Saturday 21 September 2019

Cormac McQuinn: 'President unlikely to bite tongue as he pushes boundaries'

Independent spirit: President Michael D Higgins inspects the Defence Forces on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 2016. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie
Independent spirit: President Michael D Higgins inspects the Defence Forces on Dublin’s O’Connell Street in 2016. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

On the eve of Donald Trump's visit to Ireland, President Michael D Higgins described his counterpart's decision to pull the US out of an international climate change deal as "regressive and pernicious".

The remarks could have proved a headache for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when he encountered the famously thin-skinned Mr Trump the following day. In the end, it was Mr Trump's vocal support of Brexit with which Mr Varadkar had to contend.

But it's a recent example of how Mr Higgins, a former firebrand TD who wasn't shy about making his views known, continues to be outspoken as President.

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They're interventions that come in carefully crafted speeches and that push the boundaries of an office that's supposed to stay out of policy issues.

Mr Varadkar and other ministers have had to scramble to defuse any controversy over Mr Higgins's latest eyebrow-raising public comments - this time on Defence Forces' pay.

Mr Higgins - the supreme commander of the Defence Forces - said it was "not too much" to expect that personnel should have "an income and prospects" to provide for themselves and their families.

His remarks reignited the row over Defence Forces' pay that had died down in recent months.

Fianna Fáil and Labour politicians were quick to renew criticism of the Government over a recruitment and retention crisis in the Defence Forces, while ministers were forced to defend their record.

While some within Government have privately expressed anger over Mr Higgins's comments and claimed he strayed from his remit, Mr Varadkar sought to offset any potential row.

He insisted he had no problem with Mr Higgins's remarks and that he agreed with the President that Defence Forces' members should earn enough to provide for them and their families.

However, he was still on the defensive, saying: "We're setting aside €400 million next year for increases in public pay and the Defence Forces will get their fair share."

Mr Higgins's remarks this week are certainly not the first time that he has been accused of stepping over the line.

In 2013, while the country was still suffering from the impact of the economic crisis, Mr Higgins criticised austerity and the response of European leaders during a speech where he warned of a "crisis of legitimacy" in the EU.

At the time, Mr Higgins defended himself against accusations that he had gone beyond his remit, saying he hadn't mentioned the word austerity in any speech and insisting: "I don't ever interfere on a matter of legislation."

Then Labour minister Pat Rabbitte and Mr Varadkar, who was transport minister, supported Mr Higgins by agreeing with him.

This strategy by ministers - agreeing with the President after remarks that may be seen as crossing the line, in an apparent attempt to avoid a row - was evident again this week.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed both said the Defence Forces' pay was an area of concern for the Government.

But there's no doubt that intervention by Mr Higgins can be uncomfortable for the Government.

When the looming shortage in housing was becoming apparent in 2014, Mr Higgins described the situation as a crisis during a visit to homelessness charity Focus Ireland.

The Government would not thank him for such a contribution now.

There was open criticism of Mr Higgins from Fine Gael TDs when the President described Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as "a giant among global leaders" after his death in 2016. There were claims that the President's tribute did not say enough about Castro's human rights abuses.

Mr Higgins's spokesman was forced to point out that he had raised such concerns with the Cuban government every time he met its representatives.

The President has insisted he is well aware of the constitutional constraints of his office when claims are made that he has overstepped the mark.

Now in his second term, having been re-elected with a more than 820,000-strong vote, he enjoys the position of being probably the most popular politician in the country.

It's therefore hard to see him biting his tongue when he wants to get his views across - however carefully worded.

Don't be surprised if there's further discomfort for governments in the years to come.

Irish Independent

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