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5 December 2016

Irish president Higgins should learn from Queen about airing political views

The Republicís Head of State needs to learn to keep his prejudices to himself, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

The Queen and Irish President Michael D Higgins during his visit to the UK in April of 2014
The Queen and Irish President Michael D Higgins during his visit to the UK in April of 2014

In the same week that Michael D Higgins, President of the Irish Republic, issued an embarrassing tribute to Fidel Castro, I was watching The Crown, the brilliant Netflix series on the life of Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen has her views on politics and politicians, but she keeps them to herself.

She has had to act as a host to dictators, tyrants and all sorts of frightful people, but she does the job uncomplainingly since she recognises that policy is the business of her Government.

She was, of course, trained for this from her youth.

The contrast with President Higgins is acute, for even by the standards of politicians he has always been exceptionally fond of the sound of his own voice.

A retired academic sociologist, he has been a political activist with a particular interest in South America and the Middle East and has always been on the side of socialism.

None of that mattered when he was a senator and a TD, but since 2011 he’s been in a job where he’s not supposed to show his political prejudices.

On the whole, the Irish Republic has rubbed along happily enough with its Heads of State, who traditionally were superannuated politicians who accepted their role was ceremonial and did little other than receive ambassadors and praise people who did good works.

Things rather changed when Mary Robinson took over in 1990, but though she was an energetic and very visible President, as a lawyer she was well aware of the limitations on what she could say or do in the name of the Irish people.

From 1997 there was President McAleese, another lawyer, who served 14 years, and overall did a good job, not least in the way in which she helped ease the path to the Queen’s hugely successful State visit.

She occasionally made a gaffe – most notably when she said that like Nazis with the Jews, Northern Ireland Protestants had “transmitted to their children an irrational hatred” of Catholics.

However, she quickly grasped and admitted how appalling this statement had been and had the grace to declare herself “very, very, very deeply sorry” for the terms in which she had described what was the “shared problem of sectarianism.”

President Higgins, however, doesn’t do sorry, but then he never thinks he has been wrong.

Like Jeremy Corbyn, he hasn’t changed his opinions from the anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism of his youth in the radical Sixties, not least because he has always liked to hang out with people who agree with him and consider their shared views so morally right and superior as to be unchallengeable.

In 2013, after the death of the Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez, President Higgins lavishly praised his achievements in “social development and poverty reduction”.

That Venezuela’s social revolution has turned it into an absolute basket case in which inflation is the highest in the world and people are starving seems to have passed the President by.

It certainly hasn’t diminished his enthusiasm for Marxist revolutionaries.

When Castro died the President produced a lengthy eulogy of “a giant among global leaders, whose view was not only one of freedom for his people, but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet”.

The only hint of criticism of this brutal dictator who executed or imprisoned gay people, clerics, political dissenters and anyone who got in his way, as well as keeping his people poor for ideological reasons, was a preposterous sentence about how his “economic and social reforms were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics”.

President Putin of Russia and President Xi of China were much more restrained.

Since 2011 the Irish Government has been putting up with speeches in which the President attacked aspects of its economic policies, but this pushed it too far. He wasn’t allowed to go to Castro’s funeral along with other admirers like President Robert Mugabe and Gerry Adams, and he was stopped from making a speech after signing a book of condolence.

Perhaps the Irish Government should get the president to watch The Crown and see how the Queen’s sense of duty along with her natural humility successfully put the interests of her country ahead of her own ego.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards