A week with Ireland’s new President (In-depth)

It’s intimidating stepping behind the scenes to shadow Ireland’s president. It’s quite obvious to everyone that I’m a bit nervous taking the task on. Have you ever read George Orwell’s essay on how to make the perfect cup of tea? I blurt these words out at the beginning as an ice-breaker. He smiles. Little did he know… (In the lesser known history of writing, that essay was the great granddaddy of a million pieces such as this one. In terms of my own history, Orwell’s tea essay gave me the courage to hope, if things went well, someday I might end up writing professionally. Of course President of Ireland Michael D Higgins will never probably realise the importance of tea to me. I’ve been asked to spend the week shadowing him, I have my own Michael D Higgins story yet to tell.

Stepping through the doors of The Alexander hotel, I first met Michael D Higgins on a very wet day in Dublin. I’d just read a newspaper article in which the journalist raised the issue of Michael D Higgins’s age of seventy and would his leg injury prevent him doing the job. Michael D stepped out of his car and strode towards the hotel foyer briskly although with a slight limp which he later described aptly. “There is a certain amount of interest in my famous Columbian knee” he said. “I hope that I’ve put Buenaventura on the map this year.” He was quite funny at times, a good start.

During an aid agency mission to a remote area of Columbia, he’d slipped on wet tiles and smashed his knee cap in several places. When asked about it he said “I could go on and on, but that would be moving into more foreign territory.” He has devoted much of his life making the case for “the different in society” and working in places such as Somalia, Peru, Salvador, Nicaragua and Turkey he stresses that “many other Irish volunteers over the years have also given Ireland a valuable and justified reputation for its genuine human rights work abroad.”

He would also later explain “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that there were times when the campaign was quite ageist. This has nothing to do with me because I do things that lots of people don’t even dream of doing that’s the kind of restless person I am. But I felt it was wrong. I’ve said to people when I’m quizzed, ‘Some of Picasso’s greatest work was produced by him between the ages of 72 and 90.’” He may be 70, but, having played a powerful role in Irish politics for many years, he brings gravitas and a presence to the position: “Huh,” I found myself thinking while listening to him speak with the youth at one debate, “he’s very clever”, I had to remind myself that in reality age shouldn’t really have much bearing on a man’s character or success.

On another day, a rather wet and eerie evening, at a concert in support of him, pitch dark backstage, except for the yellow glow of a light from the backstage bathroom behind him, I noticed while photographing him, there were moments he thought deeply to himself even though surrounded by a crowd. The rain pelted the roof and I broke his concentration by asking whether he agreed that there may be a low turn out on election day due to this weather? “Yes, but aren’t we used to it”, he laughed.

Oh and did he agree that the public was just fed up in general with the whole idea of politicians. “Yes, I’m sure”, he said. “But I’m aiming to be a different kind of president, more inclusive. People’s ideas will be key. And your point about the weather, there isn’t much we can do about that now.” And what about the people who simply wanted to vote for the celebrity candidate off the television (the polls were showing a TV celebrity candidate at the time was topping the poles)? “Yes. That might happen regardless. But in time it’ll become clear,” he said and looked me straight in the eye “we represent two very different versions of Ireland.”

But doesn’t it bother you, what must amount to a lot of people voting for a celebrity with little direct political representative experience? “There are many, differences between our approach but I think the main thing to know is that they are different versions of Irishness based on not just the economy but on the society, the people. I’ve said what we had in the last fifteen to twenty years, the Celtic Tiger idea was that a person achieved celebrity and was valued in terms of what they owned or were reputed to own when in fact what you really need to do is to value the worth of the individual. It’s a difference in perspective. I’m sorry if I’m being a bit long winded but I’m drawing on literally everything I believe.”

I said (still fixated on the silly celebrity-for-president issue swirling among my friends and the Irish media) that part of the misunderstanding among the Irish voters, may also be a lack of interest in or understanding of his vast intellect or academic experience, (Higgins is a brilliant academic having graduated at University College Galway he went on to further study at Indiana and Manchester universities and spent time as visiting professor at the Southern Illinois University.) “And they’d’ be right,” he said. “I decided that sticking to a life of pure academia was too limiting too.

I decided,” his voice rose, “to return from the US at the end of the Sixties to use my mind and energy to champion the rights of the poor and marginalized.” His voice rose further “As Connolly said, ‘it is very important to act in public space with whatever are the gifts of hand or brain and deliver it for one’s fellow citizens.’” He added later, “You don’t take yourself away if you’re a professional thinker. Lock yourself away. It’s a time for us all to be in the public space embracing our problems collectively and cooperatively.” He believes he was elected almost continuously since 1981 to Irish political representation because he has a lot in common with enough of the rest of the country. “I moved beyond the class-based politics of the past a very long time ago.”

