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The increasingly impressive President Higgins… February 25, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Now maybe this is all optics. But I’ve got to be honest, I’m glad there’s a President in the Aras who is speaking the way he is.

And in fairness, other than Norris – at a push, and perhaps McGuinness – at another and even greater push, is there a snowball’s chance in hell that we’d have had a President who might be rocking the boat from the alternatives drawn from the other candidates?

He’s said:

Speaking after delivering an address at the London School of Economics on Tuesday night, Mr Higgins gave a detailed account of the steps he would take if the Government decided not to hold a referendum on the treaty.
“My consideration is as to whether there is an issue of constitutional significance raised,” said Mr Higgins, adding that if there was, he would call a meeting of the Council of State.

This is bad, according to the orthodoxy because:

The primary concern is that Mr Higgins chose to comment publicly on his options relating to the fiscal compact treaty before the Government had even received the opinion of the Attorney General on the issue.

Well tough. The President’s job is not entirely bound by the opinions of the AG, whoever he or she may be at any given time. His function is, as he stated, to consider whether there’s an issue of constitutional significance.
And what of this?

There were also some raised eyebrows in the Labour Party at the President expressing opposition to privatisation in the week that the Government decided to sell off stakes in State companies worth €3 billion.

Good for him – his track record in the LP is far from ignoble. And so what if the Government and Ministers are ‘alarmed’ as the Irish Times puts it? They didn’t vote for him. 40 per cent of those who voted in this state did.
I’m more optimistic about this than I would have been only a few days ago.


1. Jack Jameson - February 25, 2012

I’m glad that I may appear to have been wrong in thinking that Michael D had long lost his edge and would be little more than a nodding dog in the Park.

Maybe being freed from the shackles of Labour Head Office has helped.


2. CL - February 25, 2012

Capitalism is based on the commodification of labour power. In his LSE address MDH voiced his opposition to capital’s mad drive to commodify everything.
The welfare state developed to offer some protection to workers from the brutality of the market. Burton’s proposals reverse this; the IMF/Labour Party/FG govt. is attempting to use state power to force workers to submit to the coercion of irrational markets. The Hayekian ideological triumph is a threat to democratic freedom.
The seriousness of the current crisis in Irish political economy is shown by the fact that President Higgins’ invocation of Fabianism is now becoming a major inconvenience for the ruling oligarchy.


WorldbyStorm - February 25, 2012

It shows how far the dial has tilted rightwards the fact that Fabianism is now out of bounds.


CL - February 25, 2012

Yes. The Fabians did some important work. ‘The Gift Relationship’ by Richard Titmuss, how the commodification of the blood supply in the U.S had serious deleterious side effects, Shaw on equality,etc
But its discomfiting to realize that the Webbs, Shaw, Titmuss, Beveridge (and Keynes, although not a Fabian) were all eugenicists.
But in any case a cleavage has definitely emerged between President HIggins’ ameliorative social democracy and the regressive social and economic policies of Lab/F.G


fergal - February 25, 2012

“the welfare state developed to offer some protection to workers” CL this is not true,working people for decades prior to any welfare state had their own welfare bodies;the trade union,the cooperative society,the sick club,the friendly society,the building society,these bodies sprung up from below and represent a deep and rich tradition of fraternity and mutual aid among working people,and they developed to offer protection to those who were victims of the market.The British working class had built up a huge network based on mutual aid and self help,you also had clothing clubs,coffin clubs and holiday clubs.The welfare state developed because the left believed that seizing control of the state would be enough to put manners on the market.I’ll let everybody here reflect on how well that’s working out today.Working people spent a huge amount of time organising their own groups to protect themselves form the market,they were not passive by-standers waitng to win enough votes in an election.When Thatcher came to power she could undo the welfare state as she had the power to do so while the venrerable working class societies mentioned above had withered on the vine,and the scraps of the welfare state were for the poor who couldn’t afford anything else.As we now see the state as the handmaiden of financial capitalism it is perhaps time to rediscover socialism from below as opposed to Fabian inspired centralisation from above.Can we afford to do anything else?


