Higgins is a politician, poet, sociologist, author and broadcaster. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) for the Galway West constituency and was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht from 1993 to 1997. He was the President of the Labour Party from 2003 until 2011, when he resigned following his election as President of Ireland.
He made the first state visit by an Irish president to the United Kingdom in April 2014.
Higgins was born in Limerick on 18 April 1941. His father John Higgins was from Ballycar, County Clare, and was a Lieutenant with the Charleville Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. John Higgins, along with his two brothers Peter and Michael, had been active participants in the Irish War of Independence.
When his father's health grew poor, with alcohol a contributing factor, his mother sent Higgins, aged five, and his four-year-old brother to live on his unmarried uncle and aunt's farm near Newmarket on Fergus, County Clare. His older twin sisters remained in Limerick. He was educated at Ballycar National School, County Clare, and St. Flannan's College, Ennis.
As an undergraduate at University College, Galway (UCG), he served as Vice-Auditor of the College's Literary and Debating Society in 1963–64, and rose to the position of Auditor in the 1964–65 academic year. He also served as President of UCG Students' Union in 1964–65. In 1967, Higgins graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with a Master of Arts degree in Sociology. He also briefly attended the University of Manchester.
In his academic career, he was a Statutory Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at University College Galway and was a Visiting Professor at Southern Illinois University. He resigned his academic posts to concentrate fully on his political career.
He is a fluent speaker of both official languages, Irish and English, and also speaks Spanish.
His wife, Sabina Coyne, is an actress and a native of Cloonrane, a townland in County Galway near Ballindine, County Mayo. She grew up on a farm there in a family of five girls and two boys. She developed an interest in theatre and trained using Stanislavski's system.
Higgins met Coyne in 1969 at a party in the family home of journalist Mary Kenny. Higgins proposed over Christmas 1973 and they were married the year after. They have four children: Alice Mary, twins John and Michael Jr., and Daniel; Alice Mary was elected to Seanad Éireann in 2016. He has two Bernese mountain dogs named Bruno and Shadow.
Political career, 1973–2011
Seanad and Dáil Éireann
Higgins originally joined Fianna Fáil in UCG while a mature student; he switched to the Labour Party shortly thereafter. He was a Labour candidate in the 1969 and 1973 general elections but was unsuccessful on both occasions. One of the people who canvassed for him was future leader of the Labour Party and Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, who was then a UCG student. Higgins was appointed in 1973 to the 13th Seanad Éireann by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. He was first elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1981 general election as a Labour Party TD. He was re-elected at the February 1982 election; he lost his seat at the November 1982 election (blaming his loss in part do to his opposition to the Eight Amendment), but returned to the Seanad on the NUI panel. He served as Mayor of Galway on two occasions, 1982–1983 and 1991–1992. Within the Labour Party during the 1980s he was one of the main figures along with Emmet Stagg who opposed going into coalition.
Higgins returned to the Dáil at the 1987 general election and held his seat until the 2011 general election. In 1993 he joined the Cabinet as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. During his period as Minister he scrapped the controversial Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, re-established the Irish Film Board and set up the Irish language television station, Teilifís na Gaeilge (subsequently renamed TG4). In 2000, he was appointed to the Labour Party front bench. In 2003, Higgins succeeded to Proinsias De Rossa's symbolic position of the President of the Labour Party, while continuing as the party's spokesman on foreign affairs.
With a presidential election looming in 2004 Higgins indicated his willingness to run as a Labour Party candidate. The party decided on 16 September 2004 against running a candidate in the election.
In October 2010, he announced he would not be standing at the 2011 general election. He had until this point been living in a modest two-bed apartment at Grattan Hall on Mount Street, Dublin. He also has a family home in Galway.
2011 presidential campaign
In September 2010 Higgins indicated that he was interested in receiving the Labour Party's nomination for the 2011 presidential election. He said prior to the election campaign, and repeated during it, that he would serve only one seven-year term as President, and would not seek a second term of office, despite being entitled to do so.
He was selected as candidate for the presidency at a special convention in Dublin on 19 June 2011, beating former senator Kathleen O'Meara and former party adviser Fergus Finlay. His candidacy was endorsed by Hollywood actor Martin Sheen, who described Higgins as a "dear friend". Higgins assisted his rival David Norris by urging his party colleagues on Dublin City Council not to obstruct Norris's attempts to get onto the ballot at the last moment "in the interests of democracy", adding that the nomination criteria were "outdated".
Higgins was confronted by former Tara mines workers while canvassing in Meath. The workers were upset about their pensions being cut. Higgins was also pursued by his past links to the Fianna Fáil party, and admitted on 13 October that he had been elected chairman of the UCG Fianna Fáil university cumann in 1966. While at university in the United States he had, he admitted, smoked marijuana. However, media reports said he was "spared the intense grilling Miriam O'Callaghan meted out to some of the others" during the Prime Time debate. Higgins promised he would be a neutral president if elected and not be a "handmaiden" to the government. The Labour Party's budget for the campaign was within €320,000.
On 29 October 2011, two days after the presidential election was held, Higgins was declared the winner with a total of 1,007,104 votes, far more than any Irish politician in the history of the republic. Thousands of people lined the streets of Galway to welcome him home the following day. International media coverage of his win reported his humble background, poetry, intellect and short stature (he stands 163 cm (5 ft 4 in)), with The Washington Post noting "local satirists sometimes depict him as an elf, hobbit or leprechaun talking in riddles and verse". He is the first President of Ireland to have served in both Houses of the Oireachtas having previously been a member of Dáil Éireann (Lower House) and Seanad Éireann (Upper house).
Before his inauguration he and his family met his predecessor Mary McAleese and her husband Martin for lunch at Áras an Uachtaráin on 3 November. That night, he presented an award to Niall Tóibín, and received his own standing ovation as he entered the Irish Film Institute. On 5 November, he attended an important football game, featuring his beloved Galway United versus Monaghan United in the second leg in the League of Ireland promotion/relegation play-off at Terryland Park, wrapped in the scarf of his favourite team, and being greeted by a large banner hanging from a stand declaring "Welcome home to Galway, Mr President".
Higgins was inaugurated as President of Ireland at Dublin Castle on 11 November 2011 giving a speech as part of the ceremony. The ceremony had a humanist element, alongside Christian, Jewish and Muslim ones.
Higgins receives an annual salary of €250,000. After assuming office, the President wrote to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to request that his salary be reduced by 23.5 percent from €325,000 to about €250,000.
Higgins travelled to Derry to attend the final of the all-island school choir of the year competition on 13 November 2011, for his first official presidential engagement in Northern Ireland.
In December 2011, Higgins hosted a children's tea party at Áras an Uachtaráin, during which the children became acquainted with Santa Claus. He attended the Bon Secours Hospital in Galway on 13 December for surgery on the kneecap that was broken in a fall during a visit to Buenaventura, Colombia in 2010.
Higgins made his first official trip abroad when he went to London on 21 February 2012. While there he was given a tour of the Olympic Stadium by Sebastian Coe and attended a production of Juno and the Paycock at the Lyttelton Theatre. He made his first official visit to his alma mater NUI Galway on 24 February where he opened an autism centre. On 21 March 2012, President Higgins was announced as sole patron of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Addressing a conference organised by youth organisation Foróige on 24 March 2012, President Higgins described homophobia and racism in Ireland as a "blight on society".
In January 2012, President Higgins agreed to become the Patron of Clans of Ireland, including its Order of Merit. On the President's behalf, Leo Varadkar, Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, awarded "Companionship" in this Order of Clans of Ireland to several nominees at a ceremony in the Mansion House, Dublin on 28 April 2012.
