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Preseident Michael D Higgins with incoming USI president John Logue at the Carlton Shearwater Hotel, Ballinasloe, Co Galway, yesterday.

Preseident Michael D Higgins with incoming USI president John Logue at the Carlton Shearwater Hotel, Ballinasloe, Co Galway, yesterday.

UCC students Ann Marie Harte and Aisling O'Hagan at the congress.

UCC students Ann Marie Harte and Aisling O'Hagan at the congress.

Michael Higgins student card from 1964.

Michael Higgins student card from 1964.

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Preseident Michael D Higgins with incoming USI president John Logue at the Carlton Shearwater Hotel, Ballinasloe, Co Galway, yesterday.

THERE aren't many guest speakers who could be confident of filling (almost) every seat at the annual congress of the Union of Students in Ireland at the ungodly, unsociable hour of 11 o'clock in the morning.

But President Michael D Higgins isn't just anyone. He's one of their own, a former president of the university formerly known as UCG, a veteran protester who was marching before there were men on the Moon, an unapologetic intellectual who also likes Johnny Cash (his later music), and who so far hasn't shown any sign of swapping his fiery rhetoric for diplomatic soundbites since taking up residence in the Aras.

Michael D's the Uachtaran with Attitude.

So the 300 or so delegates dragged themselves out of their beds in the Carlton Shearwater Hotel in Ballinasloe and were present and fairly correct by the time the president was escorted into the room to a standing ovation.

Straight from the start he returned to a familiar theme from his campaign speeches -- the pernicious effect of the Celtic Tiger greed on social values.

"It was as if there was a kind of new assault on the world and we were there and we had taken the most booting. People would say, 'Did you hear -- he's bought half of London', and the answer was, 'No, we bought the other half'. And it goes on and on with this notion," he explained.

And he had a rather colourful analogy to illustrate his point. "It was quite different from 'Pirates of the Caribbean', which even in the film you're allowed see some rather gentler side of the Caribbean and of the pirates, but in this case it was unending, open acquisitiveness and the way of the world," he explained.

A bit of a giggle went around the room when he casually mentioned that he had been president of Galway University "47 years [ago], whatever it is now". Not only were those in front of him not born way back in 1964 when he held his first presidential position, but in all likelihood many of their parents hadn't been born either.

And yet Michael D is perfectly at ease among students, and the long-time academic clearly enjoys their company. To reinforce his hip credentials, he informed his audience that he had organised one of the very first student protests in Ireland against money-minded landladies of Galway who, once the tourism season began, would relegate their student tenants to the bad rooms, or eject them altogether.

"I remember the placards well -- they were very funny ones, because we were all very original at the time," he recalled. One of them read, 'Three in a Bed is Too Many'," he said. "Probably we reached the stage when I was later in university where people would say three in a bed is not enough," he joked, earning himself an outbreak of cheers and applause.

This wasn't in his official script of course -- for the President has a fondness for going where a notion takes him -- and he rather enjoys these forays. "For the sake of those who follow my speeches, I put in little pieces that occur to me, sent to me by the Holy Spirit or whatever. It also lends a kind of element of unpredictability which brightens one's life," he explained to more laughter.

But of course there were serious topics to be addressed, and he had stern words to say on what he regards as over-emphasis on the business side rather than academic role in colleges. "What kind of scholastic institution or what kind of community of learning is it, if you hire a very important person who can bring investment to your university but doesn't want to teach the main body of undergraduate students? Teaching is one of the most important things at third level," he declared.

"I have sat on boards, I was a member of governing bodies and I can in truth say that I never saw the capacity to teach and communicate as the top of the list in making an appointment," he said.

The President also returned to another subject which he had spoken of last month -- the homophobia and racism "that wreak havoc in the lives of many young people that is so connected to the suicide rate, that results in negative self-attributions, loneliness, isolation, exclusion, violence at the hand of others and often violent self-destruction itself. That's the Ireland that has to be changed," he declared.

His audience was attentive. As the USI's national welfare officer Scott Ahearn pointed out afterwards, most of the audience in the room were in the 18-25 age bracket, and suicide is the biggest killer of this age group in Ireland. "The facts speak for themselves," said Scott, who is involved with the online reach-out service, pleasetalk.ie, and who has compiled a national mental health directory.

There was a bit of shifting in seats though when Michael D broached the other matter of alcohol abuse. "There's something particularly ridiculous about having to say in order to engage with other people, 'I have to get wasted first'. We have to seriously deal with this problem," he said.

Nonetheless, the President was given another standing ovation as he left the hall at the end of his 30-minute speech, and they all joined him for a cup of tea and a chat.

It was all most convivial. Much more so than if Education Minister Ruairi Quinn had accepted the USI's invitation to address the congress, what with around 250,000 Irish students facing uncertainty over college fees and gloomy job prospects.

Even Michael D's good vibrations can only go so far.

Irish Independent