CL - February 25, 2012

Because the welfare state and unions exist the working class does not have to rely solely on selling its labour power in order to exist.
Joan Burton is introducing a form of Reaganite workfare in order to increasingly subjugate workers to the coercion of what President Higgins has correctly called ‘irrational markets’.
The IMF/FG/Lab govt. is attempting to implement the obsolete dogma of Hayek and Friedman, which includes privatisation, austerity, and increasing the commodification of labour power. This technocratic, ideological imposition is a clear danger to democratic liberty.
President Higgins has breached the orthodox consensus but his hope that middle class Fabianism can offer a way out is mistaken.



3. John Meehan - February 25, 2012

Answer this question

“if the Constitution protects sovereignty, and everyone says the IMF/ECB bailout gives away economic sovereignty, then how can the bailout be constitutional?”

Consider the following when drafting a very short text :

“I’m sure the Government will use every trick in the book to avoid a referendum. I expect we’ll just have to wait and see what kind of beast emerges to see whether or not a referendum would be required”

Source :


The president is cautiously talking the talk, but will he walk the walk?


shea - February 25, 2012

fitain o toole was argueing a few months ago that the way the cabinate agreed to the deal was unconstitutional in that two people knew what was going on and did a ring around late at night. so there iis an argument that it isn’t constituional. but no ones taken a case against it.


4. shea - February 25, 2012

fair play to micheal d. wonder what constitution grounds he’s thinking of in terms of selling state assets. that would be an interesting one if he wins that. thomas pringle found a clause where a minority of TD’s could force a referendum on any issue if the president signs of on it. if Micheal d. is up for it as it looks he might, it could re distribute power alot in the oireachtas.


ivorthorne - February 25, 2012

He earned a reprimand from Stephen Collins for his troubles.


WorldbyStorm - February 25, 2012

Always a good sign in my book. I agree with the realism of people re MDH, he doesn’t herald a strong social democrat dawn however acceptable that would be to many of us (consider the radicalism of the UK LP in the 40s compared to its current manifestation, no complaints from me about that sort of approach). But his voice isn’t irrelevant.


5. Anonymous Coward - February 25, 2012

The head of state shouldn’t be in the business of rocking boats. As the holder of an office that’s supposed to be above politics, his/her public utterances have to be held to a different standard than those of any other elected official, both by the Constitution and by convention.

Some of President Higgins’ recent comments fall outside our previous understanding of that standard and change it. Such precedents increase his successors’ freedom to take sides publicly in political arguments over the major issues of the day.

Hold him to the same standards you would expect a future President Varadkar to be limited by if the Oireachtas were voting on participation in a European defence organisation.


RosencrantzisDead - February 25, 2012

Which of Higgins’ remarks fall outside ‘that standard’? Criticising capitalism and markets is a relatively common occurrence nowadays across this continent and in the Americas.


CMK - February 26, 2012

AC is trying what seems to be the current Labour tactic for obscuring their extreme right wing turn: dreaming up bogeymen (President Varadkar?) to frighten the left-liberal fence-sitters who might have believed in early to mid-2011 that austerity, sticking to the bailout etc, would lead to ‘us’ towards recovering ‘our’ economic sovereignty but who are now seeing that the austerity agenda is much darker indeed and very, very long term. ‘You don’t want your children to grow up under President Varadker, do you? So do what you’re told, keep your head and we’ll do our best to look after you, resources permitting.’ Irish politics 101, fear, fear and more fear.


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

+1 Rosencrantz

Which comments… The whole point is that h rightly pointed to his constitutional function. As for his comments at the LSE re socialism… FFS… The man, like him or not is a socialist inclined social democrat… He’s never made a secret of it including at the election. And by the way he wasn’t my first choice but I’m delighted by his clear left orientation.


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

And +1 CMK


Anonymous Coward - February 26, 2012

He publicly condemned privatisation as “the road to autocracy” the day before the government’s privatisation plans were due to be announced.
Many people do condemn privatisations, but given that the government is planning them, it’s hardly a settled political question and is going to get a lot more controversial over the next year or two.
I’m not arguing with what he said – I’m saying that his choice to be the person saying it was a breach of the convention that the President stays out of current political controversies.

