Gavan Reilly: It is a ‘disaster’ – but should Michael D have spoken out?

The one thing about Michael D Higgins’ comments on housing, that few would argue with, is that in substance he’s correct: the housing situation is, indeed, a disaster. Rent often costs half of a person’s take-home pay; those with mortgages are facing into a series of interest hikes on top of all their other mounting bills. All of this at a time when 1 in every 500 people in Ireland is living in emergency accommodation. ‘Crisis’ has lost all meaning; ‘disaster’ is appropriate.

But does that mean the president was right to say it? A lot of the debates in the last week centres on whether he has “crossed the line“, venturing into territory beyond his official remit. Officially there is no line to cross: the constitution does not explicitly forbid him from getting into matters of daily politics. There is merely an unwritten convention that the president leaves it to the Dáil and Seanad to get into the cut and thrust of daily politics. An ’address to the nation’ requires prior Government approval, but not a press conference, or a speech, or an interview. It would make for an interesting test case in the European Court of Human Rights, if there were ever some complaints about the president exercise their freedom of expression. The president remains a citizen and enjoys human rights like any other. If ministers think he has gone too far, as anonymously quoted last week, it is probably that he has reset the official narrative from ‘progress is around the corner’, to ‘progress is simply not enough’.

All that being said, there is good reason to wonder whether Higgins has strayed into uncomfortable territory. Politics these days is all about precedent – can a U.S. president try to overturn election results; can a UK prime minister break laws and stay in office; can a designated Taoiseach take the job with a corruption claim hanging over him – and Higgins’ comments create another of their own.

Imagine, for example, a president expressed concern about the number of homeless Irish – and added that they should be prioritised over those fleeing Ukraine. Never mind the requirements of international law to offer sanctuary to someone fleeing persecution; ignore the Government’s ringfenced constitutional role as the country’s sole power on foreign relations… many might simply agree; many others might not. Suddenly the perception of the President as someone who can perform a constitutionally neutral role is in doubt. There is good reason in today’s age of populism to fear a slippery slope, now that it has become apparently established for presidents to speak as they like on burning issues. Remember, Peter Casey was runner-up; the idea of him challenging official policy is far from hypothetical. Higgins gets away with his comments because he’s popular, his stance is hardly a secret anyway, and his language was casually couched so as not to point the finger at certain individuals. But we cannot just ignore a redefining of political roles just because it’s temporarily popular – and a political scholar like Higgins knows it.