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Gisele Scanlon

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A Week with Ireland's New President

Posted: 04/11/11 00:00

This week Ireland woke up to a new Irish President. But does Michael D Higgins represent a new and different Ireland? I shadowed him for a week to find out.

It's intimidating stepping behind the scenes to shadow Ireland's president. It's quite obvious to everyone that I'm a bit nervous taking the task on. Have you ever read George Orwell's essay on how to make the perfect cup of tea? I blurt these words out at the beginning as an ice-breaker. He smiles. Little did he know...I have my own Michael D Higgins story yet to tell.

Stepping through the doors of The Alexander hotel, I first met Michael D Higgins on a very wet day in Dublin. I'd just read a newspaper article in which the journalist raised the issue of Michael D Higgins's age of 70 and would his leg injury prevent him doing the job. Michael D stepped out of his car and strode towards the hotel foyer briskly although with a slight limp which he later described aptly. "There is a certain amount of interest in my famous Columbian knee" he said. "I hope that I've put Buenaventura on the map this year." He was quite funny at times, a good start.

During an aid agency mission to a remote area of Columbia, he'd slipped on wet tiles and smashed his knee cap in several places. When asked about it he said "I could go on and on, but that would be moving into more foreign territory." He has devoted much of his life making the case for "the different in society" and working in places such as Somalia, Peru, Salvador, Nicaragua and Turkey he stresses that "many other Irish volunteers over the years have also given Ireland a valuable and justified reputation for its genuine human rights work abroad."

He would also later explain "I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that there were times when the campaign was quite ageist. This has nothing to do with me, because I do things that lots of people don't even dream of doing - that's the kind of restless person I am. But I felt it was wrong. I've said to people when I'm quizzed, 'some of Picasso's greatest work was produced by him between the ages of 72 and 90.'" He may be 70, but, having played a powerful role in Irish politics for many years, Michael D Higgins brings gravitas and a presence to the position.

Another, rather wet and eerie, evening, during a concert in support of Higgins, I photographed him. Meanwhile I noticed there were moments he thought deeply to himself even though he was surrounded by a crowd. The rain pelted the roof and I broke his concentration by asking whether the public was just fed up in general with the whole idea of politicians. "Yes, I'm sure," he said. "But I'm aiming to be a different kind of president, more inclusive. People's ideas will be key. And your point about the weather, there isn't much we can do about that now." And what about the people who simply wanted to vote for the celebrity candidate off the television (at the time a TV celebrity candidate was topping the polls)? "Yes. That might happen regardless. But in time it'll become clear," he said and looked me straight in the eye "we represent two very different versions of Ireland."

But doesn't it bother you, what must amount to a lot of people voting for a celebrity with little direct political representative experience? "There are many, differences between our approach but I think the main thing to know is that they are different versions of Irishness based on not just the economy but on the society, the people. I've said what we had in the last 15 to 20 years, the Celtic Tiger idea was that a person achieved celebrity and was valued in terms of what they owned or were reputed to own when in fact what you really need to do is to value the worth of the individual. It's a difference in perspective. I'm sorry if I'm being a bit long-winded but I'm drawing on literally everything I believe."

I said (still fixated on the silly celebrity-for-president issue swirling among my friends and the Irish media) that part of the misunderstanding among the Irish voters, may also be a lack of interest in or understanding of his vast intellect or academic experience. (Higgins is a brilliant academic. Having graduated at University College Galway he went on to further study at Indiana and Manchester universities and spent time as visiting professor at the Southern Illinois University.) "And they'd' be right," he said. "I decided that sticking to a life of pure academia was too limiting too.

"I decided," his voice rose, "to return from the US at the end of the sixties to use my mind and energy to champion the rights of the poor and marginalised." His voice rose further "As Connolly said, 'it is very important to act in public space with whatever are the gifts of hand or brain and deliver it for one's fellow citizens.'" He added later, "You don't take yourself away if you're a professional thinker. Lock yourself away. It's a time for us all to be in the public space embracing our problems collectively and cooperatively." He believes he was elected almost continuously since 1981 to Irish political representation because he has a lot in common with enough of the rest of the country. "I moved beyond the class-based politics of the past a very long time ago."

And anyway, I said, you being an intellectual and writer, philosopher, sociologist and poet has nothing to do with money, your family were very poor. You're a self-made man. "Yes. I was a child brought up in a very poor family and it was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. The fifties were tough, as a child, our house had broken windows. I'm coming from being raised on a small farm by an uncle and an aunt, not by my father and my mother, due to my father's illness. From a family where my father was in the war of independence with his two brothers who took different sides in the civil war."

"Eventually we were left with one red cow, who died and I remember going from that small farm which we barely survived on to work in a factory to send money home to my family, I went on to work as a clerk in the Electricity Supply Board and then on into university to eventually become a university teacher in several different places. But I left that and I entered the public world because I believe in the power of ideas, their emancipatory potential. It is when all the taken-for-granted things are questioned that we find a creative way out." So, not middle-class, or God forbid, posh, but rather: a man of the people.

