President Michael D Higgins ‘crossed line’ in housing policy attack, say furious ministers

President Michael D Higgins speaking after he opened Jigginstown Manor, a Tiglin facility for vulnerable young adults, in Naas, Co Kildare yesterday. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins

Hugh O’Connell, Philip Ryan and Gabija Gataveckaite

Ministers were left furious at President Michael D Higgins for describing housing policy in Ireland as our “great, great failure”.

In a remarkable souring of relations between the Áras and Leinster House, Mr Higgins was accused last night of having “crossed the line” and of standing on “high moral quicksand” by senior coalition figures.

The President is facing a furious backlash from the Government – with his pointed comments all the more notable as the holder of the office traditionally steers clear of political issues.

“It isn’t a crisis any more – it is a disaster,” the President said, adding that “basic needs” of “food, shelter and education” should be met.

One minister said the President’s comments “raised eyebrows” among ministerial colleagues, and it was even described as “embarrassing”.

Mr Higgins used a speech at the opening of a new supported residence facility for young adults emerging from homelessness in Kildare to say that housing “isn’t a crisis any more – it is a disaster”.

The Indo Daily: Poet, Politician, President: 10 years of Michael D in the Áras

Listen on Apple
Podcasts Listen on

His latest intervention on the housing crisis – one of his most strident to date – drew strong criticism from ministers and senior coalition figures.

“It was pure distraction so he can now get all the people saying he’s so right and so in touch. It was a performance,” a coalition source said.

One minister said Mr Higgins’s interventions are “getting embarrassing” after a series of comments on issues ranging from tech company boss Elon Musk to calling on Ukraine to become a neutral country.

“He just doesn’t care any more, and he’s more popular than the Government, so he just does what he likes,” the minister added.

“He didn’t help out during the pandemic at all. The only thing he did was The Late Late Show, where he also attacked the Government and that was during a brief period when the public supported the Government.” Another coalition source added: “We all know housing is a massive challenge, hence taxpayer’s money of over €4bn a year going into it and another €2bn on mica.

“The State is completely intervening to try to correct it. He crossed the line, stood on it as well on the way over.”

One Fianna Fáil source speculated if Mr Higgins was actually criticising Fine Gael when he spoke about the housing crisis as “not a single house was built for 10 years under that government”.

However, some ministers declined to criticise Mr Higgins, even privately, saying that he received the highest vote in the history of the State and the public “like when he speaks his mind”.

When asked yesterday about previous comments from Mr Higgins that have stirred up controversy, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it is the President’s “prerogative” to speak out.

However, government sources later last night claimed Mr Higgins was engaging in “distraction on a massive scale” after a Nigerian bishop criticised his recent comments on a church shooting in the African nation.

One minister said he made a “big mistake” when he commented on the attack, in which up to 50 people were killed.

In a statement, Mr Higgins said that such an attack was made in a place of worship “and is a source of particular condemnation, as is any attempt to scapegoat pastoral peoples who are among the foremost victims of the consequences of climate change”.

The Bishop of Ondo diocese, Jude Ayodeji Arogundade, said the statement was “incorrect and far-fetched”.

A spokesperson for the President later said his comments on climate change “related to the plight of pastoral peoples in the region and he had made no link in his statement between climate change and the attack itself.”

One source also pointed to reports in 2020 of how Mr Higgins made a €100,000 tax-free profit on the sale of a house he owned in his native Galway.

A spokesperson for Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said he is “very aware of the many challenges” in housing. “Huge challenges remain, the minister does not underestimate these challenges, but is working with his department, with NGOs and stakeholders to address them,” they said.

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin said the President’s comments are “a statement of fact” and they were a “direct criticism” of the current and previous governments.

A spokesperson for Mr Higgins did not respond to a request for comment.