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Sunday 14 April 2013

Our President betrays his leftie leanings

Higgins' responses to the deaths of Chavez and Thatcher highlight his political bias, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

President Higgins insists that he well understands the constitutional limits of the Presidency, but appears to let his political prejudices show.

There was the lecture last year to the London School of Economics, where Higgins extolled the socialist and anti-individualist principles of George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb – both of whom, as political thinkers, are now mainly remembered for that long period when they were uncritical eugenicists and fans of Stalin.

Now we have the toe-curling contrast between his public responses to the deaths of Hugo Chavez and Margaret Thatcher.

Most open-minded commentators think that the Venezuelan president, an autocrat well on the way to becoming a fully fledged despot, had a pretty worrying democratic record. For instance, the UN, the EU parliament, Human Rights Watch and the Law Society of England and Wales were among those groups charging Mr Chavez with creating a climate of fear among his country's legal profession. Steadily and ruthlessly he eroded press freedom and grabbed power for himself and financial and political spoils for his family and associates.

If Mr Higgins thought about Mr Chavez's friends, it should have worried him that they were so unsavoury: Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Gaddafi, Cuba's Castro, Iran's Ahmedinejad, Zimbabwe's Mugabe and Belarus's Lukashendo.

But, in the year of The Gathering, when Ireland is desperately trying to attract American investors and visitors, our President used phrases like "very sorry", and "great loss" about the death of someone who thought the US was Satan, and he extolled Chavez's successes without qualification.

Then Margaret Thatcher died. He was "sorry", but not "very". He said nothing about such domestic achievements as restoring industrial harmony to the basket-case that was the UK economy (under Thatcher, 29 million strike-days were reduced to two million) or the revival of national self-confidence.

There was no reference to her key role in helping to bring down the Soviet Union, freeing Eastern Europe or helping to bring about a peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa. Nor was there any sympathetic acknowledgement that Irish republicans murdered two of her closest friends and tried to kill her too. In our President's official statement there was a remark about her having a place in history as "Great Britain's" (surely the United Kingdom's?) first female prime minister and the only compliment was for her involvement with the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

President Higgins had sent his thoughts and best wishes to the people of Venezuela over their sad loss; he merely extended condolences to Thatcher's "family, friends and political colleagues." What about her tens of millions of admirers, including innumerable British residents of Irish extraction?

Mr Higgins' last Dail speech betrayed his ignorance about Thatcher. He was attacking Michael McDowell for remarking that "a dynamic liberal economy like ours demands flexibility and inequality in some respects to function". This was "an ugly statement", said the President, "that inequality is needed for the stability of society. It ranks with the mad Margaret Thatcher view that there is no such thing as society."

Mr McDowell was merely making the blindingly obvious point that inequality is an inevitable consequence of the incentives that motivate people to strive. And there was nothing mad about what Mrs Thatcher said about society.

Had Mr Higgins bothered to google the quote, he'd have found the context. In an interview explaining why we shouldn't look to the state as the first stop for succour, she said: "They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."

That was a view inspired by her Methodist upbringing. She quoted approvingly from a sermon from the movement's founder, John Wesley: "Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give away all you can." And in her private life she lived up to it.

The British Queen's successful visit was a moving symbol of how close and constructive is the relationship these days between Britain and Ireland. Mrs Thatcher won three elections and consistently tops the polls as the UK's most successful peace-time prime minister.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards