Credit: Irish Defence Forces Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography CC BY 2.0

The President finally embarrasses his staunchest supporters

Last year, it might be recalled, President Higgins caused great offence to many of our northern unionist brethren when he refused to attend a religious service alongside Elizabeth II to commemorate the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland. Whether he was right or wrong to do that remains a matter of some debate, but it is worth recalling his excuse for not attending:

He said he declined the invite because the event had become politicised.

President Higgins said the title of the service made it “inappropriate” for him to attend as head of state.

The Armagh church service has been organised to “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.

Speaking in Rome, where he met Pope Francis on Friday, President Higgins said he felt the title “wasn’t a neutral statement politically”.

Were the President staunchly and consistently apolitical, this excuse might remain somewhat defensible. But of course, that’s not the case. In fact, this President proclaiming that his office must be above politics has all the credibility of Caesar’s wife traipsing in from a night on the town at 4am.

In the intervening months, he has, of course, directly intervened in the housing debate. During the pandemic and the lockdowns, he on several occasions openly called for the adoption of some kind of socialist alternative world. And now, on the matter of Ukraine, he decided that it was sensible to publish, on his official website, a statement from his own wife which effectively – if not directly – called for Russia to be awarded territorial gains in Ukraine, which would be the net effect of any ceasefire.

This latest intervention has caused much embarrassment to the powers that be, not least because it has been so enthusiastically welcomed by the Russians and made international headlines.

In this case, though, as so often, the powers that be richly deserve their embarrassment. The smelling salts have been reached for at the Irish Times, which has led on Mrs. Higgins indiscretion all weekend. The disapproval has wafted from Fine Gael, and from all sorts of liberal and open-minded commentators who share a few things in common: That they all endorsed Higgins for the job, for one. And that they have all indulged his frequent and inappropriate political interventions up to this point, for another.

The problem here really is that there is a universally adopted rule in Irish politics which continues to backfire. That rule is this: That bad and inappropriate precedents may always be set with impunity, so long as those precedents are set in the cause of middle class conformity. Thus, it is entirely tolerable to have a President of Ireland gratuitously insult people, so long as those he insults are northern unionists, who we don’t like anyway. It is tolerable to have him express political views, so long as those views are largely in accordance with those of the political class.

The truth of the matter is that President Higgins has been, by some distance, the worst and most destructive holder of that office in living memory. His Presidency has been one long parade of self-indulgence: A complete inability to even consider that he has a duty to represent Irish people beyond his own narrow political tradition, and a consistent pattern of blurting out divisive and politically controversial statements. In his first term, he considered it wise and Presidential to eulogise Fidel Castro, a decision which should have ended his Presidency there and then. In the second term, he has simply allowed his mouth to run roughshod over his duty whenever, and as ever, he sees fit.

Were President Higgins of a different tradition, none of this would be tolerated. It is tolerated only because many of his outbursts tickle the existing prejudices of Ireland’s chattering classes: A suspicion of America, a healthy dislike of anything English, a sense that intelligence and socialism go hand in hand. He’s always been a President for the comfortable, slightly resentful middle classes with Noam Chomsky books on their shelves. He assuages their guilt for voting Fine Gael.

And in many ways, his own hypocrisy makes them even more comfortable: The “life long peace activist” who has never done anything for peace beyond writing a few poems; The “socialist” property speculator who’ll flip a rental house in Galway in the same breath as denouncing capitalism; The erudite, intelligent, super smart intellectual whose crowning moment in a debate, before becoming President, was calling somebody a “wanker“. He is a good representative of establishment Ireland, because he embodies every stinking thing about establishment Ireland.

And his behaviour was fine, so far as they were concerned, right up until the very moment that he embarrassed them. 

We could learn lessons from all of this, of course, but we won’t.

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