| 18.7°C Dublin

Gene Kerrigan: OMG! We've elected a President who has a mind and opinions

From time to time, as though there isn't enough going on, the media feels impelled to invent another presidential controversy. This time, oh, Holy God, isn't Michael D Higgins after going and "crossing the line" into "the political arena". He has "intervened directly" in political matters, when he's supposed to be "above politics". If we're not careful, the very sky might fall on our benighted Republic.

The papers and the airwaves are laced with people saying Michael D was right or wrong or a bit of both and it's good for a few days of chewing the air. Keen to defend the Republic, I got out the Bunreacht, determined to find exactly which clause of the Constitution Michael D has besmirched.

None, as it happens. There's all sorts of stuff in there about getting the permission of the Government before he spouts off – but, that has to do with formal addresses or messages to parliament. Apart from that, there's nothing to stop the President saying whatever he thinks about anything at all.

As for getting the permission of the Government, the President can't be expected to ring the Government every time he's asked a question by a reporter. He can't be expected to shut up about anything of substance, much less the state of the country over which he supposedly presides. That would be unconstitutional. The President, no less than any citizen, has the right of free expression.

The President made a formal speech, no doubt okayed by some overpaid government fusspots. He also gave an interview to the Financial Times. All terribly innocuous.

But, given the lack of any kind of real political discourse – in these astonishingly political times – it's no wonder that some people are startled when a chap with a mind is asked what he thinks and he gives a substantive reply, no matter how mainstream.

Higgins is very much a middle-of-the-road democrat, with left-of-centre inclinations and a tendency to talk in slightly florid language.

Compared with the timid stuff that comes out of our Taoiseach and our Tanaiste, one can see why it might upset the excitable types who aren't used to thinking.

Ah, but, say the fluttery folk who get excited about these things, "custom" dictates that the President stay out of the "political arena".

He or she may deliver homilies on how wonderful we are, the importance of diasporas, candles in the window, building bridges and that kind of stuff, interlaced with bits of history and cute tales of great little nation. Stray from such inanities and the excitable types are upset and talk about "custom".

This is nonsense. Custom is an accumulation of irrelevancy, built up in the records of Presidents who saw the Aras as a retirement home. The alleged rules of how a President must behave is stuff dreamed up by politicians and media folk, and written down in some invisible Presidential Bible.

Being elected in a national ballot, the President is already in the political arena. He's entitled to speak about politics in the general sense, though it would obviously cause trouble if he played political party games – which Higgins doesn't do.

On Prime Time last week, it was possible to see what was described as a "public affairs consultant" emoting about the President's allegedly controversial behaviour. In my experience, a "public affairs consultant" is a chap who knows a politician and a journalist and introduces one to another.

Bemused, I turned to my friend Mr Google and I said: "Tell me, good friend, who is this public affairs consultant?" Mr Google told me he used to be a "special adviser to Bertie Ahern, from 1999 to 2007".

Ah, yes, says I.

If Michael D told the Financial Times that he was thrilled that the citizens had so placidly accepted the huge imposition of other people's debts and he thought all our politicians at home and across Europe were doing a great job, there would be no question of shutting him up.

The fact that he discussed the crisis as though it matters to the people who are suffering the pain of it was bound to upset the fainthearted. Typically, the President's language made the message somewhat obscure.

For instance, here's a paragraph from his speech, taken at random: "Instead of a discourse that might define Europe as simply an economic space of contestation between the strong and the weak, our citizens yearn for the language of solidarity, of cohesion, for a generous inclusive rhetoric that is appropriate to an evolving political union."

Could we take the liberty of making the language less fuzzy, the politics less tentative? He could have said: "We have a marketplace where the greedy are forever on the lookout for a financial killing, ruthless in pocketing treasure that belongs to the people. The citizens need to renew and extend democracy, perhaps starting by forcing the politicians and technocrats to cease acting as servants of greed."

Higgins is a good man, with an ability to analyse what's going on. He knows that what's happening is far more serious than is acknowledged and he knows that the timid, conservative politicians are part of the problem.

If ever he really wants to upset the fluttery people who concocted the current non-controversy, he might take a Sunday trip to Ballyhea, down in Cork.

There, in an epic display of public spirit, local people have for over two years marched each week, protesting that the bankers and bondholders are being allowed to continue to ravage the Republic. They too are the President's citizens and they could do with an acknowledgement of their relevance.

It would be worth it, just to see the looks on the faces of the excitable types.

Irish Independent