Thursday 24 January 2019

Michael D is always worth a listen - even if you're clueless

President Michael D Higgins: if he casts aside the theatrics and pomp he can deliver a message that will make people take heed
President Michael D Higgins: if he casts aside the theatrics and pomp he can deliver a message that will make people take heed
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Perched behind a microphone stand in an upstairs room of Newman House on St Stephen's Green in Dublin City Centre, President Michael D Higgins addressed a gathering of UCD students.

The president was the keynote speaker at a seminar on 'Democracy and Popular Legitimacy in the European Union', which took place on March 20 last year.

It was a sell-out.

But then the room only had capacity for around 20 bright-eyed and ambitious students, who shared the small space with a handful of less enthusiastic journalists dispatched to cover the event.

Mr Higgins spoke about how rating agencies had become "modern panopticons" which are "increasingly coming to define the lifeworld and prospects of European citizens".

The speech was littered with references to German philosophers and Polish sociologists.

"The current encroachment of expertise and technocracy over democratic debate is threatening the future of our polities," he said.

And as if that wasn't enough, he added: "Acknowledging the embeddedness of ethical ideals with the economy and administration is, I suggest, one of the surest means to debunk some of the theoretically fragile, in terms of its undeclared assumptions, expertise directed at citizens who are dismissively assumed to be economically illiterate."

His point was that the capitalist institutions (banks, investment firm and ratings agencies, etc) have been running the show for long enough and it is now time for Governments to take a stand on behalf of the average citizen.

Unfortunately, the average citizen would not be able to make head nor tail of what he was on about. This was three years into his tenure as the country's ceremonial figurehead and by this stage people had become accustomed to his periodically outbursts of sanctimony.

In the midst of the country being handheld through the economic recovery by the Troika,he regularly focused his ire on the European Union's institutions and their lack of compassion for the average citizen.

At first we applauded.

"He's the only one standing up to the lads in Europe," we'd say.

"Thank God we didn't elected that other fella, what's his name?

"Your man with the bald head and the Fianna Fáil connection."

There were a couple of naysayers who said: "woah there, Michael, you're straying a little bit outside your constitutional boundaries with all this tough talk".

But then we got bored.

He seemed to be at it all the time and it always felt like he was talking down to us.

No matter how important his message is, there are only so many references to well-respected academics and niche sociologists you can listen to before you drift off. We are living in a time where people barely get through the full 140 characters on Twitter before their attention is distracted elsewhere. The 24-hour news cycle competing with social media means the prominence a story is given relies more and more on the image you can attach to it - be it poignant or horrific.

This is not a cause celebration, nor should it be encouraged.

But it is a reality and, like it or not, a 60-second YouTube video is likely to have more of an impact than a meandering 30-minute speech referencing playwrights, poets and philosophers.

Undoubtedly, Mr Higgins is a popular president with more than half the country giving him their first preference vote during the hard-fought 2011 Presidential Election. And it is fair to say we knew what we were getting into when we gave him the nod to take up residence in the Phoenix Park.

It is also worth remembering he is a man who has spent much of his political career thinking far beyond his constituency in Galway West.

He campaigned to highlight human rights abuses in war-torn areas such as Nicaragua, Cambodia and El Salvador when others in his position were giving little thought to issues which they believed would not result in votes.

Since taking office, he has warned about the rise of racism and intolerance in Europe after the economic crisis - a fact borne out by the treatment of refugees in some member states and increasing support for far-right political parties.

Mr Higgins was also right when he called the United Nations and European Union's response to the migrant crisis a "great failure".

Today, when he speaks at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, his speech will take from his years of campaigning and his understanding of human suffering.

The topics of world poverty and climate change - two issues on which he is passionate - will be to the fore of the agenda in the UN Assembly Building in New York.

When he speaks we should listen.

But hopefully he casts the theatrics and pomp to the side so as to deliver a message which will impact on all those that do listen, whether they learned scholars or average citizens.

Irish Independent

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