Walking naked

Michael D Higgins despises Margaret Thatcher as much as ever, struggles to see the ‘brilliance' of Michael McDowell and finds the dealings of Pat Rabitte and Enda Kenny ‘fairly daft'. Justine McCarthy meets Labour's Limerick-born literatus as he prepares to publish his ‘revealing' new book


‘So, Michael D,” we ponder, “what's the worst thing that ever happened to Irish politics – Charlie Haughey or Michael McDowell?”

“Oh, McDowell, without a doubt,” shoots back the proclamatory, peat-perfumed contralto. “I find it amazing to see so many people in the media fawning at his alleged brilliance. I'd have to struggle harder to see it myself.”

And he's off, as pink-faced and unstoppable as the Duracell bunny. He is sitting magisterially ramrod in a corner of Buswell's Hotel on a filthy winter's night, the late train he must catch to Galway forgotten in his missionary haste to demolish Ireland's giant-intellect myths.

“McDowell's at such a distance from the emotional experience of people who are vulnerable,” he expounds, “that he's inclined to seek to compensate for that with a cold, high intelligence. In Ireland, we have a habit of arriving at a consensus that someone is very intelligent on rather flimsy evidence. In the economic area, I'm not aware of Peter Sutherland winning the Nobel Prize for economics, despite his reputation here.”

The Labour Party's grand old highbrow is the quintessential intellectual, sprinkling his observations with allusions to Conrad and Gandhi and Leland Bardwell, the white shrubs of hair quivering at his temples as if electrified by the brain sparking beneath them. This, after all, is such a rapacious scholar he once devoured the entire Thomas Mann novel, The Magic Mountain, during a long-winded debate in the Seanad on property inheritance. When his stealth missiles of invective start seeking their targets, the wonder is that the convivial atmosphere in the hotel lounge is not shattered with the shock. And he has not even got around yet to dissecting Rabbitte, Thatcher, Rumsfeld, Bertie, McAleese, his fellow academics or the shop-lot of Fine Gael, his putative bed-fellows.

On the coffee table, along with his plain poet's cup of regular, no-latte-nonsense caffeine and a salad sandwich leaking endive and radicchio, is a copy of his new book, Causes For Concern: Irish Politics, Culture and Society, fresh from the printer. It's a compilation of speeches, essays, press articles, poems and polemics; what he calls “my pieces”. Despite his familiarly pompous bearing, exaggerated by post-surgical stiffness in his neck following an operation last year, a tremor of apprehension is manifest as he runs his hand lovingly over the glossy green cover. “There is an element of walking naked in it,” he explains. “I am revealing certain aspects of my own psyche, in a way.”

Poet, teacher, politician, republican, socialist and feminist, his topics run the gamut from his own “peasant” origins in Limerick to the slaughter in Baghdad, from gombeenism to cultural homogeneity and from the clientelism of Irish politics to the global perspective. Included is the April 1990 Hot Press column in which he controversially called Margaret Thatcher “the harridan of 10 Downing Street”. (“I despised her, with her sinking of the Belgrano, and her dear friend Pinochet, an international assassin, and her son trotting along behind her looking for arms contracts,” he retorts when asked if his disapproval of the Iron Lady had dissipated at all over the intervening years).

The language in the book is as ample and as apt as one would expect from Dáil Éireann's most verbose and fastidious rhetorical revolutionary, but it is the pinpoint prophecy of his writing that most amazes.

In a contribution entitled The Space of Politics Recovered, he writes: “One of the most discernible and alarming trends in contemporary society is the acceptance of politics, society and the economy as separate spheres. With the wealthy getting wealthier and the poor getting poorer, this rupture will be a naked confrontation between the excluded and the powerful, between the technologically sophisticated and the technologically manipulated, and between consumers and the consumed... The choice is clear: a citizenship rooted in a democratic agenda, socially inclusive and politically accountable, with an economy viewed as instrumental, or a citizenship founded upon a populist consumerism, where rights are defined by purchasing power, society is modelled as a conflict zone, and the political system is construed as a place of corruption.” What is remarkable is that he composed this Dantesque tocsin almost two decades ago for the politics society at Trinity College in November 1988, a time long before the elevation of “shopping” from dreary necessity to lifestyle pursuit.

The complicit silence of his fellow academics infuriates him. “I am very disillusioned about the application of those who had the opportunity of scholarship. They have been extraordinarily passive,” he charges. Yet, when it comes to the cut-and-thrust of politics, he accepts that pragmatism is often the irresistible option. The proposed Labour/Fine Gael coalition of irreconcilable ideologies being a case in point, maybe?

“I think the debate in the party is about a series of issues. There's a whole raft of issues we do not agree on – boot camps, drunk tanks – but it's amazing how the job of holding power sharpens the mind. I have written academically about how coalitions are formed. You go in for policies and positions and you find a strategy for managing events, like Harry Whelehan [the former Attorney General at the centre of the Fianna Fáil/ Labour coalition collapse in 1994],” he laughs.

“Dick Spring wasn't afraid of innovation. He invented the job of tánaiste. He followed a model that I draw, in which there was no attempt to suggest we were ad idem on this and that. It was hard-nosed bargaining.”

Does that mean Labour's president was less than impressed with the reciprocal solidarity visits by Pat Rabbitte and Enda Kenny to each other's parliamentary party think-ins before the autumn Dáil term?

“I thought that was a fairly daft adventure, to be honest. We weren't exactly dealing with a schism in the Catholic church with cardinals having to kiss one another's rings and make up. What it was was a piece of symbolism. Pat is from Mayo [the Fine Gael meeting took place in the west of Ireland] and I'm sure Enda has been to Cork [the Labour venue] before.”

