Photo credit: The Irish Labour Party (CC BY-ND 2.0

President, and Secular Pope: Why Higgins spoke out on sex ed

I suppose it is redundant, at this stage, to point out that the President, by involving his office in day to day political debates, is engaged in the greatest tarnishing of the office of President since its foundation. After all: The whole point of the Presidency is supposed to be that it is an office we can all respect, and owe our loyalty to, regardless of political views. It is a unifying office – a democratic replacement for the Monarchy – and the basic idea is that two Irish people who disagree about absolutely everything can have a shared confidence in, and respect for, the President. He represents all Irish people, is the idea.

But he doesn’t.

This President is a divider, not a uniter. And the worst thing about what he’s doing is that he is using the office to bully: There remain those who passionately disagree with everything he stood for in his political career who are inclined, out of habit, to defer to the office of the President on the basis of the paragraph above. When he speaks, those people are disinclined to attack him, because attacking the Presidency is something that we are not supposed to do. There’s a democratic stigma attached – he is our head of state, and, as such, to attack him would be disloyal.

Higgins knows this, I think. And he is not above cynically exploiting his opponent’s increasingly misplaced sense of respect for the office to kick them, and enjoy their silent resentment. It says little good about him as a man, and makes me, at least, feel much better to never have cast a vote for him.

I was struck, yesterday, by Leo Varadkar’s comment that we should “avoid a culture war” in Ireland, if possible. If he believes that (and spoiler, he does not) then his first port of call should be the Phoenix Park, to give the President the mother of all smackdowns. Because this is precisely how culture wars take root: Everything becomes disputed, nothing remains which is shared. The Presidency, once an office designed to unify the public, is now being turned by its holder into an instrument of division.

In that sense, the fact that he entered into the ongoing national debate about what schools should teach is much more important, and interesting, than what he actually said. Because what he said was not especially interesting or original at all: If you wanted someone to say that Irish schools should teach children “sexuality in the fullest sense”, then you need only head down to the local meeting of the People before Profit party, or oddballs anonymous – whichever is closer to you.

What does “in the fullest sense” mean, though? I suspect the answer is “nothing”, and the phrase is simply an extension of the President’s self of himself as poet, with what he considers a borderline artistic inability to use one word where six will do. In any case, he has in this instance I think done himself a disservice: The phrase, whether intentionally or not, sounds vaguely creepy.

What he meant, simply, is this: “In this debate over what is appropriate in schools, I would like to let it be known that I am on the side of the people who are liberal and tolerant and progressive”. The actual words he used are of secondary importance: The most important thing to him, as ever, is to set himself up as a sort of quasi-religious national figure of the progressive left. Lacking any legacy of political accomplishment in a long and relatively undistinguished career in Oireachtas politics, his role these days is to be the modern Irish equivalent of the photograph of the pope on the wall in respectable households. He is the benign moral leader of the righteous, above politics, but deeply embedded in political thought. After all, when you walked into a house with a photograph of Paul VI on the wall, you knew the people in that home thought of themselves as respectable.

The downside to this is, of course, that in the days when Paul VI adorned respectable mantlepieces, those who simmered with resentment at his influence lacked the option to replace him with an icon of their own. That is not the case with the President: He has, in fact, made the next Presidential election one in which the stakes are going to be very high indeed for progressive Ireland. He is making an office which is at once powerless and harmless, but at the same time vital for progressives to control. After all, imagine what Pope Peter Casey might look like, on Irish mantlepieces.

And of course, Irish people are not above a little bit of rebellion, so long as that rebellion doesn’t cost them anything. If, two years hence, the voters want to stick the establishment in the eye, then Higgins is giving them the perfect mechanism to do it: There would be few more Irish things than electing a rebel to an office in which he or she couldn’t do anything except say a few things that drive the Irish Times mad.

But that’s the risk you run, when you start a culture war. If the Presidency becomes a circus sideshow in the decades to come, remember who the first clown was.

He’s a disgrace.

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