After a difficult and tumultuous political year, the inauguration of Michael D Higgins in November 2011 was, in many ways, a hopeful moment for the State. From his roots in working class Limerick, Higgins was rounding off a long political and academic career with the highest position in the State. He intentionally wanted to project an image of Ireland returning to successful times.
“I enter the ninth presidency,” he stated, “with a sense of humility, but also with confidence in the great capacity of our people, the people of Ireland, not only to transcend present difficulties but to realise all of the wonderful possibilities that I believe await us in the years ahead.”
Higgins’ first decision was to voluntarily waive 23.5 per cent of his salary – a reduction from €325,000 to €249,000 – thus bringing forward a change that would have first applied to his successor.
His seven Council of State appointees broadly reflected his interests in academia, law and the arts, including Judge Catherine McGuinness and NUI Galway’s Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh. The council also comprises former presidents, present and former Taoisigh and chief justices, the Tánaiste, Ceann Comhairle, Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, High Court President and Attorney General.
A two-day official visit to London took place in February 2012, including a speech at the London School of Economics and a visit to the Olympic Park. After staying at home for St Patrick’s Day, according to convention, Higgins travelled to the USA at the end of April, mainly to meet with the Irish-American diaspora and business community but also to discuss press freedom at the UN.
Although Higgins resigned his membership of Labour on taking office, in keeping with the decade of centenaries, he released a statement to mark the party’s 100th anniversary in May of that year.
“The founders established the Labour Party in anticipation of a home rule Parliament in Dublin and conscious that Ireland was on the cusp of great change,” the President reflected. “A century later, Ireland is again traversing a period of great change, with all the daunting challenges and the potential for positive transformation that this brings. In facing up to these challenges and opportunities, the social idealism and practical patriotism that motivated Connolly, Larkin and O’Brien is needed now more than ever.”
As co-patron of Cooperation Ireland, he witnessed Queen Elizabeth’s handshake with Martin McGuinness in the following month. “The exchange of greetings and courtesies that took place this morning,” he remarked, “marks another important step on the journey to reconciliation on this island.” In his first major constitutional duty, he also signed the 30th Amendment of the Constitution into law i.e. to ratify the Fiscal Compact Treaty.
The President’s Being Young and Irish workshops, while not binding in the Government, gave young people an opportunity to express their views on Ireland’s future direction. Equality (across a range of areas), accountability, a holistic education system, and improved mental health were the main priorities identified.
Higgins subsequently took up the last theme in an address to over 1,000 primary school principals in January 2013. “The achievement of good mental health and the building of positive self-esteem and problem-solving abilities amongst young people must happen in their primary years of education,” he affirmed, “and the school environment has a critical role to play in promoting that positive mental well-being.”
No Irish child, he stated, should go to school hungry. One in five principals were reporting increasing numbers of pupils who were poorly fed when they arrived at school. There was also “no place for authoritarianism” in any school and he encouraged teachers to help their pupils to “think critically and to envision the possibilities and the means to a better and fairer society.”
Áras an Uachtaráin hosted a particularly special occasion six months later when the President and First Lady marked the 75th anniversary of the inauguration of the first President of Ireland. Douglas Hyde took office on 25 June 1938 following the approval of the Constitution. The President surmised: “In reflecting on how the eight previous holders of the presidency discharged that duty of service, I am very conscious that each of them brought to the office their own talents, skills, life experience and sense of idealism.”
The Council of State met for the first (and to date only) time in his presidency to discuss the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill on 29 July 2013. After a three-hour discussion, the President decided not to refer the Bill to the Supreme Court and signed it into law.
That December, he travelled to South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral and was invited to speak on behalf of the EU at a lunch for world leaders. “He breathed great courage into movements that required great change, including the ending of apartheid,” Higgins reflected. “He had a great combination of head and heart, intellectual strength and emotional power. The best way to honour his values is to bring them to the centre of challenges facing our times.”
The Irish state visit to Britain (April 2014) was undoubtedly a high point in his time in office to date. The joint flying of flags and playing of anthems were important symbols of reconciliation – a journey which remains unfinished in the North. The Queen’s grandfather ruled the empire which the President’s grandfather fought in the War of Independence.
“Through conquest and resistance, we have cast shadows on each other,” Higgins commented, “but we have also gained strength from one another as neighbours and, most especially, from the contribution of those who have travelled between our islands in recent decades.” The “shadow of the past has become the shelter of the present” and no painful aspect of history should “deflect us from crafting a future that offers hope and opportunity for the British and Irish people.” In the same spirit, he also represented Ireland at the commemorations in Belgium in August to mark the start of World War One.
One of his more difficult moments came in December when the Water Services Bill came before him. The President received several requests from members of the Oireachtas to refer the Bill to the people. This was the first time that the procedure, contained in Article 27 of the Constitution, had been used. Indeed, the Government had proposed the removal of the power in the October 2013 referenda. Higgins concluded that the article did not apply and was fiercely criticised by some anti-water charges protesters.
The episode illustrated the fact that the presidency is a political position and can, at times, be contentious. However, the main thrust of the Higgins presidency to date has been positive and non-controversial, providing a measure of stability and consistency in a time of considerable change.