they agree with it and then it's them saying it [that is used in] the newspaper instead of me."

But that has not been her most difficult experience as a woman.

When she was younger, she was attacked while walking home in Galway.

"I was, as a teenager, assaulted walking home at night. That's all I'm going to say on that," she says. "It does affect you in terms of your sense of [safety]… I had to work hard to make sure it didn't affect me - in terms of my freedom of moving around the city and at night."

She says: "I think it makes you a little defensive initially," but she continues, "I decided my love of my own city and streets and the things I loved and cared about were more important and [they] outweighed my fear."

Does she think Dublin is a safe city for a woman to walk around at night? "No. I think Dublin has a lot more to do in that regard."

She says: "Something that they have done in other countries - and they have started doing in Dublin - is safety walks, where you get planners to walk with women and see through their eyes what a street feels like in terms of street lighting. The good thing Dublin has done is signed up, but it needs to do more to deliver on that - around public services, transport, lighting at night, and having friendly public spaces that feel inclusive."

She is passionate about climate change and biodiversity. According to Oxford scientists last week, a vegan diet is the 'single biggest way' to reduce your environmental impact on Earth, so the one question people want answered before a politician lectures them on reducing their carbon footprint is whether or not they eat meat? "I'm a vegetarian," she replies.

As for the opaque world of MEP expenses (€4,416 per month - for which no accounting or receipts are required), she says that if she is elected, "I am absolutely happy to be transparent on my expenses."

Will she be careful about the cost of hotels she stays in?

"I always am," she says. "I take the lowest bar of expenses that you can take in the Seanad."

So why run as an Independent politician and not as part of Labour - the party in which her father was so prominent? "Because where I was coming from was someone who was an independent-minded person who had worked in civil society. It was the way that was authentic for me."

Still, there is no escaping the fact that her father is the most famous man in Ireland. In headlines announcing that she is running for Europe, she was continuously referred to as 'President Higgins's daughter Alice Mary'.

And so I relay the story of Tabitha King. The accomplished author, who made the news last year when she, along with her famous husband [US horror writer] Stephen, donated $1.25m to charity.

In the headlines that followed, she was mainly referred to as 'Stephen King's wife'. Afterwards, the 70-year-old gave editors permission to title her obituary 'Relict of Stephen King'. But she said: "In the meantime, you might consider the unconscious condescension in your style book, and give women their names."

For her part, Alice Mary says the most difficult thing about being the daughter of the President of Ireland is that: "I have a lot to bring to the national and international conversation and sometimes it can be easier to do that in an international space. In those spaces, they don't know or care. They are inviting me because they are looking at my policy work and asking how I brought about change."

But how does it make her feel to be repeatedly referred to as 'the President's daughter'?

"I am standing on my own record."

But you're not telling me how it feels.

"I am standing on my own record," she repeats. She doesn't need to say any more - her face says it all.

One more question then: given there's no denying her extensive experience or her passion for the job, would she ever run for president?

"I don't think so. For me, the most exciting part of it all is that you get to listen and engage and work with people and actually change laws."

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