It was fascinating to watch Micheal D Higgins craft these words over the week to tell his truths to different gatherings: in the Alexander Hotel when he spoke to 50 of Ireland's most successful women, including politicians past and present, artists, writers, academics, scientists, singers and a former judge of the Supreme Court. "At times when I think of what has passed. I remember a bill going through the Dail (Irish Parliament) and someone saying, "that's just "women's business". It was citizens' business!" He recalled the battles they fought, "some of which were lost and the terrible sadness that followed the loss of the first referendum to allow divorce in Ireland."

Kept to a schedule by his elections manager Joe Costello there was little control freakery around him. It is worth pointing out that while I would have had to surgically remove other candidates from their PR handlers or partners for a few words, Michael D Higgins talked to me openly and freely. I found that quite refreshing, honest and transparent as the days went by.

After the Maynooth college trip where both he and another candidate Senator David Norris delivered honest and moving speeches to students, I learned, his voice went up. "I took a very quick trip to London to meet Irish immigrants of different generations there," his voice dipped, "there was one rather sad conversation I recall. I asked people what would you like to do in life and people answered Canary Wharf, Financial Services and we talked more about this and yes there are real careers in there but they're not the only careers. What about creativity?" His voice went up again. "This is what we must do, we must try and put our Ireland back together again through ideas. I believe this, I love Ireland, whole parts of its history and culture are crucial to our backgrounds."

Being Michael D Higgins isn't all planes, trains and automobiles. One thing I noticed back in Dublin was that he went everywhere rather normally with his wife Sabina Coyne. In the best Irish tradition, no one took much notice of him (like Bono) except when he stepped out of his car and the rather obvious campaign bus nearby alerted people to his presence. "In my town," observed an American bystander, "he'd have ten bodyguards even now and half the CIA." I found the less public attention they received, the more genuine they were.

His wife, actress Sabina Coyne co-founded the Focus Theatre and Stanislavski Studio in Dublin, and also acted in Chekhov and in Ibsen plays. She spoke to me about the powerful universal images in Ibsen's writing, saying "in several instances you see the unrealistic potential of humanity." Her voice quietening, she said, "we can offer a certain care and love to the Irish people and that is deepened because we have a family of our own." In a meeting of minds Michael D quoted Immanuel Kant, "'What can we know, what should we do, what may we hope.' The fact is Irish people are powerfully strong in their imagination - the way that they structure things in their minds. We value that." Sabina added "yes it's that Immanuel Kant's sentiment 'What would we want for everybody. Can you wish it for everybody what you would wish for yourself.'"

He's more charismatic and quieter than his public persona shows. Does he feel guilty about the effect on his family? "We've lived our lives publicly through this job," he admitted. "There's no point pretending. My children are remarkably unaffected."

His favourite book is The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills. He says that Mills says that "the great project in life was to have values in your own life but to see the connection between your own biography and the curves of history and the changes that were manifested for yourself" and "I've kept reading this book since the first time I read it in Indiana University in 1967." Also "I like The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer. And the one person - I've read all his books - is James C. Scott who was at Yale. He wrote an interesting one called Domination and the Art of Resistance. He's an anthropologist who worked mostly in South East Asia and what interested me in him was that he uses literary sources as well as quantitative sources. It's really the best study on irony that I have seen."

On defining The Celtic Tiger he says: "In reflection you'll know that behind every speculative banker stood an economist, a thinker who was in turn implementing some basic ideas. In my other life I've written papers on this." Few would disagree with him. When he first entered the Irish Parliament (the Dail), aged 40, journalists would go to the young Higgins for a robust quote on the issue of the day and get the truth speckled with well researched yet wholly passionate examples in return. He hasn't changed. "Our crises didn't come out of the blue, behind those who failed in regulation, behind the speculative banker were actually intellectual perspectives that assumed certain things in relation to the market. Without being boring about it."

No go on. "There were a number of major intellectual thinkers, such as Friedrich von Hayek and his mentor Ludwig von Mises. The downturn is linked to failures in their ideas. So equally you can think your way into a new space and I if I did nothing else, as someone who would have been the only one in my family who went to third level or anywhere, I lived by ideas all my life and one thing you can take in the Presidency is that ideas will be valued. Or putting it more simply, the problems of unemployment or mortgage stress or the problems of exclusion of one kind or another due to income are not problems of the individuals but they should be taken as our common problems. And therefore our response should be a cooperative and collective one."

Later he added "The conversations I've had with the Irish people, who've been very specific. It might surprise people to hear that they didn't like phrases like 'we all lived it up in the land of the Celtic Tiger' they had very clear ideas about who did. And they also had very clear ideas about where the failures in regulation were and that where they had placed their trust and that trust was broken. There is a real task of restoring trust in certain institutions. In other words the public world has to be restored in that regard. The public have said that they want to move on.

