Sunday 21 July 2019

The biggest change is that I don't have privacy any more - Michael D Higgins

In his most revealing interview yet, President Michael D Higgins talks about his friends, his work and his love for his wife Sabina

Planning ahead: President Michael D Higgins consults a member of his staff at his campaign office in Dublin as he prepares his bid for a further seven years in Aras an Uachtarain. Photo: David Conachy
Planning ahead: President Michael D Higgins consults a member of his staff at his campaign office in Dublin as he prepares his bid for a further seven years in Aras an Uachtarain. Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

He has come through the first debate of this presidential campaign largely unscathed and remains on course to return to the Park for the next seven years.

Now, in an interview in the Sunday Independent, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins speaks openly about a range of issues, from his lack of privacy to his stay at a €3,000-a-night hotel.

And, for the first time, he chats about his friendship with Kevin McCarthy, while defending his role in Aras An Uachtarain.

Mr Higgins's controversial appointment of Mr McCarthy - from driver to executive assistant - has been the subject of much interest. Most notably it has been met with accusations of 'cronyism' but Mr McCarthy was also at the centre of controversy after it emerged that an adviser to the President, Mary Van Lieshout, allegedly quit amid tensions surrounding the level of access he had to the President. Ms Van Lieshout later said her parting with Mr Higgins was "amicable".

Mr McCarthy made headlines on another occasion when the President's office was forced to deny the executive assistant lived in Aras an Uachtarain. A Sunday newspaper had previously reported that he had lived there since early in the presidency.

But today the President says Mr McCarthy deserves his position in the Aras and describes his contribution as "invaluable in making the presidency work".

Michael D Higgins with Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin
Michael D Higgins with Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Sitting in his campaign headquarters on Dublin's Dame Street, he muses over accusations that he has avoided difficult topics. "I find it somewhat amusing sometimes when people say Michael D Higgins hasn't been answering hard questions. Michael D Higgins has been answering hard questions for decades," he says.

Speaking about Mr McCarthy, the president explains how the pair first met and says his qualifications and his work speaks for itself.

"Kevin McCarthy and I were both members of the Labour Party... and I was [running] my campaign and doing a mixture of arrangements, sometimes [using] the bus, sometimes the train, sometimes I was trying to manage events as separated as Wexford and Donegal. [And remember Kevin] is somebody who is both a graduate in business and corporate studies and who is also a post-graduate in internationalisation. And he had worked in a constituency office in this constituency.

"He said 'I will drive you' and that's why I am not comfortable about people asking [about Kevin McCarthy and] dragging him [into this campaign]. He is not the candidate in this election. I would treat anybody who has worked for any of the other candidates with respect. It is very important that he be treated with respect."

The president’s wife Sabina. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
The president’s wife Sabina. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

He added: "He is just a person who generously offered and, at the request of the Labour Party, was hired him to drive me, and that's what there is to it. And there is no more to it than that. And his work in the Aras has been invaluable in making the presidency work, and the best people to test that with are the people who have dealt with him. He is efficient. He is courteous. He has a knowledge of protocol that is excellent. So what else is there to say?"

He says his team have supported him all the way through his presidency because they believe in him: "I think that you know there were people who worked for me back in the day who were doing it because they supported my values and that is very important because quite frankly the choice of people I have on October 26 is in relation to one's values."

Asked if Mr McCarthy is a friend he says: "Of course he is, but I have many friends. And I have more than one friend in the Aras. I don't quite understand what you're asking me. Of course we have remained friends. But I have people who worked with me for decades who [know] it is the nature of these things - particularly if you have been in things together. The other part of it is: I think one has to retain friendships and respect them and that is very much our relationship.

"He does a job and he does it very well. I have a different job and I intend to do it well and there are others who work with us and that is how it is."

He continues: "There are many [friends in the Aras] and we just get on with it and he has his own life. But I do think he should be let to live his own life as well without undue intrusion. I am the candidate after all."

In 2014, President Higgins travelled to Lanzarote for a holiday to prepare for the year ahead.

His wife, Sabina, remained at home due to a previous engagement (the day after our interview the President sent a message to say she was picking up a lifetime achievement award from the Renmore Pantomime and Musical Society in Galway).

The President's holiday was not funded by the taxpayer; Mr Higgins paid for it himself. Mr McCarthy travelled to work for the President. He did so at his own expense, to be of assistance to Mr Higgins.

The President explains why he was invaluable on the trip.

"I don't have keyboard skills and I was preparing three or four very big speeches at the time. I hadn't very good skills in relation to the internet, and I was writing the speeches and I needed someone who would type them. Someone who was going to be able to communicate them back for further references to Aras an Uachtarain and he did all of that and we were accompanied by security staff and so forth.

He explains: "He paid for it [his own travel expenses] because it wasn't work. It was more that I needed space in which to get the work done.

He continues: "One thing you should ask me about is, because you read my work I know, is that if you look at the Aras website and you see the speeches I've given and the amount of work that goes into them, and you see my published book, my ideas matter and you'll see the change I made in relation to presidential visits for all, where for example in the Australian case I gave a lecture in the University of Sydney, I gave one to the London School of Economics, the Sorbonne, New York University - that's because of the person who I am. So that when the visit is over you've something substantial for the people to get engaged in and I was setting up the speeches... that would be important for the presidency."

RTE comic Oliver Callan was asked by the broadcaster to tone down his satirical sketches of the President. His work caused the president's friend, the Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, Mark Patrick Hederman, to go on national radio to complain about the comic. Asked for his thoughts on this, President Higgins said: "I think I appreciated what he (Mark Patrick) was saying at the time but I'm not going to get involved."

Meanwhile, on the subject of the economy, Mr Higgins laments that, in the first years of his presidency "the country was in a very broken state".

He describes how he and Sabina spent their time "visiting communities, where you had so many disappointed expectations, you had parents who made sacrifices for their children's education on the assumption that they would move into professional occupations and that security, and suddenly all of this had evaporated for so many of them and then you had a cut in income of about a fifth across the public service".

He adds: "It was very important for [Sabina and I] to be able to go out and share the atmosphere."

He says "you identify with people in moments of vulnerability" and recalls how "people were asking the question, 'Why did this happen?'"

The issue is put to him, given that he mentioned that Ireland went through such a hard time, that he stayed at a hotel that cost €3,000 a night.

He says: "I have answered that question."

Can you remember the hotel?

He initially replies: "No." Then he corrects himself.

"I do, I remember you looked out and you saw the lake, that's about all I remember about it."

He highlights the 1980s as a time when he stayed "in a camp in Somalia with a mosquito net over me" and "in Mogadishu, I stayed in Africa in different circumstances" and asks: "Do you really think all of the things that we've said so far, that I am the kind of person that would ask for a particular hotel?"

The question is then put to him: "You say 'I never asked to stay [in a particular hotel', I never organised it'… but surely you would look around, when you get into an extravagant hotel like that, and a little voice at the back of your head would niggle and say 'the taxpayer is paying for this'.

Did your moral conscience kick in, did you never ask any questions [of the people booking the hotels]?"

He replies: "I haven't contravened any moral principle." He explains: "Switzerland doesn't provide security for incoming heads of State. It has to be provided by the person travelling who is the visitor - that makes the number of people who have to be accommodated go up."

Explaining the procurement process he says: "The ambassador, they get quotations, there are only three hotels that could meet the requirements and they picked, I think, the second one. That has nothing to do with me."

Can he understand how a €3,000-a-night hotel might feed the idea that he is 'living the high life' or that he is a president that is out of touch with people?

"I have always understood, for goodness sake, that is why it is one of the things that doesn't faze [me] for this reason: I have always had to go to people's doors and I have always had to stand for election - this is where I differ from the other people in a certain respect.

He says: "If you have to put your character on the line as I have, regularly at every level since 1969, I have almost 50 years' [experience] then you are open to every question.

"But what I can't control is, what I can't control, is a totally malignant construction being put on it - and you work for a newspaper - and you have been trained now in a position of press ethics where if somebody said something about somebody you know, you could write to the editor and you could reply.

"We are now in a new atmosphere where somebody can in fact fire something out into the system without taking any note of the consequences of where it falls and that means that you… it's the world we are living in now, it is one that, it is wonderful that we are able to communicate so much better, but with it also has come the danger of the total irresponsibility in relation to character assassination and character destruction."

Well, I hope you don't think [that this journalist] is part of that?

"Not at all. I wouldn't dream of suggesting it. I am just setting the context that you don't really… what one has to be awfully careful about is that one doesn't absorb both the malignant elements of that which is unaccountable and present them as 'the ordinary' because they are not 'the ordinary' and you and I know that very well. But it is something neither of us could protect ourselves against in an infinite way in the future."

Moving on, does he feel he fits into the category of 'a Champagne socialist'?



"It is just untrue."

Can you explain to me?

"I think it is so obviously untrue. I live where the Constitution suggests the President of Ireland should live in Dublin. I live where my predecessors have lived. That's it."

Turning to his marriage of almost 50 years, the President's face lights up when discussing his wife Sabina.

Asked for his definition of 'love' he says: "Love is, above all else, unselfishness and I would say particularly in many senses, unselfishness to the point of unquestioned trust."

He goes on to say that it is "the deepest form of friendship and responsible intimacy".

He also describes how the couple "have allowed each other space where, very much in my case, I keep pushing on with seeking to unravel intellectual questions".

Describing Sabina as "a beautiful person" he says the secret to a happy marriage is "allowing each other to respect each other's instincts.

"For example, if some people are approaching a particular period of time or set of events in an aesthetic way, another person might be over-rationalising something."

He continues: "Curiously, when I was speaking about this before, I regard 'cold reason' as insufficient. You have to be able to reason - as I would put it in one of my pieces - to the music of the heart."

Asked if being the President of Ireland is an isolating job, he says: "The big change in my life, is that I don't have privacy any more." Describing this loss of privacy as "part of the job", he says: "It was a matter of just getting used to it."

He adds: "It is a great privilege to be President of Ireland but also what I am not free to do is move on the spur of the moment in response to something that might interest me.

"Obviously I have a special protection unit [and they] have an obligation to look after me even during an election."

He explains: "If we go on holidays for example - we haven't now this last 18 months - but if Sabina and I go abroad on a fortnight's holidays, we are accompanied by a special protection unit. They are in the same hotel as us and that is the way it is. What you do is that you just get on with it."

At 77 years of age he says: "At this stage, every day is important to me and I am very, very lucky I have many interests. I am interested in writing, I am interested in reading and probably I would say that one of my responses to the change in structure of my time is that I have read more economics probably in the last seven years than I had in the previous seven."

Asked what his childhood self would say to him if he met Michael D Higgins today as President he replies: "He would say 'keep questioning. Regard nothing as inevitable and stay listening to people'."

On October 26, the people will make their voice heard and the President is on course for another landslide victory.

Sunday Independent

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