My point with ‘President Varadkar’ has nothing to do with austerity – it’s that if you grant President Higgins license to do things, then you also have to grant the same to his successors, some of whose uses of it would be much less to your liking.

If you prefer, take the example of President McAleese; before standing for the presidency, her personal views on abortion were well known to be somewhere to the right of Gay Mitchell. Would you have felt it appropriate for her to have advocated those views in presidential speeches?


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

Actually I want to extend th analysis. Part of the issue is that there’s no sense about how centre and right of centre orhodoxies have been normalised at the level of political and Presidential rhetoric. If President McAleese spoke uncritically about inward investment, attracting business, etc no one went ‘exceeding her authority’… because that’s the tropes, they’re unexamined. President Varadker could all hs head off and bar one or two excesses his speeches would be indivisible from generalised political discourse in this state.


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

AC, no reason to feel cowardly, good points, but…

Your abortion point is telling despite itself. Say McAleeses had come out with a pro abortion statement, it woul till hav been going with th grain of the orthodoxy, albeit there’s some division on it.

But of course McAleeses never had to because that orthodoxy was well embedded during the FfPd years and they weren’t going to change the status quo. He same is tru of. Varadker example. I’m not sure there’s any real push to get us into an overt EDF. We’re far too marginal militarily, but I wouldn’t happen unless they thought it could win.

It’s the difference between being Of the orthodoxy and agin it,


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

Apologies for errors in text above… Mobiles.


RosencrantzisDead - February 26, 2012

After I posted, I thought of the ‘privatisation is the road back to autocracy’ bit. However, he is quoting Richard Titmuss, former holder of the Chair of Social Administration at LSE. Considering the audience, it is not surprising that he would quote someone like that.

The context of the speech makes the quote in question much less pointed. Granted, the theme of the speech is for a new generation of intellectuals to participate in, and help create, a public sphere through which democratic ideals can still be realised – this is ‘political’ but it is not ‘party political’ (our parties do not have any philosophy that would run nearly as deep as that).

Contrast this with Mary McAleese comparing Protestants in Northern Ireland to children raised under the Nazi regime and one has to wonder about the bluster that has emerged over this.


Dr. X - February 26, 2012

Mary Robinson consistently pushed the boundaries of what the President could and could not say in her seven years in the Aras (I remember a paper in Studies whining about this). And more power to her, and to Michael D.

As for Anonymous Coward (never was a concern troll more aptly named), he may well frighten his kids at night by telling them that Leo Varadkar is going to come and get them if they’re bold, but there’s no reason for us to lose any sleep over that sordid little man.


6. Anonymous Coward - February 26, 2012

On President McAleese and abortion, the referendum to roll back the limited constitutional right to it derived from the X case occurred 5 years into her presidency and was only lost by 10,556 votes. With the benefit of hindsight, if she’d been spending her presidency influencing public discourse on the topic, there’s a reasonable chance she’d have tipped the balance in favour of the amendment.
But, would that have been an acceptable use of the office?

On her Nazi remark, she made a grovelling apology for it a few days later, so it’s not a precedent for what presidents can get away with.

On the context of the ‘autocracy’ remark, yes, it’s part of a quote, but it’s also clear from the context that the President is endorsing it.


ivorthorne - February 26, 2012

AC, I don’t think Higgins has done anything extraordinary yet, but to be fair, we don’t live in normal times and typically ignored powers of the presidency exist to be used in extraordinary times.


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

‘Spending’ is the crucial term AC. There’s not a hope that Higgins will be talking week in week out about these issues. The sort of opportunity at the LSE arose by coincidence and I think the use of quotation is sufficiently oblique. By the by, my understanding is that the President’s words are cleared, or at least submitted, to the relevant Dept. well in advance. I don’t know what if any pressure would be placed on him to withdraw a given speech, but I imagine it would have to be pretty egregious on his part.

