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Sunday 18 January 2015


Presidents and abbots should laugh at themselves

Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman has been foolishly over-sensitive on his friend's behalf

Michael D Higgins

Abbot Hederman

I'm grateful to the Abbot of Glenstal for introducing me to the work of impressionist Oliver Callan, who up to last week was just a vague show-business name to me. But then I read Dom Mark Patrick Hederman's distressed article about how Callan was bullying, harassing and generally slagging off our President, and rushed to YouTube to see for myself.

I have to report that I laughed and sought more of the same. Callan's work can be patchy and for a Monaghan lad he's weak on northern accents, but his Enda is a hoot and his Higgins is bliss: the moment when Callan takes off Queen Elizabeth and the President squabbling over who is taller was inspired.

Incidentally, has anyone looked at Friday's priceless video of John Kerry (tall) and Francois Holland (short) trying respectively to hug (American) and cheek-kiss (French) and making a hames of it? Had the even smaller President Higgins been involved it would have been comedy gold.

Do I hear a cry of pain from the Abbey? As he told us last week, the abbot thinks "Laughing at someone's height is unacceptable in general, but when it comes to an elected head of State, it enters an area of insult and defamation which undermines the prestige, authority and influence of the person elected to represent us."

It sounds as though he's trying to give a good name to lèse majesté, the crime of "violating the dignity of a ruler as the representative of a sovereign power" which fortunately for Callan is no longer on our statute book. The offence of making remarks critical of the monarch of the United Kingdom wasn't abolished at Westminster until 2010, but there hasn't been a prosecution since 1715, owing to the fact that however much they hate it, British heads of state know they're fair game and the tradition of British satire is as merciless as that of the French if rather less gross.

Yet according to his close friend the abbott, the President and Mrs Higgins are wearing themselves out working for us "and the kind of ungrateful and demeaning coverage we were treated to over the Christmas period is unacceptable", "corrosive of their self-confidence and self-respect, to the point of preventing them from accomplishing their essential task" and "in a person with the sensitivity of someone like Michael D Higgins" could be paralysing.

President Higgins is 5' 4", which is the same height he was when he decided to run for the presidency. He had by then been in politics for more than 40 years, so he had plenty of experience of rough-and-tumble. If his friends hadn't warned him that his appearance would provide an opportunity for mockery, he has the wrong kind of friends.

And the mockery is often affectionate. One comment on the journal.ie website spoke for many: "I love President Higgins he's the perfect ambassador for Ireland not only does he embody Ireland through his poetic and literature demeanour but he also looks like a leprechaun which is Aces in my book".

Dammit, he does at time resemble a leprechaun and he'll never look impressive reviewing tall troops, but that doesn't stop him doing his job effectively. No one could reasonably criticise him or his wife for how they conducted themselves during, for instance, the state visit to England.

And then there's the little matter of how he used to dish it out. One of the best comments I saw was from Declan Moffat, who asked: "When he ripped up the invitation to meet the then President of the USA, Ronald Reagan, was that 'toxic bullying' or 'disrepectful' to that office?"

Higgins certainly usen't to worry about disrespecting American heads of state. In 1984, when President Ronald Reagan was addressing the Oireachtas, Higgins was one of the 4,000 protesters outside, many of them whistling and booing in the hope of drowning out the speech. Twenty years later, Higgins told the press that because of the Iraq war, President George W Bush was not welcome in Ireland.

Whatever their politics, most Americans care very much that when he is representing them, their presidents should be given respect. However, we critics of Higgins should be reasonable. He was a knee-jerk leftie in the past, but he's president now and as long as he keeps his politics to himself all is well. He doesn't always succeed. Look at how his emotions peeped out in the presidential condolences on the Venezuela authoritarian Hugo Chavez (fulsome) and Margaret Thatcher (grudging).

Still, so far he gets things mostly right. I hope he didn't bleed too much when the hard-left turned on him for acting as his office requires and signing the Water Services Law into law. But he can be self-important, self-righteous and long-winded, so, for all our sakes, including his, long may satirists like Callan and Mario Rosenstock point that out.

I think they should have a go at the abbott too. He's obviously a nice man, but he's ludicrously over-sensitive on his friend's behalf and reads nasty insinuations into harmless jokes. Callan was right to say to him on radio that he would invite Higgins "to scold you. In a week when satire is a huge talking point around the world, that you go and criticise me just for mentioning his height."

What was Hederman's contribution to the Charlie Hebdo debate? He said it wasn't "a very appropriate moment to be having cartoons."

Sorry, Abbot Hederman. For anyone who cares passionately about freedom of speech, this was just the moment for more cartoons. I'm sure that through their tears, some of the French cartoonists were laughing at Hollande's desperate efforts to look dignified when kissing the entire front row of the Paris march.

And if any cartoons show President Higgins as a leprechaun, he should be big enough to laugh.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards