Friday 23 March 2018

'These are not wild, Bolshevik values. They are values for decent living' - President

Ahead of the launch of his new book of ideas and speeches, President Michael D Higgins talks to Paul Melia

President Michael D Higgins. Picture: Frank McGrath
President Michael D Higgins. Picture: Frank McGrath
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

President Michael D Higgins knows he cannot comment or speak about Government policy, but he is entitled to address issues of public concern. In a wide-ranging interview with the Irish Independent, he doesn't hold back.

There are "huge ethical questions" to be asked about the activity of vulture funds snapping up properties where it interferes with the rights of people to secure a home, he says.

The public should be better informed of the thinking behind major policy decisions, and not just get a "glimpse of the spectacle". He insists that seeking access for all to housing, health and education - what he calls "values for decent living" - are not "wild, Bolshevik ideas".

And at a time of low interest rates, there is opportunity to invest in these services. Better to spend now when money is cheap, he appears to suggest, than be overly concerned with sticking to EU fiscal rules.

"How can one say that any of these rather technocratic instrumental issues, such as methods of calculating where you are in the stability mechanism, should take precedence over social purpose?" he told the Irish Independent.

The EU growth and stability pact restricts budget deficits and limits borrowing by governments.

"How can you say it is good policy for the European Investment Bank to be overflowing with funds and interest rates to be negative - they're not 1pc anywhere in the discernible world - that you wouldn't be investing in all these issues," he added.

"A country that is able to house, feed and look after the health of its people, that seeks to reduce the drudgery of work, that seeks to deliver technology for the people, we're not out of the ark those of us who believe in that. What's so sophisticated about wanting personal benefit at the cost of widespread social misery?"

The President, who has been criticised in the past for straying into matters of public policy, refuses to comment on any plans to run for office again in 2018, but he doesn't rule it out. He was speaking in advance of the launch of a book of his speeches in Dublin next Wednesday.

'When Ideas Matter: Speeches for an Ethical Republic' includes 36 speeches given at home and aboard, covering a diverse range of matters from what it means to be an Irish migrant, how we remember the men and women of Easter 1916 and those who served in World War One, and how we move towards new ways of thinking ethically about matters of social importance.

Ethics is, he says, about more than making sure you're not caught.

"I have had two initiatives so far. The first was 'Being Young and Irish', which also took account of the young Irish who have gone abroad. The second is what I called the 'Ethics Initiative'. There's a huge distinction between the ethics of which I spoke and the protocols which are fashionable. There's much more to ethics than making sure you're not caught.

"I'm really interested in this very good point - how are we to live together and how are we to do it in a way that you will have a reasonable version of economic life, of an economy that works, a society that functions, conflict that is abated and so on. The challenges are enormous."

The book opens with his inauguration speech of November 2011 where he promised a "presidency of ideas". At the time, he said, Ireland was in a state "somewhere between depression and anger" at what had happened after the economic collapse. He wanted the public to engage at a deeper level and explore what had happened and why, and to seek alternatives. But we're not at that point yet.

"I think it isn't a case of just pushing the bits together again to make an alternative, but how did we come to this position and on what kind of assumptions," he said.

"I was really arguing for deep thinking. I don't think that deep thinking is there now, yet. I think it will come. There is a hunger for ideas but it hasn't matured to the point at which really significant alternatives are on offer."

That said, there is change happening. He speaks about the 250 public engagements he undertakes every year which demonstrate how people are getting on and making positive change. He cites the example of an all-weather training pitch he opened at St Kevin's Boys Club at Whitehall in Dublin this week. The pitch is at the back of St Aidan's school. It's a collaboration between a soccer club and school steeped in the GAA.

"There are, at the micro level, people getting on with what is real. They're investing time, they're achieving cooperation, they're seeing social benefit, they want their communities to work." He also notes the response of the travelling public to the Dublin Bus strike (inset left), which has seen thousands of commuters discommoded as workers down tools in a row over pay.

"I watch television and watch the public being interviewed, and there's a very significant change in the public attitude towards what is happening in Dublin [Bus]. They are saying we need good public transport. That's quite different from the way they would have responded a couple of years ago.

"What I saw was, instead of a short-term anger at the discomfiture, (there was) 'I'm willing to listen to what's being sought'. What I've seen is a more nuanced, more ethical and sophisticated response. I thought the people in Dublin were very fair in their comments and they understand the issues and of course they should be solved, and they can be solved."

It's that public willingness to engage which, he said, was not being reciprocated by policy makers, particularly in Europe. An issue of major concern across many EU countries is a trade deal under negotiation between the EU and the US, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The lack of public scrutiny about proposed measures, particularly as they relate to environmental standards and impact on public services, has led to huge disquiet among the general public and MEPs including Luke 'Ming' Flanagan (inset right) have complained about the lack of transparency. The President said that if "technocrats" didn't believe the public were capable of understanding the issues involved, they should say so.

"I cannot speak on Government policies, but what I have the capacity to do is address these issues," Mr Higgins said.

"A major decision must, if we are to live in a democracy, come out of a discourse which has openness in it. The public looking on are entitled to more than a glimpse of the spectacle. They are entitled to hear the options that are in the discourse.

"When you talk about issues like TTIP, it's not only people in Ireland who say we must discuss this fully. In Germany, there's a very strong view. I'm not advocating revolution, but just say what you are doing. Say you are dismissing social fora, and social consequences. Say you don't believe the citizens have the capacity to understand anything complicated. That view is around, it's in print. I take quite the opposite view.

"In these speeches, I make the case for an expanded literacy. You must be free to seek to understand the other person's viewpoint. But the problem is it isn't just Mrs Thatcher who believes there is no alternative. It has slipped into the consciousness of many people who seek to privilege the rights of technocratic riddles rather than ethics."

He said that studies setting out the impact austerity had on European populations were "elementary" in making economics and political decisions accountable. No such study had been commissioned by finance ministers which have overseen major cuts in public services in recent years, while bailing-out banks at a cost of billions.

In Ireland, among other countries, so-called vulture funds have swooped in and snapped up largest swathes of property at a time of national housing crisis. Mr Higgins said this raised concerns.

"Of course there is a huge ethical question to be asked if the activity of vulture funds interferes with the basic right for people for the provision of shelter. Of course it is an issue."

He also said a move to outsourcing jobs, and imposing short-term working contracts, would have far-reaching consequences.

"From one side of the room, this will be described as labour market flexibility. For many of those whom it affects, those on short-time (contracts), it is precarious living."

While people regularly changed jobs today compared with in the past, it required social protections to be put in place. "If you are to accept that and say this has a positive outcome, and it helps economically, you have to put in place certain forms of social protection, otherwise you're going to create great insecurity at the end of the working life in relation to pensions but also in relation of family life and illness. Who is to carry the burden? The State does through taxation. It's a matter for the State to decide where the contributions must come from."

Given his background in human rights, a major concern and source of disappointment for the President is the inability of the European Union to cope with the refugee crisis.

It in part stems from populist political thinking, coupled with an eroding of the values of the European Union which heralded cohesion but which is now under "serious threat".

"The response from the European Union countries is for barriers to go up everywhere. Is it not an indicator of a union which has devalued cohesion and has devalued the long-term and has not really drawn on its intellectual strengths, that it is not able to produce a response," he said.

"I think what you witness in Europe is a set of populisms competing with each other. In some cases they're coming out of a very dangerous vacuum. They're nihilistic, they're linked with a rise of racism and xenophobia.

"A cohesive Europe is probably the best contribution to security. If Europe is to survive, and it is under serious threat from a number of internal divisions and a great number of people resigning to old and dangerous forms of politics, it needs to look at what was positive about it. What was positive was the idea you could have from different, diverse forms of history and influence a certain standard you could achieve for all Europeans.

"The argument I make for a social Europe I make equally in relation to Ireland in relation to housing and health. That raises a further issue. There isn't much value in blaming Europe for everything that is negative, and saying one can't exercise choice."

A major theme of President Higgins' speeches is how we adapt to a world where the climate is changing and the population is increasing, particularly in Africa. This will require new ways of providing food and housing for billions. The market will have a role to play, but its input will have to be defined, he said. He also warned that just because world leaders had signed up to the Paris Agreement to combat climate change did not mean the necessary measures would be enacted.

"We had two great events in 2015 - the response to climate change in Paris and the sustainable development goals in New York. Does it mean significant interests have been suspended in the interests of the new global agenda? The fact is there's always this tension between these interests and what is long-term and sustainable.

"I make the case in many of my speeches for sufficiency. That's not just the ability to stay alive, but education and housing and health and beyond and above the line of sufficiency. I regard the British National Health Service as one of the great achievements of humanity. Equally, after the great wars in Europe, people said people couldn't come and live in hovels. We have to take a responsibility for public housing. Equally, it was said it was wrong that only the children of the rich have access to education. These are not wild, Bolshevik values. They're values for decent living.

"If we say we must roll back the State from our lives, and if you say this notion of wild market theory will govern our lives, it will have wide consequences."

Speeches set out concerns about crisis

‘When Ideas Matter: Speeches for an Ethical Republic’ opens with President Michael D Higgins’ inauguration speech in November 2011, where he promised a “Presidency of ideas”.

The 36 speeches range across six main themes, including Migration, Diaspora and the Famine, Defending and Renewing Democracy and Commemoration and Forgiveness, and include his words at Windsor Castle on the occasion of the first state visit of a President of Ireland to the United Kingdom.

It concludes with Mr Higgins addressing the issues of those who died in World War One, while “celebrating our own moments of freedom”.

As the President writes in the preface: “If you sense a concern with the intellectual and social crisis, you are correct. To be given the opportunity to offer a critique of current circumstances, with their threats and their possibilities, is a great privilege. I am grateful for that privilege and I respect it. Words matter.”

Irish Independent

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