The McAleese abortion issue is interesting. But in a way it still points up the problem intrinsic to the ‘Higgins speaking is a bad thing’ argument. Whatever side of the fence McAleese, had she been able to make such speeches – and having consulted my own copy of a volume of her selected speeches [don’t ask 😉 ] in a cursory examination the closest I could find to an oblique statement on abortion was her statement ‘no single model of family is a sure guarantee of a child’s safe transportation from the womb to a fulfilled adulthood’, it strikes me that the functional outcome would be a situation where abortion was not provided in any real circumstance in this state. That’s the status quo and the status quo ante.

There’s also the thought that this is a dog whistle [perhaps in the McAleese case, and certainly in MDH’s words] for a smallish group of people on the left and in government. I doubt the majority of citizens are aware of his words and in that sense they probably have little political import. Not saying they have none, one would hope they mgiht make some in the LP take note.

Interesting too your thoguhts about this not being a ‘settled’ issue politically. Given the Prog for Govt sought 2bn cuts, McCarthy 5bn and the IMF somewhere north of 3bn the final figure of 3bn is a breach their own [FG/LPs] programmatic policies. The President couldn’t possibly come out and say that, but it’s fair enough in my book to point arrows for people to follow.


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

I should add, that thinking about your critique and the President Varadker example, I’m not sure that I’d be outraged if – for example – he did indeed suggest joining an EDF. After all, with Varadker, or McAleese, or indeed Robinson and Higgins we’ve known pretty much what to expect. They’re none of them retiring wall flowers, they – bar Varadker – were voted in by an open and free vote. A conservative Christian Democrat like Varadker elected? Would I like him making such pronouncements, perhaps not on a policy level, but I’d be far from outraged and I don’t think the office of President is utterly detached from consideration of broader socio-economic issues so I’m not sure I’d question his right to do so.

As I say, part of the problem here is that Higgins is speaking from [very slightly] outside the orthodox consensus. That tells us much about the consensus.


RosencrantzisDead - February 26, 2012

The McAleese quote is an example of a President making an overtly political (and incredibly stupid) statement and not deeming to ‘have changed the role of President’. A grovelling apology does not un-say the offending remark. Higgins makes a point about the need for a public sphere and all of sudden we are looking at a different presidency and a quasi-Constitutional crisis (I realise I am deploying hyperbole here).

Returning to Higgins’ speech, I simply fail to see what the kerfuffle is about. The theme of the speech is democracy and the public sphere – both of these are dominant themes in political and social theory. He block quotes Richard Titmuss, who -midway through the quote- says privatisation leads to autocracy. What does privatisation mean here? I have not read any Titmuss, so I cannot be sure: it could refer to the transfer of state assets to private hands or it could refer to the wider phenomenon of declining public issues in favour of a series of individual transactions. From the context of the speech, I am inclined towards the latter. That latter interpretation is hardly shifting the role of President – similar ideas are expressed in Article 45 of the Constitution as well as successive EU treaties. The public sphere is in many ways ‘a pig in a poke’: it can means radical socialism or ‘Your Country, Your Call’.

Honestly, I think psychoanalysis can do a better job at explaining Labour’s distress at this rather than any constitutional doctrine.


7. Tomboktu - February 26, 2012

When I read the first two sentences of Stephen Collins’s article, I thought to myself: “Hang on a moment — what’s going on here?”

REMARKS MADE by President Michael D Higgins during a visit to London during the week have caused alarm in the Government, The Irish Times has learned.

The primary concern among Cabinet Ministers relates to the President’s comments about the possibility of summoning the Council of State if the Government proceeds to ratify the fiscal compact treaty by legislation rather than referendum.

The primary “alarm”, Collins reports, is not at the sentence in his speeach on privatisation — which I would agree with Anonymous Coward is pushing the boat for a President (although I am happy in this case for that to have happened). Rather, the ‘primary concern’ is that he said “My consideration is as to whether there is an issue of constitutional significance raised”, and that if there is he will call a meeting of the Council of State.