He managed to get a smile out of me regarding finance, which isn't easy considering the weight of people's current financial difficulties. "It was once an artificial existence, people going to bed and imagining that they were getting woken up as millionaires as the price of their house had gone up overnight." He said, "we have to note what happened, this was not the real economy. How much more can be achieved when people work together, rather than for individual consumption? And then remembering where we came from in terms of the best ideas and traditions that we have as we grow towards a newer idea of Irishness."

Afterwards, on his campaign bus, Higgins is quieter - more reflective and humorous and completely private and unshowy. I asked how it had been, spending so much time constantly on the go? "Good, really good," he said. I asked him to define tiredness. How come he never got tired? "I take my time."

John Waters wrote in the Irish Times during that week "I still have, somewhere, the typewritten note I received from Michael D Higgins nearly 29 years ago, when I wrote to request an interview for Hot Press. That interview, my first with a politician, meant a lot to me. The headline was "Something better change", the title of a Stranglers song. Michael D was a hero when that species was thin on the ground." John Waters declined at first to tell me whether Michael D Higgins should win the election or not, but I said I'd been enjoying his pieces (I had) and he explained "I know Michael D a long time, it's been thirty years since I first met him. I admire him greatly, I don't agree with him always in everything but I sympathise with him almost in every sense in terms of his impulses. I think he's a wonderful politician and would be a wonderful president."

I mention to Waters that I thought the election had come down to a "celebrity versus history vote." "Yes. I have been examining this in the campaign myself and I think that there's a sense about this election that it's almost like the end of something in our country" he said. Was he referring to the TV celebrity candidate? The same candidate who with a lack of reflection and deliberation answered "Yes" when asked if he'd change the national anthem a few nights before on TV? That a disregard for heritage and a vacuous celebrity society would be my country's future? John thinks historians will look back and think, "That was odd. Why did they even think like that? What was that celebrity mindset during that election, determined to believe in nothing, to believe nothing, to accept nothing, to care about nothing." He paused "That's what Michael D Higgins has to fight."

Behind the cameras, I ask Michael D Higgins, how did he intend to beat this thinking? "Ever heard of that wonderful Irish Oscar nominated animated film Give Up Yer Aul Sins? Well I've never befriended cynicism, it's of no value to anyone, let's be positive like the film so I'll say 'Give up Yer Aul Cynicism'" His goal, he said, "was to host a set of presidential seminars to take up themes that have come out of my presidential campaign" and the first would concentrate on the problems of the youth; youth unemployment, youth emigration, youth mental health, the whole issue of youth suicide. "You take the first step and say to people, 'Look, there are aspects of Irishness that have to be protected and this starts with our youth.' Sounds sensible. 'I'm going to invite the best minds at home and abroad to discuss this issue and ask young people to participate."

Consuming the Irish press over the last weekend before the election and listening to the lilting literati on the radio airily discussing him, I was genuinely left wondering where the voters on that wet Thursday afternoon last week were going to teem from? But teem they did, over one million of them, after transfers. I put it in context to him that he's earned one quarter of the Irish population in votes. "I'm so humbled!" he replied.

While shadowing him one huge thing struck me about Michael D Higgins the man, he has impeccable manners.

If you're reading this in the morning, then I'll be lifting my tea cup in recognition of this kind man and recounting the morning Michael D Higgins (the then Irish minister for Arts and Culture in the 90's) spent half and hour patting his pockets and looking under cushions pretending he'd lost something in his living room to delay himself.

If, however, it is later, mid-evening say, then I will be lifting a cup of tea and extracting my diary to recount that morning in full when his daughter Alice Mary rang and asked me to call around on my bicycle to study together. She brought me indoors, made me a cup of tea and as I sipped all the while Michael D Higgins walked about searching for something in that room while explaining how "I abandoned my academic hopes for a while to earn and send money home. I had hoped to be teacher you know, it took me ages. Is that your situation too?"

It strikes me now many years later, that at the time he gave me a quiet sort of dignified encouragement and so I battled on and I went on to become a writer and for this and many other reasons I have a soft spot for the man. When I watched him address the youth in one of Ireland's most famous teacher training colleges (Maynooth) I was reminded of this quiet encouragement when he said "take your ideas and make them your lives and my wish for you is that you have fulfilled lives not only as consumers but as people enjoying the early days of the building and achieving of a real republic of equals, characterised by solidarity and celebration and joy and fulfillment."

I'm telling you this because in what I imagine to be a segue worthy of the great George Orwell himself, I'm trying to use this tiny example to prop up my shiny new universal theory, namely that the now president of Ireland Michael D Higgins, has always secretly been an encouraging force for good.

 

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