Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins rocking the European boat

Irish President Michael D Higgins smiles during the official announcement of the Irish presidential election's results on October 29, 2011 (PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)

(Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)

On Thursday morning, a small storm erupted in Ireland over an interview given by the president, Michael D. Higgins, to the FT’s Dublin correspondent, Jamie Smyth.

President Higgins, who is 72 years old, a published poet and a former government minister, argued that EU leaders needed to rethink their “hegemonic” response to the crisis.

“There is a real problem in what was assumed to be a single hegemonic model… The unemployment profile in Greece is different from the unemployment profile in Ireland. You need a pluralism of approaches… We have 26m people unemployed… There are 112m at risk of poverty, a contraction in investment and falling demand.”

Higgins’ remarks were quite frank for someone whose role is largely ceremonial. Some members of the public commenting on the Irish Times website praised his candidness: “He may be small in physical stature, but he is not averse to standing up to the heavyweights of the EU”, said one; another wrote: “THIS IS THE KIND OF PRESIDENT I HOPED FOR WHEN WE ELECTED MICHAEL D. HIGGINS!!!”.

Not everyone was positive. “By speaking out on matters which don’t concern his office, he is skirting dangerously close to creating a constitutional issue – and he does not have a mandate for that,” said ‘PaulFlynn’. When a Sinn Féin representative mentioned Higgins’ remarks in the lower house of parliament (the Dáil) later on Thursday, the parliamentary speaker immediately warned: “Don’t go there with regards to the President, we don’t discuss the President in Dáil Éireann.”

Although some have suggested today that Higgins exceeded his presidential mandate, he has a history of speaking out.

Throughout his life, he’s been vocal on issues he felt passionately about, from the Iraq war (to which he was opposed), to human rights in Chile, and the importance of the arts. So much so, he inspired a song by the Irish band The Saw Doctors. It’s called: Michael D Rocking In The Dáil, and it’s a pretty catchy tune.

Here are some of the lyrics:

It might be raining and it might be cold, and the bishops gone and left the fold,

oh we’re standing proud and we’re walking tall, we got michael d rocking in the dail for us

michael d rocking in the dail

in the cabinet

the shining star for all who strive, to live and love creative lives

the signers-on with great ambitions, the mighty open blind dead visions

We got michael d rocking in the dail for us

michael d rocking in the dail…

An academic before he was elected to public office, Higgins is known for his human rights campaigning. In 1992, he was awarded the Seán MacBride Peace Prize from the International Peace Bureau in Helsinki, and is an adjunct professor at NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for Human Rights.

He also addressed the European parliament directly last month, and didn’t mince his words on the impact of the financial crisis:

We cannot… ignore the fact that European citizens are suffering the consequences of actions and opinions of bodies such as rating agencies, which, unlike Parliaments, are unaccountable. Many of our citizens in Europe regard the response to the crisis in their lives as disparate, sometimes delayed, not equal to the urgency of the task and showing insufficient solidarity with them in their threatened or actual economic circumstances…

They feel that in general terms the economic narrative of recent years has been driven by dry technical concerns; for example, by calculations that are abstract and not drawn from real problems, geared primarily by a consideration of the impact of such measures on speculative markets, rather than driven by sufficient compassion and empathy with the predicament of European citizens who are members of a union, and for whom all of the resources of Europe’s capacity, political, social, economic and intellectual might have been drawn on, driven by the binding moral spirit of a union.

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