Thursday 21 November 2019

Michael D has shown us why we just don't need a president

Like him or not, the issue with the President is that he sees problems but offers no solutions, writes Donal Lynch

President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney
President Michael D Higgins. Photo: Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'In the fullness of time," Michael D assured reporters who wondered when he would make a decision on whether to keep his word about serving just one term as the country's President. "It is just my decision; it doesn't affect anyone else."

For some this was a strange statement - what about the millions of people whom you represent and whose vote you sought, specifically with the assurance you were serving one term? But seasoned observers of the Higgins presidency will not have been terribly surprised.

He has won such warm praise over the last six years that he must calculate that the gratitude of the people would easily outweigh the appearance of not keeping his word.

He has the backing to continue in office from the Taoiseach, garners almost universally positive media coverage, and is the most popular president in Irish history.

As his style of speaking teeters ever closer to a parody of Queen Elizabeth II, he slowly assumes the bearing of a monarch, and like the Queen he seems like a comforting, familiar touchstone in the shadow of Brexit, Trump and nuclear war.

On social media he's cooed over like he was a kitten - he may be the first and only president described as "cuddle-able". Seven more years would seem like the obvious conclusion.

The only people who don't seem to want to cuddle Michael D are conservative commentators, who deplore his left-leaning philosophising. David Quinn wrote last year that Higgins uses the presidency as a "left-wing bully pulpit", and argued that "if the country had espoused the vision a hundred years ago that President Higgins lauds today, we would be far worse off than we are".

In 2013, Dan O'Brien deplored the "political and partisan" notes of Higgins's "interventions" and said that Higgins had "resorted to tiresome name-calling of the reactionary left, including their favourite term of abuse, 'neoliberal'".

These criticisms never seemed to gain much traction because the suggestion behind them is that we should have a president that sails more above the fray - like Patrick Hillery did - when it has been proven that this is not what the public wants in their president.

In his chapter in the book The Irish Presidency, DCU politics professor Eoin O'Malley shows that being non-partisan was much less important for those who voted Higgins in than traits like honesty and the ability to represent Ireland well abroad were. As Higgins has grown into the role, it's possible that he's felt more emboldened to develop an 'active presidency'.

A much more valid criticism, and one that doesn't require you to disagree with Higgins's politics, or go full Oliver Callan on him, is that he has carved out a new type of presidency which allows its holder - a career politician - a luxury that none of his colleagues can ever enjoy: the freedom to identify problems, without having to come up with solutions. He was "appalled' by the treatment of Greece during the financial crisis but had no suggestion as to how they might have been treated differently.

Last year, he said that austerity "asked the impossible" of European citizens but he had no ideas as to how else we might otherwise stagger back to our feet - as we have done.

And of course he rubber-stamped our own version of "the impossible" - the hated water charges bill - with little heed for calls to consult the Council of State on whether to put the bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.

It was strangely apt to see the populist water charge demonstraters protest the decision of the populist-in-chief outside the Aras. They might have done well to listen to the contradictions of the Higgins presidency: "I don't speak about the Government's legislative programme," he told The Irish Times earlier this year, "but the themes with which legislation is dealing I feel perfectly free to do so, because I am directly elected as a President and therefore I am in contact with an awful lot of people."

If he does decide to return to being just one of the people, the luxury of being the hurler on the ditch will be as difficult for Higgins to relinquish as the trappings of office.

Watching him you might wonder how anyone who has adapted with such regal gusto could go back to normal life. His accent, always highly affected, has become almost Dickensian, his speech seasoned to choking point with archaic curlicues. For the majority of the public this makes him a figure of gentle fun, but you know that for Higgins himself it is all quite a serious business.

The ultimate defence of Michael D has always been that he was the best of a bad bunch in the last election, which was probably true. His suitability in the role is perhaps beside the point, however. The real question, as he tantalises us with his decision, is whether we actually need another president to follow him.

Other republics combine the head of the executive and the head of state in one office and it could be argued that the 'soft politics' of the presidency already gets enough lip service from modern taoisigh and ample airing in the Seanad.

Getting rid of the presidency in its current form would obviously require a referendum, but it would mean that, in the long run, millions would be saved, the Aras could be repurposed for something useful, like housing the poor, and one man or woman would have to take decisions to back up the poetry and rhetoric.

And if it took Michael D to show us that this would be a preferable state of affairs, then he will have done the State some service.

Sunday Independent

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