The Good Apple in a Rotten Barrel: Michael D. Higgins

Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany
Michael D. true European that he is, pops up in Brittany (cc) The Irish Labour Party

Today the 3oth Dáil Éireann was disolved, TDs will be elected to the 31st Dáil on February 25th. This Dáil has lasted since May of 2007. It is unlikely in this time that it has ever borne witness to as fine a speech as that delivered by Michael D. Higgens during the second reading of the Finance Bill last week. In fact, if anyone can point me to a better speech in the past 50 years I will be very grateful. Higgins is not seeking re-election as TD, he will however run for president later in the year, if the Labour Party do the right thing and make him their candidate. He has departed daily politics with one of the very few political speeches that I agree with entirely, he has rekindled my own faith in Irish politics, and has surely contributed 20 minutes of mandatory viewing for future students of politics in Ireland and beyond.

Higgins takes in the wide view. He traces Ireland’s current failings as a sovereign state to institutional and administrative failings of historic magnitude, from the founding of Saorstát Éireann in 1922 to the present international monetary fuck-up. And in this I think there are some important lessons at home and abroad.

Both proponents and opponents of David Cameron’s Big Society project would do well to study the history of a country in which legislation and society are ultimately divorced by an administration that either is not there or does not work. For this to me seems a central weakness of Cameron’s project, a proposition that would devolve power of legsislative carry-through from the polity to civil society. That this has occurred in Ireland is the  result of a century of localism and small-time political ambition. Cameron’s project is surely much more intellectually rigorous in its own way, but possibly all the more dangerous for that. Higgins’ view on this is as considered as it is straight-forward:

People imagined that when we had got the equality legislation we had arrived at a particular point, but the political science would have indicated that that political power was useless without administrative power. It was only when the equality legislation was followed through with the Equality Authority and Combat Poverty Agency that it was possible to administer the benefit that had been won politically. That is the meaning of administrative power and is why we lost Combat Poverty Agency and the Equality Agency to the right and had all the cuts. That is what citizens in a republic want; they want more political power and want administrative power. They want to communicate their vulnerability and want to be able to respond to each other’s independency. The very last thing they want is more of that terrible saying that has brought us to this point now. That is why I am proud to be president of the Labour Party. If we have failed from time to time, what was never in doubt is that we were speaking about a real republic that has yet to be built in this State.

Higgins echoes thoughts expressed here a few months ago on Ireland having never been sovereign. But Higgins is not content to moan about our lot, he takes the point to a level few Irish politicians have the ability to climb to, beyond parochialism into a vision that places Ireland in a European, even global context.

People wonder why poverty has to reproduce itself in the same family from one generation to another or from one area to another and wonder why there is a difference between the quality of schools in one place and the quality of those in another. God did not make it like that. Nature did not make it like that. The people in the so-called Irish republic made it like that and they maintained it like that…

…I hope the new Government realises that the model which is broken should not be repaired and that there is a discourse now which is wider and which is not only in Ireland but in Europe, where citizens are wondering what institutions might best express that which we wish to share with each other, where the concept of interdependency is accepted and where it would be regarded as obscene to state that radical individualism is what is important and what must drive us. All that radical individualism with its privileged view of professions and its side of the mouth politics with regard to benefit and privilege is what must be rejected….

…This has a practical expression in Europe. If we create here a radical inclusive republic we will place it in a social Europe which accepts the interdependency of peoples rather than the aspirations of the elite property owning classes and individual countries. We would then be able to be a region in the global sense that offered guarantees about labour, security and peace. It would be a powerful moral voice in the world with regard to having alternatives to war and allowing people their own paths to development which would be very attractive.

Intelligent political discourse in the Dáil, if it can happen once it can happen again. Life affirming stuff.