In a way, he seems ageless. The familiar voice with its characteristic intonations, the careful and deliberate bearing, the thousand-watt smile, the grave and complex speeches, the almost tangible connections he makes with people.
In all, it seems such a fixture of our national life that it is hard to think of him getting older. But he is, of course, though he is ageing well. In a political career lasting half a century, this has been the most dazzling part of it.
President Michael D Higgins turns 80 on Sunday, still in the first half of a second term interrupted by the pandemic and a lockdown that has weighed heavily upon him. “Frustrated” is the word most used about him in recent days.
So as he enters his ninth decade, where does the presidency of this unique figure stand? Can it recover its previous vigour? And what will be the themes that mark the remaining 4½ years of his term?
In the past three decades, presidential elections have turned into crowded bare-knuckle brawls. But they have produced extremely popular and effective presidents. Presidents Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Higgins carved out not just an unprecedented connection between the head of State and the people of the country, but each nurtured distinctive themes and promoted causes which both reflected and directed the currents of a modern, and rapidly modernising, Ireland.
The first part of the Higgins presidency was notable for three strands. He was carefully but unmistakably critical of the austerity policies of the Fine Gael-Labour government in the post-crash period.
Often he pushed the boundaries for a president for sure, but never quite overstepped them, though he frequently infuriated those in Government Buildings trying to deal with one political and economic fire after another.
He continued and enhanced a sort of golden age of Anglo-Irish relations with the first State visit to the United Kingdom in 2014, following the Queen’s visit to Ireland during the McAleese presidency. And he stewarded the beginning of the decade of centenaries with nuanced, inclusive and original intellectual leadership of the 1916 commemorations. His rapturous re-election in 2018 reflected a wide approval for a successful first term.
But since then – what? And more importantly, what next?
Lockdown has been hard. Very hard, say some of them. “It has been very difficult for him,” says one close friend, “he is not getting feedback and engagement from audiences. He is not getting the applause either. It’s been terrible for him.”
One of the secrets to Higgins’s remarkable energy for one his age is that he thrives on meeting people and responding to them. He is used to addressing roomfuls of people who love him, and want to tell him how great he is. Who would not miss that?
“He has spent 50 years going around shaking hands with people,” says another source. Now, he’s not.”
“He’s driving us all mad,” laughs one friend. “He rings all the time.” Another source says he is “in his study, always working, rings all the time”.
The work goes on. The Áras supplies a long list of speeches and messages he has recorded for events he cannot attend. The “constitutional” work – appointing judges, signing legislation, and so on – continues, too.
He seeks briefings on legislation he has to sign, officials say. He meets Taoiseach Micheál Martin, as per article 28 of the Constitution – “The Taoiseach shall keep the President generally informed on matters of domestic and international policy”. The meetings happen in the Áras.
Other meetings and social events do not happen, though. The sort of rolling levee that was a feature of life in the Áras during Higgins’s first term – sources previously told The Irish Times that you could walk into a room in the Áras and meet “Bono or Tommy Tiernan or Yanis Varoufakis” (imagine trying to get a word in) – is no more. The garden parties, which had a heavy emphasis on bringing minorities and underprivileged groups to the Áras, are in abeyance. There will be no birthday party tomorrow. Most of the Higgins’s children, and the only grandchild, live outside Dublin, so “the President and Sabina will therefore be celebrating the birthday later in the year, when it is hoped that current Covid-19 restrictions will no longer apply”, the Áras says. The constant hustle and bustle of life in the Áras has been stilled.
Though his relations with Martin are said to be freer and more natural than with Leo Varadkar – the two have more in common, though Varadkar was punctilious in showing due deference to the President – there are persistent grumbles about Higgins in Government. “He should have been there at a difficult moment for the nation, to articulate what we’re feeling, to give us hope,” says one Minister. “But he’s been invisible.” Several other Government sources echoed the sentiment.
This is a little unfair. Higgins has made a number of stabs at the task, in speeches and in symbolic actions, such as the Shine a Light event in April of last year. More than half the review of the year published by Áras is concerned with responses to the pandemic. But it is probably true that this has not really cut through with the public.
“I think he’s a bit wary of doing a ‘Oh, we’re all in this together’,” says a friend. “Because of course, he knows we’re not.”
The same person speculates that Higgins does not want to be too closely associated with the efforts of the current Government to tackle the pandemic. “Maybe because he can see the sign of the half-arse over everything they do,” the source says.
There is an irony in Government politicians wanting to hear more from the President. They spent much of his first term – when he skilfully carved out a distinct anti-austerity position in intellectual if not political opposition to the government of the day – wanting to hear less from him.
“We were always aware of him and afraid of what he might say,” says a veteran of the 2011-16 government, who is still there. “He’s strangely irrelevant now. You almost forget he’s there.”
“Nobody has mentioned his name to me since I started,” says a person who joined Government last year.
If the content of Higgins’s speeches is no longer a cause for concern in Government, their length is often a source of mostly good-natured comment among politicians – protocol dictates that a Minister accompanies the President on foreign visits – and officials.
Department of Foreign Affairs gossips recall one during a State visit to Vietnam in 2016, where he went for an hour and 10 minutes. “Well,” says one source, “he has never taken a speech and made it shorter”.
“Whenever he says ‘in conclusion’, you’d know there’s a lot more to come,” laughs one fan.
Almost everyone who spoke about Higgins in recent days – even those in some aspects critical – did so in terms of admiration and, often, affection. “I think he is genuinely revered and loved at this stage,” says one person who has known and watched him for years. But though his public image is cuddly – and he is a genuinely warm and friendly man – Higgins’s irascible side has always been well known to officials, politicians and journalists. There have been numerous barbs at reporters whose questions he did not appreciate. But not just reporters, which most will see as forgivable. Staff have been bawled out on occasion. He is, says one admirer, “very, very sensitive to criticism”.
The lockdown, say people who know him, has not relaxed his tetchy side. Occasionally, there have been slightly comedic episodes, such as when he has become frustrated with Zoom technology, and its ilk. The frustration has been visible and audible to other participants. In fairness, few have escaped such moments in the last year, or more.
Surely his age will be a factor in managing the remainder of the second term? “We just don’t know,” says one source. After all, he is well past the age when most people have retired. In 2014, for example, Higgins fulfilled more than 500 engagements. It is hard to see him returning to that level of activity. He clearly has unusual energy for his age but a return to that level of activity is probably unlikely.
“Can he keep going? Nobody knows,” says another source. “He probably doesn’t know himself. We’ll have to see. But he’s in good nick. He has loads of energy. He’ll be refreshed.”
The Áras is tight-lipped on future travel plans. Europe destinations are likely. He has not met the French president, Emmanuel Macron, yet. But visits to Africa, Latin America or parts of Asia are less likely. The UN in September remains a possibility, but an uncertain one.
One of the reasons why he makes long speeches, of course, is that Higgins has always had a lot to say. So what will he want to say in the remainder of his second term?
The difficult part of the decade of commemorations lies ahead. The treaty, partition, the Civil War – the centenaries all fall in the next couple of years. Higgins’s own family experience – his father and uncle took different sides, with far-reaching consequences – will no doubt influence his approach.
The tone of the debate in the Republic about the Civil War commemorations will have repercussions in the State, but outside of it, too; especially given recent times in Northern Ireland. His hand has been steady in the past, it will need to be so again.
Beyond that, friends say that he is thinking a lot about the post-pandemic society – the “build back better” idea that has at its heart the analysis that things were not fine before coronavirus and returning to the status quo should not be the goal. It is not hard to imagine Higgins warming to that subject. It’s also not hard to imagine clashes with this or future governments, especially as they (inevitably) see the need to reduce the budget deficit.
“I think Michael D has an opportunity to lead that conversation – and it wouldn’t be like him to shirk it,” says a friend.
There is no doubt that Higgins’s presidency is and has been consequential, substantial, significant. Finishing the job lies ahead of him. After a long life of political struggles, this will be the final act.
“I think he’ll jump into it with great gusto,” says one person who is close to him. “He’s like a man jogging on the spot.”
“I don’t see him slipping gently towards retirement,” says another. “I think he’ll be raring to go.”