If those comments sound tinged with rancour, it is little wonder that Michael D, Labour's popularly, and self-appointed, philosophical litmus paper, would harbour some animus towards Rabbitte, the parvenu from Democratic Left, cosying up to the Blueshirts. Besides, was it not his party leader who, in effect, disallowed Higgins' candidacy for the presidency when Mary McAleese's first term expired in November 2004?

Having announced the year before that Labour would field a candidate, even if McAleese made it clear she wanted a second tenure, Labour changed its tune in 2004. Rabbitte claimed the party was concentrating on the European and local elections, but the message was growing louder that there was no appetite for a contest for the Áras.

Still basking in Mary Robinson's system-rocking election, Rabbitte was loath to tempt fate, especially after Fianna Fáil got a drubbing from the voters in the June 2004 local elections. Anonymous sources began dispelling the notion of Michael D's candidacy with the news that he had undergone a heavy operation on both his knees and was in no physical condition to embark on a campaign trail. His long-undisguised dream of taking up residence in the park was finally buried on 17 September when the party's national executive voted against his candidacy, by a majority of only one vote.

“What happened was that I said there should be a debate. It's not in the interests of democracy not to have an election,” he says, adding that he and Pat Rabbitte discussed it several times. “Who was first up to form the committee to re-elect Mary McAleese? Mister Glen Dimplex and all the rest of them. If I were president I would have tried to alert people to the consumerist, materialist individualism. It is a position that should reflect the moral perspective of a people. It should reflect the international obligations of citizens. The president is not supposed to be a spokesperson for the happy, consuming Ireland. I found all that very objectionable but I think that, by raising the debate, I did bring about some change. Her speeches changed slightly after that.

“I was in hospital at the time and I said I was available to be the candidate. Nobody was aware, until the night before the national executive met, that the costs of the campaign could be recovered up to €230,000. When I found that out I said, yes, I would let my name go forward. I don't wake up every day thinking, good God, I could have been the president, going around the country lifting up the children and cutting ribbons.”

The only Labour TD elected in Galway since 1923, Michael D's osteoporosis and his gravitas – despite its moments of mischievousness – lend him the appearance of someone older than the 65 years he will celebrate next April. He was born in Limerick in 1941 but left the city when he was five to live with an uncle and aunt in their “one-room-slated, two-room-thatched house with no toilet and no running water” in Newmarket-on-Fergus until he was 19, due to his father's ill health. His poem, ‘Katie's Song', is an ode to that aunt, whom he used to watch bringing water from the well. “I felt sure that if an Irish God had created the world, he wouldn't have invented woman with a bucket at the end of each arm,” he has written in the book.

He met his wife, Sabina, in 1969 – the same year he was appointed to the academic staff of UCG at the the age of 28 – when the former Labour Party leader, Michael O'Leary, who died this year, invited Michael D to a meeting one night in an effort to dissuade him from seeking a party nomination. “We ended up at a party to celebrate Mary Kenny's appointment in the Irish Press as the first woman to get her own page in an Irish newspaper.”

Sabina, who worked in the Land Commission by day, was an actor and a disciple of Stanislavski method acting. She co-founded the Focus Theatre in Dublin with Deirdre O'Connell and was her bridesmaid when the American woman married Luke Kelly. Playwright Tom Murphy and actor Mick Lally remain two of the Higgins's closest friends.

When Dick Spring made Michael D his minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the 1992 rainbow coalition, it was all his dreams coming together. He launched Teilifís na Gaeilge (which subsequently became TG4), restored Collins Barracks at the National Museum at a cost of €20m and spent €6m moving the Chester Beatty Library from Ballsbridge to Dublin Castle. His one regret is that he never realised his plan to establish a credit-based pension plan for artists, whereby they would receive points for each performance or work to insure them against injury, illness or the imposed premature termination of a career as, for example, in the case of female actors with no parts to play. On the day that Fianna Fáil and the PDs abolished the department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1997, Michael D left the Dáil chamber and was on the verge of tears as he walked down the grand staircase of Leinster House. He has since described that decision as “an act of philistinism”.

He applies that searing style of analysis to his current brief as Labour's spokesman on international affairs, happily agreeing that he would love to be the next minister for foreign affairs. Coughing on a bite of his salad sandwich and removing his rimless glasses to wipe his eyes with a cotton hanky, he advocates the criminal prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison and calls for a European debate on religious cultures: “McDonalds on one hand, and the Jihad on the other.” He has no intention, he pledges, of starting to censor himself at this stage of his life.

“Haughey said to me once: ‘Michael,' he said, ‘don't draw them on you. Look at all I did for them and the thanks I got for it.'”

How would he summarise Bertie Ahern?

“They'll write on his tombstone, ‘He was cute.'”

Michael D smiles and starts gathering up his belongings, several more copies of the newly-printed book tucked into his gaping briefcase for transport home on the late train. A stranger in a parka jacket sparkling with cold stops nearby, scanning the room for someone. “Hello, nice to meet you,” the innate politician proffers his hand, the little crimson currachs on his necktie bobbing amiably to the rhythm of their handshake. Before the man can register the encounter, Michael D Higgins, head high, is departing through the door.

And I sought my brother

in a hundred others

for whom

my heart warmed

at shared


and fears.

(From ‘Brothers' by Michael D Higgins, 1997)

Causes for Concern: Irish Politics, Culture and Society by Michael D Higgins is out now, published by Liberties Press, €14.99