And anyway, I said, recalling something I knew about him from before, you being an intellectual and writer, philosopher, sociologist and poet has nothing to do with money, your family were very poor. You’re a self-made man. “Yes. I was a child brought up in a very poor family and it was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. The Fifties were tough, as a child, our house had broken windows. I’m coming from, being raised on a small farm by an uncle and an aunt, not by my father and my mother due to my father’s illness. From a family where my father was in the war of independence with his two brothers who took different sides in the civil war.” That sounds hard!

“Eventually we were left with one red cow, who died and I remember going from that small farm which we barely survived on to work in a factory to send money home to my family, I went on to work as a clerk in the Electricty Supply Board and then on into university to eventually become a university teacher in several different places. But I left that and I entered the public world because I believe in the power of ideas, their emancipatory potential. It is when all the taken-for-granted things are questioned that we find a creative way out.” So, not middle-class, or God forbid, posh, but rather: a man of the people, albeit with a lot more words than me.

It was fascinating to watch Micheal D Higgins craft these words over the week to tell his truths to different gatherings: like in the Alexander Hotel when he spoke to 50 of Ireland’s most successful women including politicians past and present, artists, writers, academics, scientists, singers and a former judge of the Supreme Court. “At times when I think of what has passed. I remember a bill going through the Dail (Irish Parliament) and someone saying that’s just “women’s business”. It was citizen’s business!” He recalled the battles they fought, “some of which were lost and the terrible sadness that followed the loss of the first referendum to allow divorce in Ireland.”

Kept to a schedule by his elections manager Joe Costello he often ran over and stayed long hours to deliver his words. At entrepreneurial gatherings, he continuously said “The word ethical is important and we are I hope coming out of an ethical vacuum, we need ethical entrepreneurs, we need social entrepreneurs.”” And between two key TV presidential debates I noticed something unusual. There was little control freakery around him. It is worth pointing out that while I would have had to surgically remove other candidates from their PR handlers or partners for a few words, Michael D Higgins talked to me openly and freely. Yes his national campaign committee headed by Joe Costello and assisted by Brian McDowell and Alice Mary Higgins were back and forth but generally tried to keep a low profile. And even Tony Heffernan his communications director back in the fold for this campaign after retiring from the Labour party took a back seat. I found that quite refreshing, honest and transparent as the days went by.

As for spin, well why don’t you decide. In Maynooth, before a university speech, Michael D Higgins’s aides asked if he was ready to address a young audience. Higgins didn’t say anything and, to my mind, as a by-stander, he didn’t much need to be concerned. “You’re lucky,” urged his team, “the youth, it seems that they’re very much with you.” “Well, the truth is I am very much with the youth,” Higgins laughed, half-distracted reading his speech handwritten on foolscap. He turned to me “I’ve accepted all the invitations to speak in all the colleges. Recently the Spun out debate which had youngsters who are not in college at all and who are doing apprenticeships and other things, I found their opinions and ideas very interesting and valuable.” Someone intervened “You might be asked about what music you like? Coldplay?” Higgins answer was assured. He likes The Saw Doctors and The Stunning, and that’s what he said when asked later. Not many core youth votes in either, what do you think?

After the Maynooth college trip where both he and another candidate Senator David Norris delivered honest and moving speeches to students, I learned that statistically Michael D Higgins had the highest student youth support in the country. His voice went up “Well, I believe the youth’s ideas are instrumental in solving our social issues.” A few weeks earlier he’d taken a very quick trip to London to meet Irish immigrants to touch base with those abroad. “When I met lots of immigrants in London recently when I visited all the Irish of different generations there,” his voice dipped “there was one rather sad conversation I recall. I asked people what would you like to do in life and people answered Canary Warf, Financial Services and we talked more about this and yes there are real careers in there but they’re not the only careers. What about creativity?” His voice went up again “This is what we must do, we must try and put our Ireland back together again through ideas. I believe this, I love Ireland, whole parts of its history and culture, are crucial to our backgrounds.”

Being Michael D Higgins isn’t all planes, trains and automobiles. One thing I noticed back in Dublin was that he went everywhere rather normally with his wife Sabina Coyne. In the best Irish tradition, no one took much notice of him (like Bono) except when he stepped out of his car and the rather obvious campaign bus nearby alerted people to his presence. “In my town,” observed an American bystander, “he’d have ten bodyguards even now and half the CIA.” I found the less public attention they received, the more genuine they were.

