Monday 11 December 2017

St Michael or a pain in the Áras?

As the anniversary of his fifth year in office approaches, Michael D Higgins has been on something of a media charm offensive. Many are full of praise for the President, but there have been accusations of meddling in politics, and questions about whether his messages hit home or amount to little more than pious preaching?

Verbose evasion: Michael D Higgins has been coy about whether he will run for a second term Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Verbose evasion: Michael D Higgins has been coy about whether he will run for a second term Photo: Frank Mc Grath
President Michael D Higgins With Queen Elizabeth during the first official visit in 2014 by a president of the Irish Republic to the UK.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

He moves serenely among the people like a secular pope, mopping up adulation and delivering rambling homilies about the sins of austerity. All that is missing are the white robes.

His supporters, including many who never voted for his party, revere him - and can't say a bad word about Saint Michael D as he marks five years in the Áras.

A poll in the last few weeks showed that 66pc of voters want the President to stay on for a second term after 2018, when he will be 77.

Higgins will be gratified by that survey, but there is still a sizeable minority (25pc) who believe that it will be time for a new face.

President Michael D Higgins With Queen Elizabeth during the first official visit in 2014 by a president of the Irish Republic to the UK.
President Michael D Higgins With Queen Elizabeth during the first official visit in 2014 by a president of the Irish Republic to the UK.

Despite the adulation and a popular perception that he has performed his duties well, Michael D has also attracted criticism during his term of office.

His detractors accuse him of overstepping the mark in politics, meddling in sensitive issues that are not the preserve of his ceremonial role as a sort of glorified Mayor, and preaching never-ending sermons that amount to little more than pious claptrap.

The President has been decidedly coy about whether he will run again, evading the question like a blushing paramour contemplating a trip to the altar.

His verbose evasion of the question of whether he will stay on during a recent appearance on the Late Late Show showed that he has lost none of his political nous.

Seasoned political observers believe that it is in his interests to dodge the question for the foreseeable, because it leaves potential opponents less time to plan a challenge.

When he was running for election five years ago, Higgins suggested that he would not serve a second term. But then right at the end of the campaign, he remarked on the issue with saccharine hauteur: "One can never predict the love of the people."

Since then, he has sat on the fence on the issue.

The number-one criticism levelled at the President is that he interferes in politics, and that sometimes his views do not chime with those of the Government.

There was one comical moment during the President's largely successful participation in the Easter 1916 centenary celebrations in the spring.

President Higgins withdrew from a civic reception in Belfast to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising after the event failed to receive cross-party support in the North. An Áras spokesman explained that he did not "want to become embroiled in matters of political controversy".

As one pundit remarked, the President's expressed wish to steer clear of matters of political controversy was a bit like Kim Kardashian suddenly announcing that she had a moral objection to taking selfies.

One former government advisor says he believes the President has over-stepped the mark politically on two occasions.

The first was over the case of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who died in University Hospital Galway after a miscarriage, and the second was over an interview he gave to the Financial Times.

"On a visit to Liverpool, he gave an interview to RTÉ where he sympathised with the husband's view, saying there should be an investigation into Savita's death and that clearly put pressure on the government inappropriately. Whether he was right or wrong was beside the point. It was inappropriate," the former advisor says of the Savita case.

The President's response may have been a humane one, and he denied that he was trying to extend the constitutional role of his office. However, David Gwynn Morgan, emeritus professor of law at University College Cork, said the President exceeded proper authority in commenting on the tragic case.

The academic said that 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.

In his defence, it has to be said that relations with the Government have generally been good. President Higgins has managed to avoid overstepping the mark on most occasions by sticking to general, highfalutin principles, frequently speaking about "Europe's moral crisis", for example. But after an interview in the highly influential Financial Times in 2013, he was accused of being too specific when he called for the introduction of Eurozone bonds and criticised the European Central Bank.

After another interview, this time for Le Monde on the eve of a visit to France, Irish government officials were reported to be alarmed when he talked of a "destructive technocracy" and "absence of moral courage".

Asked by the interviewer if he was referring to Angela Merkel and François Hollande, the President reportedly said: "I would not deny that analysis."

He likes to project himself as a globetrotting philosopher statesmen whose every word of reproach is listened to in the chancelleries of Europe and the groves of academe.

But do his messages actually hit home, and excite any interest beyond a nerdish coterie who take an esoteric interest in presidential matters?

"There isn't really a clear message from the Presidency that is being picked up by the public, unlike with President Robinson and her light from the window, and Mary McAleese and the theme of building bridges," says a former government advisor.

The presidential speeches are available on YouTube, but since he entered high office, they have never come close to the audience he achieved for a radio debate on Newstalk in 2010, when he referred the American Tea Party activist Michael Graham as a "wanker whipping up fear".

Michael D's rather unparliamentary rant against Graham has achieved more than two million hits on YouTube.

The President has received justifiable plaudits for striking just the right tone on occasion, particularly when he was navigating the hazardous waters of Anglo-Irish relations on his State visit to Britain in 2014, and commemorations of World War I and the Easter Rising.

But his delivery often lacks the clarity of a Kennedy or an Obama, with sentences rambling off in all sorts of directions, and sometimes never ending.

Listeners are left scratching their heads after trying to unravel some of his pronouncements such as the following: "In combining the tasks of conscientisation with a commitment to original thought and compassionate and emancipatory scholarship and teaching, public intellectuals can help bridge the space to that Utopia and its praxis that we all, as vulnerable inhabitants of our fragile planet, need."

The President's insights are much easier to follow in book form in his recently published volume of speeches, When Ideas Matter.

It is clear from reading the book that he spends considerable time on his speeches, and when the message is clear, they rise above the platitudes of his contemporaries such as Enda Kenny.

In his inaugural address, President Higgins expressed his wish to engage with young people as part of a series of seminars during his Presidency. But critics might argue that this initiative has fallen somewhat flat, and has not really resonated with the public.

One of the most ringing denunciations of aspects of his presidency came in the New York-based Irish Voice newspaper after he delivered his Christmas message in 2013.

The writer said his claims that his initiative with young people had "borne fruit" were insensitive after a year in which around 90,000 people - most of them young - had emigrated.

As we emerged from the grim era of austerity in 2013, it was hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed by the President when he said the response to the crisis was "disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity".

But his lofty words would have been easier to compose in the comfortable surroundings of the Áras than in Government Buildings, where ministers had to deal with intractable problems, and make decisions that could not result, in the short-term at least, in a happy outcome.

The President lives in relative splendour in a palatial mansion with armies of gardeners, chefs, servants and officials and is on a salary of €250,000 per year.

In its criticism of Higgins, the Irish Voice said there was a top layer of Irish society - the politicians, judges, lawyers, bankers, professionals, senior civil servants and all the others who make up the elite - who managed to insulate themselves from most of the effects of the bust.

"The president, who is paid an obscene amount of money for the largely ceremonial role he plays in our almost-bankrupt little country, is one of this elite," the article stated.

In fairness to the President, he took a pay cut of €75,000 when he assumed office, but that course was already set in train during the presidency of his predecessor.

He will not take a pay rise under the current terms of the Lansdowne Road agreement on public sector pay, but his salary still seems generous when one considers that the President of Germany earns €227,000 and the President of Finland €126,000.

President Higgins can justly boast that he has performed the ceremonial parts of his role with aplomb and he is at ease meeting and welcoming members of the public.

He has tried to inject more ­meaning into the Presidency than the ageing party grandees before the ­Robinson era. But it remains to be seen ­whether the public, and the political ­establishment that will ultimately make the call on a second term, still has enough respect to enable him to continue in the role beyond 2018.​

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