Big welcome for President Higgins’ second term
2018-07-15 15:51:27 -
Opinion
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By Ronit Lentin

I am truly delighted that President Michael D Higgins is seeking a second term. I have known him for many years as a sociologist, an anti-racism, human rights and migrant rights activist, and as a writer and supporter of the arts, and have always found him both admirable and approachable.

Indeed, President Higgins has never lost his common touch. Thus, when I was invited to Áras an Uachtaráin for an International Women’s Day ceremony several years ago, the President welcomed me by reminding me of our many conversations while speaking side by side at anti-racism rallies. He has also written beautifully about my late husband Louis Lentin’s contribution to Irish culture and society, and honoured our family by sending his aide de camp to Louis’ funeral.

But beyond the personal — and in contrast to his two predecessors, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, each of whom contributed to Irish State and society in her own way — Michael D Higgins has brought to the Presidency his unique blend of socialism, activism and political commitment.

A lifelong socialist and staunch member of the Labour Party, which he represented both in the Dáil and the Seanad, Higgins has always championed equality. At the opening of homeless accommodation in Wicklow in 2014, he said: “Being homeless is not just about being deprived of a roof over your head; it is about being deprived of a sense of belonging, a place within a community, full participation with a voice in society.” 

In 2017, speaking in Queensland, Australia — where several members of his family had migrated to — the President called for a mature discussion of migration, saying that policies based on a “politics of fear” were damaging and destructive. And two years earlier, opening Amnesty International’s 32nd international council meeting in Dublin, he described the EU’s response to the ‘migrant crisis’ in the Mediterranean as “grossly inadequate” and “shameful”, and argued that Europe’s failure to deal more humanely with migrants trying to reach its shores undermined both the European Union’s ideals and international law.

Throughout his life, President Higgins has been a passionate campaigner for human rights and the promotion of peace and democracy in Ireland and globally. Unsurprisingly, however, the President’s support for migrants and his warning about the negative effects of racism and xenophobia have been criticised by right-wing commentators such as David Quinn. And when his intention to seek another term of office was speculated upon, artist and TV host Kevin Sharkey — ironically of immigrant parentage — announced his own potential candidacy with a call for less immigration, not more, and stating that Ireland “must put Irish people first”.

But it is President Higgins’s unflinching support for the Palestinian struggle that makes me particularly enthusiastic about him seeking a second term. Indeed, his warm welcome earlier this year for the founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Omar Barghouti, who was in Ireland for a conference marking 70 years to the 1948 Palestinian Nakba, endeared him to Ireland’s pro-Palestine campaigners, albeit incurring the wrath of the Israeli Foreign Office. 

As former head of the Oireachtas Friends of Palestine, who had demonstrated against Israel’s West Bank ‘separation wall’ while wearing a Palestinian Keffiyeh, and who called for the evacuation of illegal Jewish settlements, President Higgins had been a vocal critic of Israel and a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights for many years. Courageous and forthright, never shy about speaking his mind and pursuing social and political causes, Michael D Higgins is my Presidential candidate of choice.

Ronit Lentin is a writer and activist, former associate professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, and chair of Academics for Palestine.
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