His wife actress Sabina Coyne who co-founded the Focus Theatre and Stanislavski Studio in Dublin also acted in Chekhov and in Ibsen plays herself, spoke to me at one point about the powerful universal images in Ibsen’s writing “in several instances you see the unrealistic potential of humanity” then her voice quietened “we can offer a certain care and love to the Irish people and that is deepened because we have a family of our own.” In a meeting of minds Michael D quoted Immanuel Kant “‘What can we know, what should we do, what may we hope.’ The fact is Irish people are powerfully strong in their imagination – the way that they structure things in their minds. We value that.” And Sabina added “yes it’s that Immanuel Kant’s sentiment ‘What would we want for everybody. Can you wish it for everybody what you would wish for yourself.’”

It has become a commonplace to say of many people that are intellectually minded for example that he/she’s a more likeable woman/man in person in a quiet place than he/she appears on television or in public. Having observed them both, that is with and without cameras around, this is what I saw. Whenever a TV camera appears, most people do that special fake smile thing. You know the one. They don’t! They’re very natural. But away from the film crews, he’s more charismatic and quieter than his public persona shows. Of the seven presidential candidates, Higgins spoke most like an international president on and off camera, insofar as public figures often have private and public faces, he has but one. Maybe he’s more comfortable in the spotlight, seeing as he and his family has been in the public eye in Ireland for many years. Does he feel guilty about the effect on his family? “We’ve lived our lives publicly through this job,” he admitted. “There’s no point pretending. My children are remarkably unaffected.”

When I told him this piece would appear online in the UK and US the week after the election, he said: “So you can say whatever you like then.” As I said previously he’s very funny sometimes, something you don’t see enough of on TV. Does he watch TV? “Yes”, I even love Faircity or Eastenders but it eats into reading time.” Great, because I was excited to be able to ask him about his favourite book, “My favourite book is The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills. He says that Mills says that “the great project in life was to have values in your own life but to see the connection between your own biography and the curves of history and the changes that were manifested for yourself” and “I’ve kept reading this book since the first time I read it in Indiana University in 1967.” Also “I like The Necessity of Art’ by Ernst Fischer. And the one person – I’ve read all his books – is James C. Scott who was at Yale. He wrote an interesting one called Domination and the Art of Resistance. He’s an anthropologist who worked mostly in South East Asia and what interested me in him was that he uses literary sources as well as quantitative sources. It’s really the best study on irony that I have seen.”

Warming up, he went on: “Are you interested in song tradition in Ireland?” he asks. I am, I’m interested in everything. “Well, I draw inspiration myself from its long genius, where people use fable and stories and even in the songs and tradition there’s always been a desire for equality. There’s sophistication in the writing, for example there might have been a song offered that would apparently be praising or honouring a landlord, but there is a subtext that is mocking him or his daughter and a further subtext that is inviting people to rise up, an invitation to radical change. Ireland has always really been a radical place. I think that’s why I love it.” I suggest that this is not unlike the ironic “my lady treats me baaaaaad” lyric in old Creole jazz songs. When the writer and listener both knew that “lady” was code for the boss man. “Yes!” he nods.

On defining The Celtic Tiger he says: “Well you’re fairly clever” Huh! “In reflection you’ll know that behind every speculative banker stood an economist, a thinker who was in turn implementing some basic ideas. In my other life I’ve written papers on this.” Few would disagree with him. When he first entered the Irish Parliament (the Dail), aged 40, journalists would go to the young Higgins for a robust quote on the issue of the day and get the truth speckled with well researched yet wholly passionate examples in return. He hasn’t changed. “Our crises didn’t come out of the blue, behind those who failed in regulation, behind the speculative banker were actually intellectual perspectives that assumed certain things in relation to the market. Without being boring about it.”

No go on. “There were a number of major intellectual thinkers (referred to for short hand as the Austrians) such as Friedrich von Hayek and his mentor Ludwig von Mises. The downturn is linked to failures in their ideas. So equally you can think your way into a new space and I if I did nothing else as someone who would have been the only one in my family who went to third level or anywhere, I lived by ideas all my life and one thing you can take in the Presidency is that ideas will be valued. Or putting it more simply, the problems of unemployment or mortgage stress or the problems of exclusion of one kind or another due to income are not problems of the individuals but they should be taken as our common problems. And therefore our response should be a cooperative and collective one.”

Later he added “The conversations I’ve had with the Irish people, who’ve been very specific. It might surprise people to hear that they didn’t like phrases like ‘we all lived it up in the land of the Celtic Tiger’ they had very clear ideas about who did. And they also had very clear ideas about where the failures in regulation were and that where they had placed their trust and that trust was broken. There is a real task of restoring trust in certain institutions, in other words the public world has to be restored in that regard. The public have said that they want to move on. You look at the values and assumptions that have brought you to where you are and then you say ‘well if we want to get to a different set of assumptions on so on.’ There is never any one way of responding.”

