Brendan Hoban on President Michael D Higgins

Not a good day at the office for Michael D             

Western People 28.9.2021

There was a lovely moment last week at the end of President Michael D. Higgins’ visit to Pope Francis in Rome. They had met for some time, including a private one-to-one discussion in the papal library and, as the subjects were (among others) climate change and immigration, they were, so to speak, singing from the same hymn-sheet.

A video captured the warmth and closeness of the two men at their fourth meeting – three in Rome and one in the Áras. Just before they parted, Francis said: ‘It’s not only a president that’s visiting today but a wise man is visiting. One of the wise men of today. I thank God Ireland has such a wise man as its head’.

And as they held hands, Francis said to the president: ‘Pray for me’. A visibly moved Michael D responded: ‘Every day’. It was a special moment as the two octogenarians – Francis is 84 and Michael D is 80 – embraced.

How lucky we are to have two such open-minded and moral people pointing a direction for us in the confusing and complex world we live in now. And what an advertisement they are for us golden oldies and the triumph of experience over mere youth or enthusiasm.

The modern world is infected with the false belief that youth is everything, that the fewer the years, the more attention demanded and that the young, who, by definition, haven’t lived long or experienced ‘long days in the sun’, can somehow out of a limited CV trump the wisdom of old age.

Young, brash politicians with a promised land on their election manifestos are given to imagining that we seniors will be easily persuaded by PR hype and expensive suits. As one famous director of opera once explained to a young singer who confronted him after an audition telling him that her voice was the best on offer –‘Yes, you have the best voice but you’re too young for the part, come back when your heart has been broken a few times’.

Michael D was 70, a time when most Irish politicians were well settled into retirement, when in 2011 he presented himself to the Irish people as a candidate for the presidency. Some eye-brows were raised but his energy, enthusiasm and character triumphed – winning far more votes than any Irish politician in the history of the state.

We took Michael D to our hearts, admiring his dedication, his learning, his open and welcoming personality, his moral compass and not least the pride we took in how he represented our country on the world stage. We elevated him to the status not just of a revered and exceptional president, but of a national treasure.

Thus, in 2018, no one was surprised that even at 77, Michael D, the first president in ages to be re-elected for a second term, got nearly 56% of the first preference vote, leaving a bevy of politicians and other chancers in his wake. Now after ten years in office, he is entering a second decade as our president.

Nobody, of course, is perfect. Back from Rome, Michael D ran into something of a storm with his decision not to accept an invitation from the leaders of the Christian churches in Ireland to a centenary service to mark the establishment of Northern Ireland.

It was a tricky decision at a time when a series of anniversaries of a turbulent time in Irish history calls for a careful negotiation through a maze of obstacle courses. So far Michael D has deftly dealt with the constant and complex challenges of the north, often as good leaders do, pushing out the boat into choppy waters rather than hugging the security of the shore and challenging us, north and south, to be the best we can be in terms of acceptance and respect for differing religious and political perspectives. He has, in particular, lauded efforts sponsoring reconciliation when opposing political factions seem determined to blow it out of the water.

That’s why his refusal to attend the service in St Patrick’s Cathedral is unusual, surprising and, I suspect, wrong.

His reason (he outlined) was that the event marking ‘the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland’ was ‘political’, in that ‘what had started out as a religious service had in fact become a political statement’.

This is both unfair and inaccurate as earlier in the year when the Northern Ireland office had included the service among events scheduled to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, the organisers asked that it be deleted from the schedule. On March 12th they pointed out that they were ‘mindful of the range of responses to the events of 100 years ago’ and that the religious service was intended as a ‘point of reflection to provide an opportunity to affirm our common commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation’.

It was unworthy of the presidency that an opportunity was missed to participate in that reflection and to support those who had no political axe to grind apart from encouraging, as they do, ‘peace, healing and reconciliation’. It was also unworthy of the presidency that the organisers were not officially informed of his decision before they heard it through the media.

For whatever reason, Michael D seems to have lost his deft touch for, on the one hand, not pushing the boat out as he has tended to do in stretching the space open to him as president but, on the other hand, to allow the presidency to be blind-sided by not sponsoring and be seen to be sponsoring ‘peace, healing and reconciliation’.

