Shooting the Breeze with Michael D Higgins

Shaping the future of the office with Michael D

Mayo Advertiser reporter Colm Gannon interviews presidential candidate Michael D Higgins. Photo: Michael Donnelly.

Mayo Advertiser reporter Colm Gannon interviews presidential candidate Michael D Higgins. Photo: Michael Donnelly.

He may have been immortalised as being ‘rocking in the Dáil for us’ by The Saw Doctors, but come the near future the Tuam troubadours may have to do a new version to have him ‘rocking in the Áras for us’ if Michael D Higgins achieves his goal and becomes the ninth resident of Ireland. The 70-year-old former TD and minister for arts, culture and Gaeltacht is currently out on the campaign trail pushing his vision for the presidency of the State and the future of the country.

While he may have retired from the Dáil at the end of the last term, running for President is something that Higgins toyed with back in 2004 for a number of reasons. “The thought of running occurred to me first back in 2004. I felt at the time we should have had a debate on the direction the country was going in. I had written a number of papers on the direction, the assumptions and the values we had with what seemed to be endless growth and the way we were living. Now that was no disrespect to President McAleese, but I felt we should have had a discourse about where we were going at the time. But it was decided by the party by a margin of one vote not to have a contest. This time I made my mind up very early, I had 25 years done in the Dáil and nine in the Seanad. So a year before the general election I said I would not be running and I felt that was only right.”

From no hoper to minister

Being a Labour Party TD in the west of Ireland, Higgins was for a long time flying a solo flag for the party in a part of the country that was traditionally dominated by the two major post civil war parties and he wanted to make sure he left a strong base behind him when he stepped away from the politics of Oireachtas debates. “ It was one of the features of the Labour Party that it was not good at handing on seats. In the beginning I was going for a seat that was originally thought of as no hope for the Labour Party, and it was on my fifth attempt that I was finally elected. It was important to me to leave an organisation in place and pass on a seat to someone. I was the only TD for a long time apart from Declan Bree in Sligo winning one during the “Spring Tide” in the west of Ireland. It was always very difficult, but I think a lot of it was down to the fact in Mayo and areas the around, so many young people had emigrated and that in itself meant that the demography wasn’t favourable for a party trying to make a breakthrough.”

Shaping the future of the country

A key part of his campaign according to Higgins is that he wants to have a debate with the people of Ireland about the future direction of Ireland as a country, and where we have come from in the recent past. “I think there is among the people the hunger for the debate on the direction in the country. I’ve been to most towns at least twice at this stage, there is a willingness and anxiety from the people I’ve met to have the debate. It can be hard for people who got used to believing we were the second or third wealthiest people in the world, this was what was being said. There were people giving speeches saying don’t hold us back. I think we did ourselves some representational damage at that time internationally. Because it wasn’t the best version of ourselves that was being put out there and it was also false. Because at home people were beginning to value people as celebrities who were supposed to own a third of London.”

Getting down to business

With the final runners and riders for the race for the Áras about to be declared for the starting post, Higgins said he is looking forward to getting to the issues with the others in the race. “The only thing about it that I’ve found strange since I’ve been out on the campaign is people kept asking who do you think is going to run against you. I hope that it will get easier in a few weeks and we’ll be talking about each other’s manifestos not who else will be in the race.”

The future of the office

The role of the president in the future is one that has had some debate over recent years, and the need for the office itself. But Higgins still sees a very positive and important role for the office, even though he believes a number of changes can be made to the office in the Constitution, which he hopes to see come into effect in the coming years. “I still think the presidency is an important political office, and people forget that the last two presidents were political people. They weren’t blank pages, they both had politics in them, and they also had training in law and particularly constitutional law. There are issues that are wrong with the system. The 1937 Constitution gave us a constitution that was fit for its purpose at the end of the 1930s and reflecting the influences at the time, which I have written about in my book, Causes for Concern. There have been changes made all right, but the changes around the presidency such as how to run, how to get into the field, are archaic and indefensible. There is a convention on the Constitution coming up by the Government which is being headed up by Brendan Howlin and is committed to reporting within a year, and I think it should really look at the presidency, especially in regards to the method of getting into the field for it. But there are other things like the President referring a bill to the Supreme Court, the difficulty there is that that if the President refers a bill there no citizen can challenge the bill. Things like that need to be looked at.”

Purchase of Turlough House

During his time as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Higgins made a number of decisions to purchase and restore historic buildings as museums, such as Collins Barracks in Dublin and Turlough House here in Mayo which now houses the National Museum of Country Life and celebrates its 10th anniversary on Monday. This spreading out of National museums across the country is something that he is proud of from his time in office.

“The thing was that after I bought Turlough House and had given the money for it, I made a rule that Collins Barracks was to get first choice on everything. But when we had two or three of each thing, Turlough House would get one. But just when we were ready to go cuts came in, and we had to hold off on opening and it was only opened after I had left office. Turlough House was based on a very practical arts policy, my idea was that no matter where you were in the island, particularly for schools, that the kids wouldn’t be that far from a museum like that.”

With the election not far off, when asked if he could sum up in a couple of words what he offers the people of Ireland as president should he win the election, his response was, “I think that the people can be sure that over seven years I will bring every piece of experience that I have had across all the different facets of my life to bear on it, and I will work tirelessly for inclusion at home and expanding Ireland’s reputation abroad, and I have already many networks that will be of great value and it won’t be just in culture but every area, that’s what I hope to do.”

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