He managed to get a smile out of me regarding finance, which isn’t easy considering the weight of people’s current financial difficulties. “It was once an artificial existence, people going to bed and imagining that they were getting woken up as millionaires as the price of their house had gone up overnight.” He said, “we have to note what happened, this was not the real economy.” and then “how much more can be achieved when people work together rather than for individual consumption. And then remembering where we came from in terms of the best ideas and traditions that we have as we grow towards a newer idea of Irishness.”

Or rather, that was the version of Micheal D Higgins which I kept seeing time and time again up in front of students in colleges, on the street, meeting the elderly, attending sporting and culture events. Most discussion of the president and his potential legacy, has become dominated by one issue. Ideas! I’ve probably heard him explain his concept on ideas a dozen times in a dozen ways. “The imagination that is there and capable of doing new things.” “I think that you need that fresh thinking.” “We need to be able to face up to the assumptions and where they came from but if I said major thinkers influenced the whole world’s economic view that I have just described then there is a responsibility on intellectuals to reconnect society, to restore this problem through ideas.”

After that, just to lighten the mood, Michael D Higgins on his campaign bus, without his jacket (he’s taken it off while being measured for a new suit on the bus) is quieter – more reflective and humorous and completely private and unshowy. I asked how it had been, spending so much time constantly on the go? “Good, really good,” he said. I asked him to define tiredness. How come he never got tired? “I take my time.”

John Waters an extensively read columnist with the Irish Times newspaper in Ireland, wrote this during that week “I still have, somewhere, the typewritten note I received from Michael D Higgins nearly 29 years ago, when I wrote to request an interview for Hot Press. It ended: “And of course it doesn’t matter that you are unable to offer a fee”, a response John writes “to my naive apology for the impecuniousness of both my employers and myself.” John goes on to say “That sentence, it strikes me now, is an indicator of the instinctual kindness of Michael D Higgins: in brushing my apology aside, he did not want to draw attention to the gaucheness behind it. It was some time later I learned politicians never received payment for press interviews. That interview, my first with a politician, meant a lot to me. The headline was “Something better change”, the title of a Stranglers song. Michael D was a hero when that species was thin on the ground.”

John Waters declined at first to tell me whether Michael D Higgins should win the election or not, but I said I’d been enjoying his pieces (I had) and he explained “I know Michael D a long time, it’s been thirty years since I first met him. I admire him greatly, I don’t agree with him always in everything but I sympathise with him almost in every sense in terms of his impulses. I think he’s a wonderful politician and would be a wonderful president.”

I mention to John Waters that I thought the election had come down to a “celebrity versus history vote.” “Yes. I have been examining this in the campaign myself and I think that there’s a sense about this election that it’s almost like the end of something in our country” he said. (That shook me, what did he mean?) Was he referring to the TV celebrity candidate? The same candidate who with a lack of reflection and deliberation answered “Yes” when asked if he’d change the national anthem a few nights before on TV? That a disregard for heritage and a vacuous celebrity society would be my countries future? John thinks historians will look back and think, “That was odd. Why did they even think like that? What was that celebrity mindset during that election, determined to believe in nothing, to believe nothing, to accept nothing, to care about nothing.” He paused “That’s what Michael D Higgins has to fight.”

Backstage behind the cameras, I ask Michael D Higgins How did he intend to beat this thinking? “Ever heard of that wonderful Irish Oscar nominated animated film Give Up Yer Aul Sins?” I had. Brownbag films made it. It was all over the nine-o-clock-news one night! “Yes. That’s the one. Well I’ve never befriended cynicism, it’s of no value to anyone, let’s be positive like the film so I’ll say ‘Give up Yer Aul Cynicism’” His goal, he said, “was to host a set of presidential seminars to take up themes that have come out of my presidential campaign” and the first would concentrate on the problems of the youth; youth unemployment, youth emigration, youth mental health, the whole issue of youth suicide. “You take the first step and say to people, ‘Look, there are aspects of Irishness that have to be protected and this starts with our youth.’ Sounds sensible. ‘I’m going to invite the best minds at home and abroad to discuss this issue and ask young people to participate.”