Also surprising was his tetchiness with being referred to as ‘President of the Republic of Ireland’ and not by his official title ‘President of Ireland’ – did it really matter? – and the impression he created of being above criticism by his seeming resentment that a former Taoiseach, John Bruton, had disagreed with his decision.

All in all, not a good day at the office but in ten years, Michael D has a fairly impressive score-card all the same.




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  1. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Brendan Hoban on President Michael D Higgins…

    Very well nuanced article by Brendan Hoban. I am not so sure if I would be as generous to Michael D as he is, and I say that as one who voted for him and encouraged others to do the same on the basis he was the best on offer at the time.

    I feel he was wrong to refuse to attend the Church event in Armagh, attendance did not signal approval. I feel that the story of partition might be addressed in all its facets – I always recall David Trimble’s Nobel speech in Oslo where he acknowledged that the NI state was at times a cold house for nationalists.

    His hurried press conference in Rome was hardly a good idea, his fencing with John Bruton added nothing to his reputation like his slight at being addressed as President of ROI – which was his mistake, not that of the Church leaders. He also let slip an aside that they (Church leaders) could pray all they liked – unworthy of his office I think, but not widely reported. I can only assume that his predecessors Robinson and McAleese would have gone, and no fuss would be created. Michael D has sort of carte blanche here like all Presidents, as he does not have to make hard decisions, even when he made the outrageous claim that Fidel Castro was a champion of human rights when he died, he got away with it. He also espouses the doctrines of left wing economists, would another President get away with praising right wing ones? Higgins did promise us he would be a one term holder of the office, maybe in retrospect that might have been a good thing?

  2. Adrian Egan, C.Ss.R. says:

    Brendan Hoban on President Michael D Higgins…

    It’s a very rare event but I find myself, for the very first time, disagreeing with Brendan Hoban. I believe that, once again, President Michael D. Higgins, after his considered reflections, has made the right decision. I just regret that he was ever put in the position where he had to make such a decision. The four Church leaders should have been been well aware of the complex, historical and political sensitives around extending invitations to heads of state, government representatives and politicians for an event such as this.

    Why, if they wanted to hold such a prayer service, and have it as ‘non political’, did they have to extend specific invitations to any political figures at all? Why not just announce the event and let whoever wanted to come, come? I may be wrong, but I’ve no memory of the four Church leaders inviting Queens or Presidents to a similar event in Armagh to commemorate the centenary of 1916? Or did I miss something? Apologies if they did but I wouldn’t have expected them to do so. It would have been incredibly insensitive and naive.

    I regret too that the Church leaders have created further tensions by now extending the invitation to the Irish Government and thus applying further pressure and controversy, forcing them to make choices from which they cannot win. Why not learn from what’s happened and leave well enough alone? Again, I believe much more would have been achieved by the Church leaders holding a prayer service but inviting no one in particular and anyone who wanted.

  3. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Brendan Hoban on President Michael D Higgins

    I find myself in full agreement with Adrian Egan C.Ss.R. on this one. You want to pray and reflect on the centenary of some madness of history, do so (ecumenically if you wish) but without inviting queens and presidents with whom you may rub shoulders or kiss hands to make you feel more important than you are. The one thing partition of the island and these churchmen’s archdioceses does not need is to be ‘marked’, ‘commemorated’, ‘celebrated’ or even ‘reflected upon’ in an ancient building bedecked with faded trappings of imperialism and regimental derring-do, mar dhea. At a time like this one wishes that Tomás Ó Fiaich was in Ara Coeli and his friend George Otto Simms on the hill beyond. Two guys at home with the sensitivities of the history of their country. Michael D’s decision was the only right one – unfortunate that he felt tempted to explain why.

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Brendan Hoban on President Michael D Higgins

    Before today’s ‘marking’ of the Border is buried in a footnote of centenary commemoration, Fr Joe McVeigh’s letter in this morning’s Irish Times is worth a read. And no, he’s not playing footsie with anyone.

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