Tuesday 23 January 2018

The steely resolve of a cuddly President

Female racegoers lined up to cuddle the president this week.
Female racegoers lined up to cuddle the president this week.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Female racegoers lined up to cuddle him last week, and hard nosed EU politicans gave him a standing ovation.

It seems to be a common response to the charms of President Michael D Higgins that women want to pick him up and cuddle him. That was one emotion that could be found among the rapturous messages of support on YouTube after his landmark speech to the European Parliament nine days ago.

It was also evident as the President moved among the crowds at Punchestown Races this week.

A statuesque stranger, still holding a drink, went up to our Head of State insisting on a kiss, and he obliged.

"I'm due to be wed in four weeks," she joked, "but I might be changing that for Michael D."

The two Marys, Robinson and McAleese, caught the popular mood during their terms as president, but they did not move so freely among the people.

For all their occasional folksiness, they maintained a certain regal air that Michael D has been happy to dispense with.

He was quite at ease meeting racegoers and posing for informal photographs.

He told Weekend Review in an interview this week: "I enjoy meeting people. I have being doing it at football matches ever since I became a politician."

He may be cheered at international rugby matches as he is dwarfed by giants.

But as one pundit has remarked, in recent days he has shown that he cannot be lightly dismissed as a mere charming figurine who goes about cutting ribbons.

With his speech in the antiseptic surroundings of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, his presidency suddenly burst into life.

He received a rare standing ovation from MEPs.

Nessa Childers, the dissident Labour MEP who herself lived in the Áras as the daughter of a president, was in the chamber looking on. She said: "We have presidents and prime ministers coming in, but they don't get a reception like that."

If he was watching back in his office in Dublin, Finance Minister Michael Noonan must have shuffled uncomfortably in his seat as Michael D slaughtered the sacred cows of austerity.

The President is not allowed to comment directly on government policy but he launched a thinly veiled attack on the faceless technocrats who run Europe. Michael D suggested they had lost touch with the everyday needs of ordinary people.

He painted a picture of a ruling class, obsessed with dry technical concerns and meeting the needs of speculative markets and credit ratings agencies.

The response to the crisis, he said, was "disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity".

His critique of the prevailing economic orthodoxy as "the flaw of our times" has been taken up by other more powerful European leaders.

Within days the Social Protection Minister Joan Burton was emboldened to suggest that we have reached the limits of austerity, and ordinary people were shouldering too much of the burden.

The President said: "I was very pleased that the discourse took off. I spent a lot of time working on the speech to try to get the message across clearly."

The former leader of the Progressive Democrats, Des O'Malley, once warned in the early 1990s that Michael D would "go mad in government".

And there were similar reservations when he became President that he might be too outspoken, or too constrained by the diplomatic niceties of the task.

So has he gone too far in his attack on austerity, which until now has been the guiding principle of ministers and the ruling troika?

One senior Labour figure said: "He probably pushed himself right to the boundaries of what a president can do. He knew exactly the limits of what he could get away with, and did not criticise anyone individually.

"One thing you have to realise is that Michael D is a shrewd politician. In the past when he was a TD, he made many speeches that might be seen as critical of the leadership, but he never lost the party whip."

Michael D's distaste for the rigours of austerity is hardly surprising, given his own upbringing in relative poverty in Limerick and Co Clare.

With his father struggling to find work, he went to live with an unmarried aunt on a small farm.

For him, grinding austerity brought with it the disintegration of family life.

It is a long way from there to the pomp and circumstance of Áras an Uachtaráin, where the President lives in the West Wing. Behind the flowery rhetoric, the philosophical digressions and the poetry, there was always a steely streak of ambition.

On the day he married his wife Sabina in 1974 (the couple had met at a "hippy party" in the house of Irish Independent columnist Mary Kenny), he told his sister Kathleen on the way to the reception: "I'll be President of Ireland one day."

The Michael D presidency has taken a while to fizz into life, but it is easy to forget that the now hugely popular Mary McAleese also took time to settle in.

Even a decade into her presidency, her biographer Justine McCarthy described her as a "cheerleader for the status quo" and "a single-agenda figurehead stuck in a time warp".

The Robinson and McAleese presidencies had clear themes. The first Mary turned on the light in the window of the Áras for Irish emigrants, while the second Mary talked of "building bridges".

The Michael D themes have taken time to emerge but the anti-austerity message now chimes with a public mood of weariness with the dry techno-babble of economists.

Tony Heffernan, his adviser during the presidential campaign, said: "He is not saying anything that is different to the message he delivered before he was elected. This is what people elected him for."

President Higgins admitted soon after he took on the job that he felt homesick for Galway, but he now says that he enjoys the job, saying: "I will be very truthful with you. I haven't had time to think about the adjustment I had to make.

"You have to remember that Sabina and I have always been in the public eye. She is an actress. So, we have the idea that the show must go on."

Having turned 72 this month, he says he works harder than when he was Minister for Arts and Culture in the Labour coalition governments of the 1990s.

"I do three or four functions a day in the Áras. I think we worked out that I did 500 functions outside the Áras last year. There is a lovely study where I work in the evening on my speeches after the administrative work of the Áras has finished."

The study is decorated with Sean Keating's portrait of Michael D's mentor, the radical socialist Noel Browne. It is often forgotten that the President first joined Fianna Fáil as a student, before Browne inspired him to take a sharp turn to the left.

Although their children are now grown up, Mr and Mrs Higgins still have plenty of company on the 120-acre Áras estate.

As well as the domestic staff, there is a menagerie of animals, including the cherished "First Dogs" Shadow and Brod, hens, a swarm of bees in the presidential hives, and a herd of cattle.

Visitors are struck by the warmth of the welcome, and the time that the President and his staff take to show people around.

They are usually shown the trees planted by Pope John Paul II and Queen Victoria, and the organic garden. They are also invariably introduced to the President's Bernese Mountain dogs. "My dogs are very gregarious," Michael D says.

Close observers of the presidency have noticed the active role of Mrs Higgins, who sometimes performs functions on her own as well as travelling with her husband.

"As an actress she was interested in creativity and she was also an activist in parents' groups when our children were growing up, and people ask her to speak on those kinds of topics.

"She has always been interested in yoga and relaxation techniques."

The President seems to have allayed early fears that his advanced age might limit him.

Having had an operation on his injured knee, he now bounds along with a youthful spring in his step.

At Trinity College on Wednesday, he had the confident air of a man on a lap of honour after his triumph in the European Parliament.

Now that he has found his voice, we can expect more radical speeches.

So long as they are couched as philosophical reflections, rather than direct political attacks, his presidency is likely to continue to prosper.

Indo Review

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