Reader, have you even seen this at Stansted, Gatwick, Heathrow or Dublin airport; a young girl in a brand-new Panama hat or new Converse shoes, jetting off somewhere to pretend to be someone else for a week or two? Don’t we all like to experiment like this? Well this is the character I seemed to be playing for a week in politics. Toward the end of the process I thought to myself, ‘this is all quite fascinating’ as I stood in Dublin castle between the two “hot rooms”. Results poured in from all around the country; and in the first hot room the returning officer sat receiving numbers from counting centres all across Ireland. Two huge guards guarded her door.

I stood in the second “hot room”, your actual Reactor Number 4, still on fire and nuclear hot kind of hot room where the stage for the presidential results was located. The heat and pressure in this room reminded me of hot yoga a few weeks back, only much, much hotter, and with lots of photographers and foreign TV crews and politicians and zero yoga leotards. A hint that the returning officer was about to appear with numbers was when someone tapped the microphone on stage for sound. The first count was in. Michael D Higgins vote was a phenomenal YES vote.

Since I started shadowing him for this, several people have naturally asked me, “You know the way Michael D comes across quite friendly on TV. Is he really like that in private?” and I say, do you know something? To be totally honest with you he IS! In fact, he’s a gentleman. At times I receive silence and I know that I’ve just dipped in someone’s estimation. But mostly, if the questioner isn’t a taxi-driver who’s a staunch Martin McGuinness voter, or a church going lady who adores Dana Rosemary Scallon and even sometimes when they are, they look around to see if anyone’s listening and then lower their voice and whisper something like “Com’ere, listen to me. I like him. I voted for him too.”

Consuming the Irish press over the last weekend before the election and listening to the lilting literati on the radio airily discussing him, I was genuinely left wondering where the voters on that wet Thursday afternoon last week were going to teem from? But teem they did, over one million of them, after transfers. I put it in context to him that he’s earned one quarter of the Irish population in votes. “I’m so humbled!” he replied.

While shadowing him one huge thing struck me about Michael D Higgins the man, he has impeccable manners. We at one point discuss Gordan Brown’s “biscuitgate”, the incident with Mumsnet where Gordon Brown was asked his favourite biscuit on Twitter and he missed the question on the timeline and later replied “anything with chocolate.” And with charm that verges just this side of outright flattery Michael D Higgins replied, “Oh that one’s easy” he smiled “The president of Ireland’s favourite biscuit is Chocolate Kimberley.” Good choice. “So, Gisèle,” he said to me, looking at me as if he were finally relieved, “when did we meet?” Er, Mr. Higgins, I said, I think it was here in Dublin last Thursday. “No!” he insisted, “was it not a good while before that? Think back.” I said, er, well, “You did point your finger at me and tell me off for a full thirty minutes in the 90’s.” “Yes. I remember!” he said as if going forward it would be the most vital telling off of his Presidential career.

Let me explain. A while ago, back when I was a student in Dublin, dirt poor and studying English at university with his daughter, I toyed with the idea of immigration. “Er this English,” I said as casually as I could out load one day to Alice Mary Higgins, not getting any easier is it? I think I shall escape to the U, S of A.” Then I hid in my house and with very little hope, bent double with worry, didn’t emerge for the weekend.

If you’re reading this in the morning, then I’ll be lifting my tea cup in recognition of this kind man and recounting the morning Michael D Higgins (the then Irish minister for Arts and Culture in the 90’s) spent half and hour patting his pockets and looking under cushions pretending he’d lost something in his living room to delay himself. If, however, it is later, mid-evening say, then I will be lifting a cup of tea and extracting my diary to recount that morning in full when his daughter Alice Mary rang and asked me to call around on my bicycle to study together. She brought me indoors, made me a cup of tea and as I sipped all the while Michael D Higgins walked about searching for something in that room while explaining how “I abandoned my academic hopes for a while to earn and send money home. I had hoped to be teacher you know, it took me ages. Is that your situation too?” (Or something pretty close).

It strikes me now many years later, that at the time he gave me a quiet sort of dignified encouragement and so I battled on and I went on to become a writer and for this and many other reasons I have a soft spot for the man. When I watched him address the youth in one of Ireland’s most famous teacher training colleges (Maynooth) I was reminded of this quiet encouragement when he said “take your ideas and make them your lives and my wish for you is that you have fulfilled lives not only as consumers but as people enjoying the early days of the building and achieving of a real republic of equals, characterised by solidarity and celebration and joy and fulfillment.”

I’m telling you this because in what I imagine to be a segue worthy of the great George Orwell himself, I’m trying to use this tiny example to prop up my shiny new universal theory, namely that the now president of Ireland Michael D Higgins, has always secretly been an encouraging force for good.

A Morning With Paul Smith

P.S. (Just to say in the film that follows I didn’t really make the mistake of thinking that a hamster wrote a letter to Paul Smith).