From the arts to academia, poetry to politics, President Michael D Higgins’ contribution to Irish public life has been immense and inspirational.
In an era in which trust in politicians is low, and backlash against intellectuals has become common currency, one figure stands out on the national and global stages: President Michael D Higgins.
A prolific contributor to Ireland’s political discourse since the 1980s, Higgins has applied his sociologist’s mind to each of the issues of the day, from human rights to the Irish language and the arts. It is in the latter two fields that Higgins made perhaps his greatest impact as a party politician: as minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht in the Rainbow Coalition of 1994-7.
Michael D Higgins was born in Limerick in 1941 and brought up in Co. Clare. He became involved in student politics in his time as a student at University College Galway, where he would in time become a lecturer in sociology. He would also join the Labour Party, his political home until 2011’s presidential campaign, and began to contest elections
Higgins was appointed to the Seanad in 1973, and first elected to the Dáil for Galway West in 1981. A prominent anti-coalition figure in Labour’s tumultuous 1980s journey, he cut a questioning, anti-establishment figure, seen at rock concerts at Slane Castle and anti-Reagan protests, and contributed a regular column for Hot Press. He developed a particular affinity for South America and became interested in human rights there, and in other conflict hotspots around the world.
The formation of the Rainbow Coalition led Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley to predict that Higgins would “go mad in government”. This did not happen. Higgins was a forward-thinking and innovative minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht, no doubt informed by his mastery of the Irish language and his own experience as a poet of some accomplishment.
He founded Teilifís na Gaeilge, which would become TG4, and the arts community remembers his tenure with affection.
An inspirational public speaker, Higgins articulated his vision from the opposition benches from 1997 to 2011, and as president of the Labour Party from 2003.
The 2011 presidential election was among the most dramatic in history, with Higgins securing over a million votes. In an Ireland shell-shocked by the economic crash, Higgins examined questions of ethics and sought to lay an intellectual basis for rebuilding the country, its society and economics on more sustainable lines.
All that Higgins has achieved is based on ideas from left of centre, drawing on the work of figures such as Jürgen Habermas, and scathingly opposing neoliberalism. His work in each of his chosen fields has been united by common themes such as justice, community, solidarity and compassion.
Higgins examined questions of ethics and sought to lay an intellectual basis for rebuilding the country
His interventions on these themes alone could qualify him as having made an outstanding contribution to public life, but do not go far enough in explaining his achievements.
Representing Ireland at key public moments such as the first ever state visit to the UK and the centenary of the 1916 Rising, Higgins has served his country with dignity on the world stage. Upon election, Michael D Higgins promised a ‘presidency of ideas’.
For this, there is no more deserving recipient of the inaugural TK Whitaker Award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Life.
The Business & Finance Awards, in association with KPMG, take place on December 15th at The Convention Centre Dublin. Michael D Higgins will be presented with the TK Whitaker Award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Life on the night.