The role of the President of Ireland is not one that is aloof or removed from day to day life, but a position which can allow the head of state the “freedom to address issues which are not being addressed”.
This is the view of Labour party president and Galway West TD Michael D Higgins, who announced on Wednesday morning that he would be seeking the nomination to stand as the Labour candidate for the 2011 Presidential election.
Dep Higgins first expressed his desire to run for president in 2004, but his ambitions had to be put on hold as president Mary McAleese was returned to the position uncontested.
Nonetheless, the possibility of his seeking to run when the current president’s second term was completed remained live and speculation was intense that he would eventually declare his intention to stand for the position as Ireland’s First Citizen.
“I said I would spend the summer thinking it over and making my decision,” Dep Higgins told the Galway Advertiser. “I expect I will get the nomination and it has been indicated to me, during the summer, both from Labour members and beyond, that I should put my name forward.”
Labour will choose its candidate at a joint meeting of the parliamentary party and the party’s national executive which will take place at the end of this month.
Dep Higgins’ decision to run for the presidency may be seen as surprising by some, given that a General Election might also take place next year. With its support increasing in the polls, Labour stands an excellent chance of being part of the next Government.
Labour in government could mean a ministerial position for Dep Higgins - his previous role as Minister for Arts, Heritage, Culture, and the Gaeltacht form 1994 to 1997 was seen as a success - and hence a chance to influence policy.
Why opt instead for the presidency which is a largely ceremonial, and often constrained role?
“I have spent 25 years in the Dáil and nine in the Seanad,” he said. “I know what can be done as a minister. You have to listen to the public, make an analysis, and hold your ground on issues you think are important - such as Section 31 and TG4, to which there was considerable public opposition at the time.
“However I feel the presidency will give me greater freedom to address issues which are not being addressed at the present time. I have spoken across Ireland and Europe and this gives me a wide audience to explore ideas on where we are going as a country and issues we need to face.”
Dep Higgins has always been an outspoken member of Dáil Éireann, speaking continually in favour of human rights, on Israel/Palestine, and in opposition to the so called ‘war on terror’. The President of Ireland, despite being the highest political honour and post in the State, is ironically meant to be ‘above’ politics, and is constrained in what s/he can say.
Given his passion for human rights and interest in international affairs, Dep Higgins is not someone who would be able to remain silent on such issues, or be blandly, and inoffensively neutral.
As such a Michael D presidency would be an ‘active presidency’, but does the role allow for that?
“I have looked in detail at the role of the president and there is scope within it to address issues such as in the area of culture, human rights, the future of Ireland,” he says, “and with my background in political science, I know what the role entails as well.
“I am an adjunct Professor at the school of Human Rights in NUI, Galway and there are many ways in which such issues can raised. I will be able to give my emphasis and analysis and offer people intellectual options to help break the cycle of fatalism.”
While Dep Higgins’ interest in international causes is well known, he is also concerned that should he become president, he will champion Irish culture, thought, and identity both within the Ireland and abroad.
“For the role as president you have to have a sense of history,” he says, “and the commemoration of major events like the 1916 Rising and the 1913 lockout are coming up. I am also an Irish speaker and I think it’s important the president be able to speak in the first language.
Dep Higgins is also a poet, an intellectual, and sometime columnist, whose writings on various Irish and international issues were collected in his book Causes For Concern, and he sees the role of presidency as one which can support the free flow of ideas.
“I want to encourage support for strong, original, thinking,” he says, “and writing and literature has been this country’s greatest export and is something which brings out the best of Irishness.”
For Dep Higgins the President of Ireland should not be aloof and removed from the lives of everyday people, but remain engaged with and concerned about the citizens of the State.
“Part of the oath of the President of Ireland is, ‘I will dedicate my abilities to the service and the welfare of the people of Ireland’,” he says. “That is important as it’s not just the voters in any given period you are talking about there. You have you constitutional requirements, your duties, but also you can choose to work with various groups and raise issues and engage with ideas in that way.”