On 11 May 2012, he became the 28th Freeman of Galway six months to the day since his inauguration.
In June 2012, nonprofit housing organisation Habitat for Humanity Ireland announced that President Higgins would be their sole Patron. In October 2012, President Higgins and his wife Sabina went to South America for a two-week trip to take in Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
President Higgins rushed home from his visit to Rome to sign the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Bill 2013 into law at Áras an Uachtaráin early on 7 February 2013.
Special advisor to the president, Mary van Lieshout, who formed part of the management team in Áras an Uachtaráin under secretary general Adrian O'Neill, resigned in November 2013. The departure raised criticism over presidential management of the team.
The presidential Christmas messages delivered by Higgins from 2011 to 2013 did not mention Christianity or religion, which was criticised by the Defence Forces' chaplain in a homily on Christmas Eve 2013. The Chief of Staff expressed regret for any offence caused by the chaplain.
In April 2014, Higgins paid the first state visit to the United Kingdom by an Irish president. He stayed as a guest of the Queen at Windsor Castle and addressed both Houses of Parliament. He also met various people, including the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, opposition party leaders at Westminster, and the Lord Mayor of London. In December 2014, the President made a week-long state visit to China.
Higgins signed into law the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Act 2015 on 29 August 2015.
Council of State
Higgins appointed his Council of State nominees on 6 January 2012. The nominees were:
- Michael Farrell – solicitor with Free Legal Advice Centres
- Deirdre Heenan – Provost and Dean of Academic Development at the University of Ulster
- Catherine McGuinness – former Senator, member of the Council of State, and former Supreme Court judge
- Ruairí McKiernan – community activist and social entrepreneur
- Sally Mulready – London-resident campaigner for the rights of survivors of Irish institutions and local councillor in the London Borough of Hackney
- Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh – Professor Emeritus in History at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
- Gerard Quinn – Director of the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at the NUI Galway School of Law
As well as having a successful political career Higgins has had a career as a poet and broadcaster and has produced works of non-fiction. He has contributed widely to political and philosophical journals on numerous subjects, among them ideology, the sociology of literature, clientism in politics, regionalism and the politics of the media. He wrote and presented a television film on Montserrat, entitled The Other Emerald Isle for Channel 4 and his documentary on the life of Noel Browne, for RTÉ, has also been screened.
Higgins has had poems published in a number of periodicals, as well as publishing four collections of his poetry, including, The Betrayal (1990), his second book of poems The Season of Fire (1993) and his latest book An Arid Season (2004). His personal notes and work books reside at the National Library of Ireland.
Among his poems are "The death of the Red Cow" and "The Ass", an ode to a donkey.
- The Betrayal (Salmon, Galway, 1990) ISBN 094833939X
- The Season of Fire (Brandon, Dingle, 1993) ISBN 0863221645
- An Arid Season (2004)
- New and Selected Poems (Liberties Press, Dublin, 2011)
- Causes for Concern (Liberties Press, Dublin, 2007)
- Renewing the Republic (Liberties Press, Dublin, 2011)
Higgins has campaigned for human rights and written of conflict in many parts of the world, including such areas as Nicaragua, Chile, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iraq and Somalia. He spoke in the Dáil in defence of the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. In recognition of his work for peace with justice in many parts of the world, he became the first recipient of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize of the International Peace Bureau in Helsinki in 1992. He was a noted critic of U.S. foreign policy under the Ronald Reagan administration. In 2005, in response to a column for The Irish Times by Kevin Myers about the riots then erupting across immigrant areas in France and Britain, he said "the contents of his column today go beyond his usually crafted cowardice, staying one step on the safe side of prosecution for incitement to hatred or racism."
He is the subject of the song "Michael D. Rocking in the Dáil" by popular Tuam band The Saw Doctors. The song first appeared as a B-side on the 1994 single "Small Bit of Love" and is also on the 2002 compilation Play It Again, Sham!.