Monday 19 February 2018

Peeking over red line: pushing boundaries after tricky start...

President Higgins Official Visit to Ethiopia, Malawi and South Africa
President Higgins Official Visit to Ethiopia, Malawi and South Africa
John Downing

John Downing

Try though you might, it's hard to ignore Michael D. That high-pitched voice, with the accent sounding 'posh' and 'country' at the same time, have made him an impressionist's dream, and helped propel this President into all our lives. The appended D, for Daniel, has given him the nationwide first-name recognition enjoyed by Garret (Fitz­Gerald), Charlie (Haughey), and just a handful of others.

Next Monday, Uachtarán na hÉireann Michéal D Ó hUiginn passes the halfway mark in his seven-year term as titular head of the Irish State. He began the job on November 11, 2011, like many of his previous roles, with predictions of calamity. And he definitely has had some tricky moments, especially as he hovered around the red line of exceeding his role by straying into matters political; he endured speculation about staffing arrangements at the Áras; and recurring allegations of "speeches from the moral high ground." But even the begrudgers must admit that the sum total of these episodes stop far short of calamity.

We must also recall that these predictions of "calamity Michael D" are nothing new in this public life as councillor, Senator, TD and Minister, which has spanned six decades. Twenty years ago, the then Progressive Democrat leader Des O'Malley said Higgins would "go mad" in government. But he did no such thing.

As Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht Minister from 1992 to 1997, he set up TG4, introduced film industry tax incentives, abolished Section 31 broadcasting restrictions, and hugely improved budgets for literature, theatre, dance and visual arts.

There was a strong clue in the marathon presidential election campaign, which ran from May Day to Halloween in 2011, and mixed bathos and awfulness as national politics often became zoo politics. Michael D emerged as the measured one, always stayed above the terrible infighting, kept his cool as things appeared to fall asunder, and finally romped home in style with one million votes.

Such a popular mandate ably fitted him to continue judiciously "pushing the boundaries" and building on the work done by the two Presidents Mary, Robinson and McAleese, over three previous presidential terms as they strove to offer more than platitudes. But still the expectation is that the President is more usually seen and not heard. President Robinson recalled that she pushed the boundaries by "peeking over the line".

That phrase evokes how, over the past 78 years, Irish Presidents rarely, if ever, involved themselves with the political controversies of the day. The office was designed in De Valera's 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann to be ceremonial and representative, with few specific powers, and generally above party politics. But in an interview to mark his first anniversary in office in November 2012, President Higgins suggested he would like to extend the powers of his office without constitutional change. As with his predecessors, he said he was keen to push out its boundaries, "and I think I can go a little bit farther".

He did that mainly in a number of major speeches in which he castigated the liberal, free-market thrust of economic policy that now prevails across the European Union. Some senior civil servants privately expressed worries that he was straying beyond his remit and headed for collision with the Government.

David Gwynn Morgan, emeritus professor of law at University College Cork, publicly echoed that view, saying the President exceeded proper authority in commenting on the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar. Morgan said the President was supposed to, as head of state, personify the State and act as a focus of citizens' unity rather than setting himself up as a critic of the Government, however valid those criticisms might be.

But President Higgins's work-rate and his warm, personal relations with the Government overcame such potential difficulties. His good relations with the Taoiseach date back to his friendship with Enda Kenny's father, Henry, in the early 1970s.

There is also the simple reality that President Higgins works hard at the day job and at getting the ceremonials and pageantry just right. His landmark state visit to Britain in April 2014 exemplified this.

Personnel issues at Áras an Uachtaráin could, however, prove a bugbear for a President who makes strong pronouncements on ethics in public life. In November 2013, Mary van Lieshout, an experienced human rights campaigner, quit her position as adviser midway through her three-year contract.

Her salary of €103,000 exceeded the guidance threshold of €83,000 for special adviser salaries. At the time, sources attributed her departure to difficulties in gaining access to the President and referred to her having to go through Kevin McCarthy, an executive assistant to the President. Others at the Áras specifically denied all suggestions there were obstacles to gaining access and spoke of a "small and cohesive team".

Ms van Lieshout herself drew a line under the events some days later, saying she "was privileged to have the experience of working in Áras an Uachtaráin".

But back with the bigger picture, Michael D tries to pin down this elusive state office. "I offer a vision of a radically inclusive citizenship, in a creative society, worthy of a real Republic - making us proud to be Irish in the world," he poetically declaimed during his marathon election campaign in summer 2011.

Few of us can know even in most general terms what that means. And yet, many of us know President Michael D Higgins is busy trying to deliver it.

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