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Sunday 27 November 2016


President Higgins puts his left foot in it with gushing praise for Fidel Castro

If the President can't hide his bias at a time when we need to strengthen global ties then he should resign, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams tweeted pictures of himself with Fidel Castro and hailed the former Cuban leaderís stance on Ireland Picture: PA

Surely the Government will summon the courage to put manners on President Michael D Higgins now that he has displayed so publicly in his paean of praise to the late Fidel Castro his blatant anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism.

By comparison, in confining himself to approving Castro's views on Ireland and tweeting photographs of them together, Gerry Adams has been positively statesmanlike.

Up to now, although the job requires him to steer clear of politics, President Higgins has gone to little trouble to hide his prejudices, though mostly he manages to avoid exhibiting them flagrantly.
He sometimes sails close to the wind in speeches when he gets talking about how economies should be run, but when it comes to reacting to the deaths of famous people about whom he felt strongly, he finds it hard to contain himself.

Two years ago, I wrote here about how struck I was by the contrast between the statements he issued on the deaths of Margaret Thatcher and Hugo Chavez. He obviously hated Thatcher, and struggled to say anything good about her in the few words he grudgingly produced. He said: "She will be remembered as one of the most conviction-driven British prime ministers who drew on a scholarship that demanded markets without regulation." Still, at least he said nothing bad, and he patted her on the back for being the first female British female prime minister and one who had made a "valuable early contribution to the search for peace and political stability" in Northern Ireland by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

His begrudgery was in marked contrast to what he had said the previous month about the despotic Hugo Chavez (who set the Venezuelan economy on the road to ruin), who President Higgins wrote had "achieved a great deal during his term in office, particularly in the area of social development and poverty reduction".

While he had confined himself to extending his "condolences" to Thatcher's "family, her friends and political colleagues", his "thoughts and best wishes" were "with the people of Venezuela" as they came to terms "with this sad news".

When it came to Castro, Chavez's ideological godfather, of whose death he had learned "with great sadness", we were treated to the outpourings of someone still in the grip of the radical chic of his youth and worshipping at the shrine of a Marxist-Leninist tyrant.

"Following the revolution in 1959," explained the presidential statement, and "having survived some 600 attempts on his life," Castro, "known to his peers in Cuba as 'El Comandante', became one of the longest-serving heads of state in the world, guiding the country through a remarkable process of social and political change", which led to 100pc literacy and "a health system that is one of the most admired in the world".

And this despite "the economic isolation forced upon Cuba" by an American embargo "which was criticised by a large number of countries in the international community". Our President waxed eloquent about Castro's contribution as president of the Non-Aligned Movement to devising "an alternative global economic and social order... that sought a more equal world of trade, rejected odious debt, and sought an independent path to development".

There was a reference to a Castro speech at a UN conference about "how it was possible to eliminate global hunger, and of the enormous burden that international debt was placing on impoverished nations", which had ended with the phrase: "Let us pay the debt to humanity, not the debt to the banks."

Now let it not be said that President Higgins completely ignored the downside of the Castro dictatorship. "The economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society," he explained, "which brought its critics."

And that was it. The President of the Irish Republic was clearly unbothered by, for instance - just to name a few things that have raised eyebrows over the years - the hundreds of brutal executions after the revolution, the persecution of clergy, gays and political and other dissidents, the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to America, and his decision to permit the Soviet Union - which subsidised Cuba - to build launching sites for nuclear missiles capable of reaching America, which led to a confrontation between America and Russia in 1962 that over 13 terrifying days the world feared was escalating into nuclear war.

Then there was the indoctrination of the people of Cuba, who were taught that the abject poverty in which they lived had nothing to do with an inefficient, centralised economy micromanaged by the president but was all the fault of the United States.

No one could reasonably say successive American governments handled Cuba well, but they were bound to be hostile to a Cuban government that had seized private property owned by many of their own citizens and was allied to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Castro indoctrinated himself so successfully that, after he handed over power to his brother, his response to President Obama's olive branch and visit to Cuba eight years later was to write him a public letter telling him "we don't need the empire to give us anything".

"Fidel Castro will be remembered as a giant among global leaders," ended President Higgins's assessment, "whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all the of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet."

I guess it all depends on what you mean by "freedom".

During his Dail career, Higgins was notoriously anti-American and freely displayed his dislike of capitalism and his penchant for left-wing dictators. As President he's supposed to keep his contentious opinions to himself and, if he can't, he should resign.

What with Brexit and Hillary Clinton's defeat, Ireland is having a torrid time and needs all the friends can get. I can't comment on what President Higgins thinks are good seduction techniques, but I wouldn't have thought that at a time when the Government is trying to woo Donald Trump, this is a good time to reveal his opposition to everything he stands for.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards