Wednesday 22 January 2020

Eilis O'Hanlon: Michael D doesn’t speak for us, as he should, but speaks for himself

If the President wants to issue rallying cries for political action, like the men of 1916, he should be as upfront about it as they were, says Eilis O'Hanlon

LEADER: President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina. Photo: Kip Carroll
LEADER: President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina. Photo: Kip Carroll

Eilis O'Hanlon

He was meant to be the guest of honour, but President Higgins withdrew from a civic reception in Belfast this week to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising after the event failed to receive cross-party support in the North. A spokesman for Aras an Uachtarain explained: "He does not want to become embroiled in matters of political controversy."

It was at this point that Irony threw up it hands in despair and said: "That's it, I'm out of here, I can't do this any more, things are getting too ridiculous even for me."

President Higgins wanting to steer clear of "matters of political controversy" is like Kim Kardashian suddenly announcing that she has a moral objection to taking selfies. Michael D has been pushing at the constitutional restraints of his office from the moment he gave a speech in 2012 to the achingly right-on hipsters of the London School of Economics in which he bent over backwards to reassure them he was on their side.

In that speech, Higgins shoehorned in references to a veritable top 10 of left-wing idols, from Karl Marx onwards, whilst criticising philosophers who were, in his words, "standing in support of unregulated markets".

In 2013, he went further, criticising so-called "neo liberal" economics and calling for a radical rethink of EU policy in order to create an "ethical economy". Whether he's right or wrong is not the point. He frequently gets involved in politics, whatever his spokespeople claim.

Predictably, he did so again earlier last week when marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. It was a shame, because he is, in many ways, the perfect President for the day. Like many of those involved in planning the uprising against British rule, this head of state is a poet, even leaving aside questions over the literary merit of his works. His visit to Britain also showcased his flair for big State occasions.

He couldn't let this opportunity pass, however, without seeking to put his own stamp on the event. Not speaking for the nation, as a President should do, but speaking for Michael D, specifically for Michael D's analysis of the nation's ills. It all began with a call for Britain to reassess its "supremacist and militarist imperialism", which was curious enough in itself.

Maybe Britain should, but it was akin to using a golden wedding anniversary love letter to your wife to have a go at your ex.

He then launched into a week-long extended riff on "the Republic that is yet to be realised", which attracted much less criticism than it deserved, considering what an ungracious tone it struck.

These were meant to be commemorations of events which, whatever disagreements there might be about them, ultimately brought into being an independent Irish nation. You don't hear French Presidents using Bastille Day to basically say that France isn't good enough, or US Presidents standing up on the Fourth of July and declaring that the United States has "yet to be realised".

Michael D effectively ran a finger along the mantelpiece of the nation, curled up his nose at the dust, and ticked off the parlour maids for not putting in enough effort, presumably before sitting down and writing another poem about the joy of egalitarianism.

His wife Sabina's intervention was even more astonishing. At an oration in front of the grave of Constance Markievicz in Glasnevin on Tuesday, she not only called on a strange group of people whom she called "us women" (are we an homogeneous gang now?) to be "fire(d) with enthusiasm" by the countess's example into tackling economic inequality, gender violence and climate change which threatens, she warned, "the existence of the planet"; Sabina even managed to throw in an insulting reference to "scab labour", before declaiming: "In this contemporary and globalised world of a new form of a capitalism, that seeks to undermine democracy itself, the Empires of greed are even more powerful and unaccountable."

She finished on an equally rousing note: "We must all become activists." Must, no less. Arise and follow Sabbie, indeed.

This was surely one of the most extraordinary speeches ever made by someone officially representing the office of the Irish President (Sabina's speeches are listed alongside those of her husband on the Aras website). Shouldn't voters in 2011 have been warned that they were voting for Posh as well as Becks?

Michael D may well be right about the mortifying inadequacy of the country that he represents - we'll redouble efforts to make ourselves more worthy of you, Mr President - and his wife, whoever the blazes she is, may be right about those "empires of greed". But please let's skip the pretence that all this is not political.

The President's sycophantic supporters routinely defend him against the charges of political interference by claiming that he is not "political" in the strict sense, because he doesn't interfere with legislation coming from the Dail. That, though, is a pitifully narrow definition of what it means to be "political", and one which Higgins would undoubtedly deplore in normal circumstances.

Nor has he shied away in the past from admitting that he is on an explicitly political mission.

In a speech on world hunger to the University of California last October, he made no bones about it: "What elements must be aligned to achieve the ambition of ending hunger and eliminating poverty in your lifetime? This task is an inescapably political one."

Inescapably. He said it.

What seems to be going on when he makes these speeches is that he genuinely doesn't think they can or should be considered controversial because, in his own head, he is simply stating things are as self-evidently true as saying that the sky is blue.

They are not political statements to the President so much as moral truisms to which all decent people must accede before passing the admissions test of humanity.

In doing so last week, he brushed over what is problematic about the Rising's endorsement of bloodshed as a national initiation rite and recast it instead as a crusade for "a more equal redistribution of the fruits of prosperity among all of its children", which - surprise, surprise - just so happens to mirror his own preferred ideology.

This is the same narrative of self-loathing that suggests Irish people should somehow feel ashamed in the face of the Proclamation, as if it was the word of God, inviolable and indivisible, handed down on tablets of stone for future generations to either implement in full or be judged and found wanting. James Connolly has become Christ, and Irish socialists are his priests.

Confess your sins, unholy capitalism, and be redeemed.

Higgins then has the cheek to warn against simplistic interpretations of a complex history, telling Thursday's Mansion House symposium Remembering 1916 that "there is always a risk that commemoration might be exploited for partisan purposes, and some historians have rightly warned us against the perils posed to historical truth by any backward imputation of motives, any uncritical transfer of contemporary emotions onto the past."

How is that any different from what he said moments later in the same speech when declaring that "my purpose is to salvage those elements within Ireland's rich and diverse nationalist tradition that are most meaningful to us today - elements from which we might draw; elements whose emancipatory potential, once retrieved, might better enable us to rekindle the purpose and joy of our living together as a nation"?

But of course the President doesn't see this as "partisan", because he is on the side of the progressive angels. His virtue protects him from being or doing wrong, like a deflector shield around his ethical Millennium Falcon. He's only speaking out for our own good. How can we possibly object?

Sniping at the failings of modern capitalism is hard to take from people who have spent significant parts of their careers living and dining well from the public purse; who have long since forgotten what it's like to live on below average earnings - if, indeed, they ever knew - and who even now sit on vast salaries, with multi-million euro pension pots.

Michael D's sociology papers did not make the filthy capital which pays for the privileged lifestyles of public sector socialists as, wrapped in cotton wool, they stroll from sinecure to sinecure with a bloated sense of entitlement.

The money to pay the bills comes from the very economic system which they decry as vulgar and immoral.

Higgins says that we are "invited" to "reach for the ideals and hopes that animated so many of the men and women of 1916 in their struggle for freedom, equality and social justice"; but an invitation can be turned down as well as accepted, and if the progressive socialists, traditional nationalists, Catholic reactionaries and proto-fascist "blood sacrifice" merchants who converged to start the Easter Rising really did die for something called "freedom", then it has to include the freedom to think that any or all of them were wrong - either because we do not agree with their ideals, or because we believe that prosperity and equality can be achieved in other and better ways - yes, even through free market capitalism - otherwise it's not freedom at all.

The idea of being so beholden to the men and women of 1916 that we should simply do as we're told by them is absurd.

They have no more right to make demands on what we should do in 2016 than we have to tell generations not yet born what they should do in 2116.

Michael D ought to understand the dangers of this sort of meaningless rhetoric. In that speech to the London School of Economics early in his Presidency, he quoted the words of Bertrand Russell: "If a crowd has gathered, particularly if music is playing, you can get them to believe in anything." That goes for simple-minded, crowd-pleasing utopian socialism too, Mr President.

Sunday Independent

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