A Presidency With Enormous Potential

By Tom Stokes

Yes, at the end of a tortuous journey, made all the more tortuous by a deeply flawed ‘journalism’, we have a President-elect. In choosing Michael D Higgins to be President, over a million voters have given the wealthy Irish, and the rest of the political class, grounds for real unease.

In his early reactions to his election, Michael D has made clear his intention to work towards the creation of a true republic, something that will require real change – “This necessary transformation which has now begun will, I hope, result in making the values of equality, respect, participation in an active citizenship, the characteristic of the next seven years. The reconnection of society, economy and ethics, is a project we cannot postpone”.

Equality, respect, active citizenship, society and ethics are words that do not fit into the neo-liberal lexicon. They are words that have long been absent from the discourse of the southern Irish political class, other than for their propaganda value in which their use is entirely cynical. This absence is not a recent occurrence, but is part of a nine-decades-long counter-revolution, the central aim of which has been to defend privilege by maintaining a right-wing political hegemony in which lip-service was paid to the notion of a ‘republic’ while the principles upon which a genuine republic must be based – liberty, equality, community and justice – were consistently thrashed.

The maintenance of that right-wing political hegemony has been achieved by co-opting a willing corporate and state media – itself right-wing and hegemonic, complete with its token regard for ‘other views’ so as to present the necessary illusion of an impartial/balanced face to the public. Even the most cursory analysis of media content across the entire mainstream spectrum reveals the values that are given primacy, values consistent with the needs and desires of the wealthy and the rest of the political class, values which have no regard for those principles that underpin a republic, values that are contrary to the best interests of the vast majority of the Irish people.

So, even before his inauguration as President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins has lined up powerful people and powerful institutions as necessary targets and, wise man that he is, is very well aware that they will set their sights on him as a target. We should expect subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to undermine his project of creating a real republic with an active citizenry as its owners.

But President Higgins will not be an easy target, or a willing fall-guy. Over a long political career he has demonstrated courage and consistency of belief, often having to suffer the jibes of fools, and almost always winning at least the political and moral arguments, if not the logical outcome of winning those arguments. He has very significant public support based on a published manifesto in which the true republic and the citizen were integral parts, and that public is substantially the readership and audience for the media which would have to provide the theatre in which attempts to undermine him would play out. Readership and audience brings advertising, and the media would do well to remember that you lose one and then you lose the other.

Drawing on both his academic and political careers, Michael D will be a formidable opponent for the ‘commentariat’, particularly if the role of the media in a democracy comes up for examination – which it must do as an important byproduct of the discussion around creating a true republic. He was very much prepared to tackle powerful vested interests during his successful period as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, a brief which included broadcasting policy and with which he engaged in an intelligent and resolute manner. He was very much prepared to draw on his deep convictions regarding justice, civil and human rights, opposition to imperialism and to war, to take up often unpopular or little reported causes and issues, on national and international fronts, and to withstand attacks from misguided, or ignorant, or malign commentators, including powerful governments.

Why would a man like Michael D put so much emphasis on a project – that of creating true republic – that has been buried for 90 years? A look at his background reveals at least part of the answer. He is the son of a man who fought for the Irish Republic of the Proclamation of 1916, not just in the War of Independence, but in the brutal and divisive Civil War that raged after the signing of the Anglo Irish Treaty and its ratification in 1922. His father, being on the losing side in that Civil War, suffered in terms of his health as a prisoner, and found it very difficult to find employment after his release in an Irish Free State ruled by anti-republican counter-revolutionaries. That was an experience common to very many on the republican side, both men and women, and through his father, Michael D. knew some of those people too. The Higgins family suffered greatly because of this, and so Michael D carries memories of not just his father’s sacrifice and of the damage his courageous participation in the struggle to establish the republic caused to him, but of the entire family’s sacrifice and suffering. It is a very emotional area for him.

In occasional private conversations, some short and others more substantial, mostly relating to modern Irish history, culture and society, Michael D has always come across to me as someone who is inspired by James Connolly to a far greater extent than anyone else in top echelons of the Labour Party. Perhaps it is this that has had him at times at the margins of the Labour Party. He is sometimes referred to as being the left-wing of the party, although there are a small number of other TDs who also occupy that position – but far too few.

Arising out of his presidency, the centenary celebrations of the founding of the Irish Labour Party which will occur in 2012 may become far more interesting than they might otherwise have been. In opening up public discussions on what sort of republic we want to build, and on the role citizens will have in that republic, Michael D may influence, from outside the Labour Party, the ideological direction that the party moves in over the next few years. And then in the following year we will have the centenary of the 1913 Lock-out in which the Labour Party’s founders, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, took the leading roles on the workers’ side, adding yet more pressure to today’s Labour Party to move towards the left.

Then, coming closer to the end of Michael D’s term in office there will be the big centenary in 2016, that of the revolution of April 24th 1916 and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. James Connolly was central to both the revolutionary action and the ideology of the Republic that that action sought to bring into being. Paragraph four of the Proclamation is, without doubt, Connolly’s work. It is, in effect, the Workers’ Republic, or at least provides the space in which that republic could be created by free citizens.

Michael D, fortunately, is the President who will, should he remain in good health, preside over the commemorations. There are few people who understand so well the deep meanings that lie in the text of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and fewer still so able to mine those meanings and ideas, and to articulate them to the citizens. While most citizens have probably not read the Proclamation – a document that was virtually suppressed because of the counter-revolution – and fewer still have delved into the deeper structure of it in terms of what it means, there is a great emotional bond between a majority of Irish citizens and the Proclamation, even if they don’t fully understand it. This emotional attachment is something that, no doubt, Michael D will draw on over the course of the next four years in the run-up to 2016. After all, the sort of true republic that he has indicated he wishes to speak about is contained, substantially, in the Proclamation.

It will be intriguing to watch how all of this plays out. There is no doubt that Michael D has thought deeply about these things and these opportunities, and about how he might influence events through the power of his ideas and of his words. He knows that there is an enormous amount of goodwill for him out there among the public, that Sinn Féin, a party on an upward curve, will support him in his efforts to create a true republic and to face down a corrupt political class of which top media operatives are a part and which Sinn Féin has no love for, that in his former party, Labour, many among the parliamentary party but especially among the ordinary membership hold him in special affection, and that, crucially, history has given him significant centenaries and commemorations during his term in office.

The future looks brighter now for those who have been waiting a lifetime for a real republic, owned, as Plato suggested it must be over two thousand years ago, by the citizens. He will need allies as he sets about his project. As the ramifications of what establishing of a real republic entails become more apparent to powerful vested interests, including among those main-stream media operatives and commentators who act as spokes-men/women for the so-called ‘elite’ and the wealthy, President Higgins will need those allies even more, and will need them to make their voices heard.

This is a presidency with enormous potential. It demands steadfast commitment on the part of Michael D to see it bear fruit, and it demands equal commitment from those of us who believe the Irish revolution of 1916 must be brought to completion, and that the Irish Republic must stand proudly in the world as James Connolly wished it would-  a sovereign, enlightened, progressive republic acting as a beacon of hope to the oppressed people of the world. Its day has come.

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