If that is the view of the ministers, then they need a good kick in the arse. As Pat Rabbitte once said to Vincent Browne in a different context, “This is how it works”:

  • The people (sometimes) elect the President
  • She or he has three real legal powers, every other legal power is implemented only when required to by another authority in the State (typtically the Government, every so often the Dáíl, sometimes the Supreme Court, and in theory a third of the Dail and majority of the Seanad combine)
  • “Consider[ing] whether there is an issue of constitutional significance raised” is one of those three powers that President, alone, does
  • If he does conclude that there is an issue of constitutional significance, then he must convene the Council of State to advise him — and the Taoiseach will be able to give the Government’s view at that stage. Then, and only when he has heard the Council, the task of deciding whether or not to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court is a matter for the President, and the President alone.

    A president resigned because a previous (FG-Lab, as it happens) government attacked the president of the day for exercising that power.

    All President Higgins seems to have done is, in his wordy style, set out what the procedure is. And cabinet ministers have let a journalist know they are alarmed? Somebody really does neeed to tell them the rules they operate under — that should calm them down.

    Or maybe the Irish Times needs to stop generating stories where there are none.


    smiffy - February 26, 2012

    Precisely. There is plenty in the speech that might raise eyebrows, and could indicate an intention to push against the boundaries of what the President, typically, is able to speak about (I don’t think he did cross the line on this occasion, although I also don’t think that Presidential speeches are pre-cleared by Government) but the comparison with Mary Robinson is a good one). However, all he said in relation to the issue of the Fiscal Compact Treaty was to answer a question from the audience and set out what the position is in relation to any legislation put before him for signature.

    It really seems like Collins didn’t actually listen to the question, or the answer.


    WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2012

    A problem that is all too evident amongst some on the right of center.

    Mind you, I also love the sense of lese-majeste about Collins, it’s the affront. How dare MDH even think very slightly out of the box.


    8. CL - February 26, 2012

    President Higgins’ LSE speech hasn’t really received that much attention. There was Myers piece asserting that MDH ” lost the right to speak on a wide range of issues once he entered the Aras.”

    And there’s a piece by von Prondzynski who demurs a little from MDH’s slant on Hayek,
    “Hayek was indeed the high priest of neoliberalism, but his views were a little more nuanced than suggested in the President’s speech.”

    It will be interesting to see who the President invites to his seminars at an aras. Slavoj Zizek would add a little zest.


    Michael Carley - February 26, 2012

    Myers expects to be taken seriously when he writes this:

    Shaw, however, was fully aware of what was happening in Stalin’s Russia, and approved (see Conservapedia).

    I have been trying to get the term `Wikipedic knowledge of X’ into general use, meaning a wide-ranging knowledge made up of probably wrong facts about subjects of no importance. What would a `Conservapedic knowledge’ look like?

    He also seems to believe that Shaw and others’ support for eugenics is not well known.


    RosencrantzisDead - February 26, 2012

    ‘Conservapedic knowledge’ would be an oxymoron.


    Jonathan - February 26, 2012
    Dr. X - February 26, 2012

    That would be the “socialist” Hitler who privatised numerous state-owned enterprises in Germany, including some that had never previously been privately owned?



    9. FergusD - February 27, 2012

    Dr X – that link is interesting. I first learnt of the Nazis’ policy of privitisation in a book called “Fascism and Big Business” written a long time ago (D Guerin, 1938):


    It runs contrary to what most people think I would imagine. The book is worth reading for other aspects of his analysis (divisions amongst capitalists regarding support for Hitler).

    The artcile DR X linked to has a table showing returns from the sale of stae assets over the years. Portugal, Greece and Ireland top the list as % state revenues for 1997-2000. So these PIGS, now in the biggest mess in the eurozone, were the countries with the biggest (relative to govt income) privitisation programmes prior to the recession! What went wrong????!!!! Surely they should be in the best shape? Could the policy have been wrong? Enquiring minds need to know.


    FergusD - February 27, 2012

    Of course it should be privatisation – jeez, when I contribute here I make all sorts of spelling mistakes and typos that I don’t usually make – honestly!


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