Who is Michael Higgins? (And about that YouTube takedown…)

So this clip of Irish president Michael D. Higgins from a call on conservative Michael Graham’s radio show taking down the “tea party” movement in the United States has gone viral in the last 24 hours.

The first thing to realize is that it’s from May 2010.  Three things follow from that:

  • It’s the height of the “tea party” movement in the United States.
  • It’s the height of the U.S. right’s opposition to the health care bill in the United States proposed by President Barack Obama, when many on the U.S. right were calling out every country from Ireland to Canada to Switzerland to Great Britain as having “socialist” health care schemes.
  • It’s before the October 2011 presidential election in Ireland, so it’s from before the time when Michael Higgins became the Irish head of state.

In his time as president, Higgins hasn’t picked any fights, in Ireland or abroad, however.  As head of state, he does not direct policy — that job falls to the taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minister) Enda Kenny.

In the clip, Higgins comes across as passionately defending a strong role for government, but seems a little unhinged (or passionate, depending on your viewpoint) when it comes to disparaging the tea party movement, the American right and former Alaska governor and former U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in particular:

The tactic is to get a large crowd, to whip them up, try and discover what is the greatest fear, work on that and feed it right back and you get a frenzy.  This tea party ignorance that is being brought all around the United States is regularly insulting people who have been democratically elected.

Higgins proceeded to call Graham “just a wanker whipping up fear.”

Oh my!

To the extent Higgins seems frustrated and perplexed by the tea party movement and the American right generally, in the clip above, it’s because that strain of particularly American laissez-faire, anti-government politics is so foreign to his own social democratic tradition.

Higgins comes from the Labour Party in Ireland, which is the major leftist force in Irish politics and which has a strong social democratic tradition (in terms of comparison, it would be closer to the New Democratic Party in Canada than to the Liberal Party).

Ireland’s two main parties, historically, have been centrist (Fianna Fáil) and center-right / vaguely Christian democratic (Fine Gail).

Before his presidential election, Higgins had long served in the Dáil (Ireland’s parliament) for the Labour Party, and during the Fine Gail-led government of 1994 to 1997, Higgins served as minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht (i.e., the predominantly Irish-speaking regions of Ireland), where he established an Irish-language television station and notably, scrapped Section 31 of Ireland’s Broadcasting Authority Act, which actually forbade the Irish media from broadcasting the voice of any Sinn Féin member.

The 2011 election was a bit odd, given that Fine Gail’s candidate never really connected with voters and Fianna Fáil didn’t really offer up a candidate.  The election followed a period of “two Marys” — Mary McAleese, who served from 1997 to 2011 and Mary Robinson before her, who served from 1990 to 1997, both of whom were independent candidates and both of whom changed the Irish presidential concept into something even more abstract and apolitical than the line of Fianna Fáil politicians who preceded them.

For much of the campaign leading up to the election, another independent, Irish senator David Norris (and a Joyce scholar!) was the frontrunner for the presidency, and would have become the world’s first openly gay head of state, but fell behind after being implicated in a scandal.

Accordingly, the race came down to Higgins, independent Seán Gallagher (essentially a placeholder for Fianna Fáil-minded voters) and Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin candidate.  Higgins ultimately defeated Gallagher by 39.6% to 28.5%, although the race seemed a lot closer than the final tally indicates — Gallagher’s last-minute admission of collecting campaign funds from a Fianna Fáil fundraiser led to a fall-off in his support.

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