Michael D. Higgins: Conscience of the Nation
In a period of public disillusionment with a governing system that has been exposed as too often serving vested interests, that sold off our country’s assets and the labour of generations not yet born to pay foreign moneylenders for the gambling debts of bankers, property speculators and their political lackeys, it is refreshing to know that there are still politicians whose actions and deeds mark them off as servants of the people rather than abusers of public office. None more so than Michael D Higgins whose career spanning six decades has been about implementing the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic “…that guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens…to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation…cherishing all the children of the nation equally…”.
His life has been a never-ending campaign against poverty and oppression and against the powerful elites of church and state both here and abroad who stood in the way of securing equality, justice and due recognition for women, children, gays, artists, minorities and the disabled. He has served as the conscience of the nation on so many occasions and on so many issues, sometimes giving voice to the voiceless, reminding us all, time and time again, of the core values and responsibilities that underpin citizenship, democracy and natural justice. Often this struggle has been a lonely one even within his own political party.
Over the years he has encountered many political setbacks and much personal vilification. But such obstacles never daunted him and today he burns with the same passion, intellect and idealism that he has always possessed. In the last Dáil, he was one of only eighteen TDs that voted against the catastrophic bank bailout.
Michael D sits amongst the pantheon of heroic government ministers that include Frank Aiken, Noel Browne, Seán Lemass and Donough O’Malley whose visionary actions have brought long-lasting benefits to the country. As the first Minster for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, he established TG4, re-invigorated the Irish film industry, gave legal protection to wildlife habitats, ended political censorship in public broadcasting and established a countrywide network of public museums, arts venues and theatres.
A lot of the fundamental rights that we take for granted today in areas such as divorce, access to contraceptives, female equality, status of children and the disabled were only won within the last few decades after long and hard fought campaigns by activists that always included Michael D. Sadly he was too often the lone member of the Oireachtas within their midst.
Maria O'Malley with Michael D with an Anti-Apartheid poster from the late 1970s at a NUIG Reunion party
He portrays those traits of the Irish that have over the centuries earned us admiration across the world. Our respect for arts, culture, nature, folklore, heritage, sport, hard work, creativity, compassion, egalitarianism, spirituality and community is known in schools, theatres, concert arenas, churches, parliaments, village halls and stadia from Seoul to Berlin; our struggle for nationhood and republican principles has inspired generations of the downtrodden in the Americas, Australia, Africa and Asia; our traditional non-alignment stance has made us trusted by small nations and a popular choice as UN peacekeepers in areas of conflict.
Michael D’s whole life personifies this positive image of Ireland. If he became president, he would help undo the harm caused at home and abroad by those few but prominent Irish who forgot their roots, were often anti-patriotic tax exiles and epitomised an arrogance and greed that damaged the nation. Michael’s campaign trips overseas were always in solidarity with those communities in need and not junkets or golf outings as was the case with some of his fellow parliamentarians. His presidency would rekindle our national spirit, making us proud to be Irish, and being able once again to offer something of worth to the wider global community.