Let’s talk about…The issue of President Higgins speaking out

President should be able to reflect public opinion – and encourage dialogue and constructive criticism

“Playing with fire”. That is the phrase President Michael D Higgins used last weekend when rebuking the Government for launching a debate over Irish neutrality, speaking ahead of the upcoming Consultative Forum on International Foreign Policy.

In an interview with The Business Post on Sunday, the President criticised Ireland’s foreign policy “drift”, warning against deviation from traditional “positive neutrality” and directly questioning the set-up of the upcoming forum. His comments have drawn a significant degree of backlash, with many complaining that as President, he has an obligation to retain political impartiality and not be seen to criticise the government of the day.

It’s not the first time the president has found himself in trouble for ‘speaking out of turn’ and expressing  personal political views when many would argue he should remain neutral – in fact it’s not even the first time it’s happened this year.

In April, Higgins came under fire for criticising economic policy and the “obsession” with achieving economic growth. He described economists as being “stuck in an inexorable growth narrative” and policy as being out of “touch with anything meaningful” – comments which drew a backlash from economists.

But the incident people will likely be quicker to remember came in June of last year, when President Higgins publicly dubbed the housing crisis a “disaster”, describing the state of housing cynically (but not inaccurately) as a “great, great failure”. Sparing all fluff, he made a speech condemning the lack of action taken to address housing in no uncertain terms, calling out market-driven investment in home-building, noting the rise in homeless youth, and highlighting the deeply-felt impact the crisis was having (and continues to have) for so many.

His comments were frank, passionate, and timely – and decidedly refreshing coming against the more wishy-washy political-speak that elected representatives had been feeding into the news cycle on a loop for weeks prior. With no real change being seen to happen in tandem with their comments, discourse from such politicians had begun to feel more like an exercise in appeasing people’s outrage over the issue and being seen to care, rather than an effort to actually address housing itself.

But Higgins’ speech undoubtedly raised eyebrows within government and, to a degree, within the public. He received a significant amount of criticism for weighing in on a matter of active political controversy and again, for being seen to criticise government while being our head of state.

But it’s worth noting that his comments fell heavily in line with majority opinion on the subject, so when reactions started coming in about the fact that Ireland’s President – a for-all-intents-and-purposes ceremonial post – had come out and expressly condemned government inaction in meeting the basic needs of its citizens, he was spared a lot of the potential outcry because, well, in the eyes of most people, he was right.

Then we come to last week, and the president’s comments on neutrality and foreign policy. According to an Irish Times poll, this time, the people are not as overwhelmingly in line with the president on this as they were on housing; while the majority did indeed support the retention of Ireland’s current model of neutrality, this majority amounted to 61%, a percentage of the public I’d expect to be considerably lower than those who would’ve agreed with what the president said about housing.

The lack of emphatic support this time around – reflecting the reality that his recent criticisms are not as obviously valid as his comments last June were –meant there has been no wave of “he’s right though” sentiment from the public to muffle out conversation about whether he should be entitled to make such criticisms in the first place. He also lost some faith for having to withdraw the “throwaway comment” he made in the interview about the chair of the upcoming forum, Prof. Louise Richardson, being a DBE (Dame of the British Empire).

But to whatever degree he is deemed to have (arguably) overstepped the mark last weekend, many of the points he made ahead of the upcoming forum were as well reasoned and justified as his call-out last June was.

He is right to emphasise the importance of holding certain standards for institutions like the EU and UN, and to advocate for a more inclusive and self-confident foreign policy that doesn’t totally forego international cooperation in favour of military alliances, and that engages with emerging populations of the world too, rather than relying solely on consultation with fading imperial powers. It is fair for him to raise the point that any advisory forum on Irish neutrality or its future needs to be carried out without bias and with equal input from all sides. And few are likely to not understand where he was coming from when he raised reservations about further investment in the Defence Forces due to the unresolved cultural issues related to sexual misconduct, bullying, discrimination, and career obstruction, which were brought to light recently.

But undoubtedly the content of last weekend interview will not be met with the same widespread agreement last June’s speech was. And that comparative lack of agreement is being balanced with an increase in criticism for the president this time around. If you have widespread public consensus on an issue like housing, having an elected official chime in and echo that majority sentiment doesn’t read as some gross misuse of office; after all, is it not a principal role of the presidency to act as a representative of the people?

Yes, the convention of presidents refraining from sharing their unchecked political opinions is long-standing and well established. The Irish Constitution itself states that while the President may address the nation at any time on any matter, such an address must have received the government’s approval. But that does not equate to a constitutional bar on a president expressing their views, it just means that any official national address needs to go through Cabinet first.

We are, each and all of us, free to agree or disagree with any amount of the opinions President Higgins expresses on the issues of the day. We’re free to come up with and share our own takes on these subjects. Surely the President should be afforded that same opportunity? Ideally, the role of the President in Irish society would be more than to act as a figurehead, but to reflect public opinion and encourage thoughtful dialogue and constructive criticism – but this can’t happen if we never allow our presidents to speak about important issues in the first place.