It’s almost 30 years since I first heard Michael D Higgins speak. It was in the political cauldron of Labour’s 1982 National Conference in Leisureland Salthill. Michael D was party chairman who opened the conference with a passionate analysis of Ireland’s economic difficulties and a critique of our social conservatism. He was delighted that the party conference had come to his own city. He ended with a passionate plea to those who shared our desire for change to join Labour and change our society.
Labour in 1982 was a very different place to where it is at now. Politically threatened from the left, internally riven with personalised rivalries and hosting a virus called Militant Tendency, Labour was not in a position to radically transform an Ireland in thrall to the constitutional crusade or GUBU politics. That conference ended Michael O’Leary’s tenure as Labour leader and you could cut the political tension in the air.
Almost 30 years on the issues may be different but the passion for empowerment of people is still the same. That’s why Michael D will make an outstanding president. What separates Michael from the other candidates in this election is his analysis of how we can have a better country. We have a passive society, where the expectation of the populace is that something is done for them regardless as to whether there is an entitlement or not. It is a curious aspect of the Irish mind that we feel that the need to have another individual solve matters for ourselves. That’s not to write off our society, we’re second to none in our concern for other people who are suffering.
Add to that societal changes in media and values which emphasise the ego. A recent survey of children showed that jobs now considered desirable are pop singers, soap actors and models. A huge change from the fireman or train driver, occupations of service to society, that predominated a generation or 2 ago. Society is now heading in a direction that values celebrity not participation. I find these changes worrying for many reasons as they exclude swathes of society. An exclusive society will produce a stratified Ireland. The flirting with celebrity in this election is another indicator that rather than confront the societal changes some parties are pandering to it.
Michael D Higgins believes in something fundamentally different. Where a society engages with its citizens outcomes are much better, society more stable and participation improves. Active citizenry is a very democratic idea. It is inclusive and has the potential to transform our damaged society to a better place. It encourages all regardless of income or sex, age or ability. It is enormously positive at a time when people need to hear something that will give them hope. It marks Michael out uniquely as a candidate that appeals to all citizens, it can help bridge that gap through which in the last 14 years citizens have slipped.
I mentioned earlier that we as a nation are generous to those worse off. Ironically through our generosity especially to 3rd world countries we have helped societies where participation is more active than here in Ireland. If we can make the difference abroad we can make that difference at home too. Its just a month to the Presidential election. Michael’s analysis is the reason why he is attracting more support in terms of first and second preference than the other candidates. It is the single positive message of this campaign and it is why when all the controversy over letters and NI is over and the votes are counted he deserves to win.
The issues may be changed but the passion and values of Michael D still stand out.