Thursday 20 June 2019

President Michael D and that difficult second term

Michael D Higgins pledged to usher in a 'Presidency of ideas', but settled in the end for being a cuddly national icon, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

GREEK ODYSSEY: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visiting an olive grove, near Corinth, yesterday
GREEK ODYSSEY: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visiting an olive grove, near Corinth, yesterday

Busy accident and emergency departments across the capital must have been hit last Wednesday evening by a wave of patients whose jaws had hit the floor after a woman rang 98FM's late night Dublin Calls show to say that what she really liked about President Higgins was that he stayed above politics.

In the party political sense, possibly. In the more meaningful sense of the word, there can't have been a President who has stayed less above politics than Michael D, as anyone who found his book When Ideas Matter in their Christmas stockings can attest.

This collection of presidential addresses, subtitled Speeches for an Ethical Republic, contains such enduring family favourites as Recovering the Promise of a Real Republic and The Future of Diplomacy in Conditions of Global Change and is peppered with his trademark exhortations to action against the manifold injustices of the capitalist system that generously pays his wages.

President Higgins is like an ageing rocker, still banging out the hits that made him famous, because that's what the fans want to hear.

He may be right about the shortcomings of the economic system and the superiority of his preferred social democratic model. Conversely, he may be wrong. But either way, it's somewhat surreal to say he's not political. If this isn't political, what is?

It's easy to overlook how partisan the President's politics are, because he expresses them in the language of "social justice and equality", so they sound like ideas which no reasonable person could possibly oppose. Indeed, even asking the sloganeers to define justice more precisely, or outline in detail what their version of equality might look like in practice, is seen as a kind of bullying.

But we get the gist, when he lauds Cuban dictator Fidel Castro on his death as "a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet"; or delivers accolades to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

The subject of that phone-in on 98FM was whether Ireland needs a President at all, prompted by the news that advisers to Michael D have ended months of speculation by quietly informing sympathetic politicians that their man does indeed intend to stand for a second term this autumn, despite promising in 2011 that he wouldn't.

The President himself, on a three-day visit to Greece, subsequently confirmed he has "changed his mind" about being a one-term President, and will, "in the appropriate time", make an announcement "to clear any confusion that is there".

We'll take that as a yes, then.

Necessity is an odd hook on which to hang a late-night discussion of this (not entirely unexpected) development, because what does it mean to ask if the country "needs" a president?

Does England need a queen? Does Tonga need a king? Every country has a head of state in some capacity, to sign bills and represent its interests abroad, and most opt for presidents. Need doesn't really come into it. The only question worth asking is whether that should be Michael D again.

The former Labour Party TD for Galway West will undoubtedly face some criticism for his expected about-turn on not seeking a second term, and that's fair enough. The word of politicians counts for little enough as it is without the country's most eminent elected sage going back on his as well.

It will also frustrate others who might have thought they had a chance to take his place, such as Fianna Fail's Eamon O Cuiv, who seemingly had his eye on the main prize. But it's a man's prerogative to change his mind, and the current inhabitant of Aras an Uachtarain clearly feels he now has greater experience to do the job than when he started. "I do think that very solid foundations had been laid," as he put it last week.

Such a decision would surely prove popular too. Most Irish people seem to think he has acquitted himself well enough in his role. Despite the Progressive Democrats founder Des O'Malley's famous quip that Michael D would "go mad" in office, he has so far managed to retain his sanity in his big house in the Phoenix Park.

But then why wouldn't he? What O'Malley actually said is that Michael D would "go mad in government", because that would necessitate making hard decisions and he would then have to square his airy leftist rhetoric with the reality of running a ministry; and Higgins wasn't exposed to that, firstly by ending up in the softest of departments as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, where he could busy himself by setting up Telefis na Gaeilge or abolishing Section 31 while other politicians got on with the job of actually running the country.

Becoming President was the logical extension of that career path, which involves adopting crowd-pleasing political positions without ever dirtying your hands.

Given such a low bar, he's been a decent enough President. Spencer Tracy once said that the job of an actor was to learn his lines and not bump into the furniture. It's roughly the same for a president, and Michael D has managed to fulfil those basic duties.

The more interesting question is whether he could honestly say he's been a good President when judged by the standards which he publicly set himself at the start.

"Soon after my inauguration," he notes in that aforementioned collection of speeches: "I said that I would seek to make my tenure a presidency of ideas."

Has it been, though? Really? In his inaugural speech in Dublin Castle's St Patrick's Hall, the new President even claimed - in the very first sentence - that he had been chosen "to represent you at home and abroad, and to serve as a symbol of an Irishness of which we can all be proud, and which together we must forge anew".

Forge anew, no less. Most presidents are proud simply to represent the countries they call home. Michael D wanted a new Ireland. It could be argued he hasn't come close to achieving it. Judged against his own criteria, many would say his tenure has been underwhelming. There was the odd speech here and there that caused some ripples, but it isn't much to show for seven years as Ireland's foremost citizen.

Most of those speeches were also much earlier in his time in the Aras. The Mansion House speech, in which he railed against "neo- liberals", was in 2013. The speech at the London School of Economics, in which he extolled the virtues of a range of left-wing thinkers, was in 2012. In recent years, he's toned it down, contenting himself with popping up at historic moments. He has mellowed into a cuddly national institution, and it has become remarkably easy to forget that he's there at all. Months go by in which his name hardly registers on the public consciousness.

All things considered, he should probably be allowed seven more years, if that's what he wants. He won't get it without a contest, since independent Senator Gerard Craughwell at least has said he will stand to ensure a proper contest if nobody else does, and he should be commended for that, because he would, in all likelihood, lose badly.

Michael D got lucky in 2011, as frontrunner Sean Gallagher's bid fell at the final fence thanks to the combined efforts of RTE and Sinn Fein.

The Galway politician did not exactly impress during that campaign, but he was regarded in the end as the safest bet, and a largely obsequious media would give him an even easier run this time out. He hasn't done anything so terrible that he must be urgently deposed, and there seems to be no great public appetite for a fight. Minds are focused elsewhere.

More than that, President Higgins should get his seven more years because it's so much fun to see him rail against neo-liberalism and the evils of capitalism while receiving €250,000 a year.

It would also be worth every cent to see his discomfort if he ever has to host President Trump on an official visit to Ireland. As a younger - though still old enough to know better - firebrand, he protested against the visit to Ireland of then President Reagan, even as he was helping bring an end to Communism.

To watch Higgins now have to raise a toast to Donald would be a beautiful thing.

Sunday Independent

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