Photo credit: Óglaigh na hÉireann via Flickr

If the NGOs had run a workshop to design a President …..

It would be little exaggeration to say that if the advocacy NGOs were to have held a workshop/ ‘Citizen’s Assembly’ to help to design the perfect President, then the outcome would not have been unlike Michael D. Higgins.

If you knock about the said NGOs it would be hard not to bump into someone who has not had some part in the Foucauldian world of the Prez. The current Executive Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Liam Herrick is a former advisor to Higgins and was appointed as a member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) by Higgins in 2014. Higgins’ previous advisor, Mary van Lieshout, is now Chief Executive at GOAL.

Higgins has clearly favoured people from the advocacy sector when making other key appointments, Of the current Presidential Council, Cara Augustenborg is the former Chairperson of both Friends of the Earth Ireland and Friends of the Earth Europe. She was also appointed by former United States Vice-President Al Gore to be a member of his Climate Reality Project in 2013. In 2021 Augustenborg was appointed to the Climate Change Advisory Council by Eamon Ryan having previously been a losing Green Party candidate in the 2014 local elections.

Sindy Joyce was appointed to the Council by Higgins in 2019 and is part of the Limerick University faculty of the International Network of Hate Studies. The Limerick faculty is partly funded by the ICCL, as well as by the European Commission. Another former Higgins appointee to the Council was lawyer Michael Farrell who has also been co-chairperson of the ICCL as well as having been a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission that was superseded by the IHREC.

Higgins’ appointees to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission have also been largely people with backgrounds in the NGO sector. The current Chief Commissioner is Sineád Gibney who was formerly employed by GOAL and One Family before segueing into corporate “social action” with Google and was an unsuccessful candidate for the Social Democrats in the 2019 local elections.

Another of the Commissioners who has been appointed over the course of the Higgins presidency is Jim Clarken, currently CEO of Oxfam and former Chairperson of  Dóchas. Clarken was a founding member of the Irish Refugee and Migrant Coalition and of Stop Climate Chaos. Noeline Blackwell is a former Director of FLAC and has been on the boards of Amnesty Ireland and the Immigrant Council of Ireland. Salome Mbugua is the CEO of AkiDwA and is co-President of the European Network of Migrant women.

Another familiar face, Lucy Michael, has managed successfully to combine the symbiotic worlds of the state and NGOs. She has worked with the Irish Network Against Racism, whose rather amateurish attempts to monitor racist incidents we have previously referred to, and she has also worked with the British Home Office, an unlikely friend of several among the Irish liberal left including those who work for the spooky Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Professor Ray Murphy, appointed to the Commission by Higgins between 2014 and 2019, has traversed the worlds of academia, state (as a former defence forces officer and member of the Broadcasting Complaints Board) as well as both the domestic advocacy sector with Amnesty Ireland and internationally with the New York based Human Rights Watch NGO.

Previous appointees have also included Kieran Rose of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), Fidele Mutwarasibo of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, and Heidi Foster-Breslin who has been involved as CEO with An Cosán (founded by Katharine Zappone), Misean Cara, and has been a board member of Dóchas. 

Heidi was also at one time Chairperson of Common Purpose Ireland, an offshoot of a rather mysterious British NGO once described as “a left wing version of the Freemasons”. 

Salome Mbugua has also been a member of the board of Common Purpose Ireland. Common Purpose was living rent free in a building owned by the Office of Public Works in Smithfield for many years, and with no explanation ever given despite Freedom of Information requests from Gript.  They are certainly a group that we shall be revisiting in our panoramic overview of the rich world of Irish NGOs and their overseas progenitors and patrons.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland are also Higgins’ type of people. His daughter and current Senator Alice Mary Higgins was once Policy and Campaigns Coordinator for the NWCI, and was formerly with third world NGOs Action Aid, Trócaire and Comhlámh. 

Alice Mary was Deputy Director of Pop’s election campaign in 2011, and happily the NWCI has continued that tradition. Current executive board member Sarah Monaghan was Director of Logistics in the 2018 campaign to re-elect the President (all comparisons to the infamous acronym made famous by All the President’s Men are purely coincidental) and was previously campaigns manager for The Wheel as well as being on the board of the Abortion Rights Campaign.

Many of the NGOs referred to above were generously funded by Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies and so it was fitting that, in 2012, Feeney himself was the recipient of an award bestowed by President Michael D. Higgins. 

When Higgins attended the opening of FLAC’s new offices in Dublin in 2019, FLAC chairperson Peter Ward noted both Higgins’ commitment to “inclusion and the achievement of equality” and the “generous support of Atlantic Philanthropies.”

The Irish liberal elite like to imagine themselves as being wonderfully cosmopolitan and diverse. Their connections, patrons and even social relationships would suggest quite the contrary.

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