Ireland: “Last man standing” – Magazine profile of Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (MP)

“Wearer of the mantle of James Connolly… [using] rhetorical flourishes that brings House to laughter”

The following profile, by Ruairi McCann and Colin Murphy, is from the Irish journal, Village Magazine (Issue 36, 3-9 June 2005)

“Last man standing” – magazine profile of Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (MP)

He studied to be a priest, was kicked out of the Labour party for being too left-wing, and spent a month in Mountjoy Jail. Ruairi McCann and Colin Murphy profile Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins.

The staff of Buswell’s hotel opposite Leinster House [the Irish Parliament – Dail Eireann – buildings –] should be used to seeing our TDs [members of the Irish Parliament –] in exuberant mood, but it seems safe to say they can never have seen it quite like this. As the music started, they drifted out onto the steps of the hotel to watch the goings-on on Marlborough St.

Three hundred Turkish workers, employees of the company Gama, were thronged outside, surrounded by supporters and curious onlookers. At the centre of the crowd, a dozen or so men formed a dancing circle, and in the centre, the Dail’s whirling dervish himself, TD Joe Higgins. The music was a break between speeches at a protest, and Higgins had been coralled into the dance by the workers, and was awkwardly – but good humouredly – stomping and flailing about with the Gama men.

Joe Higgins, sole Socialist deputy in Dail Eireann, has enjoyed a rising profile during the life of this Dail, with his roles as the figurehead of the anti-bin tax and Gama workers’ protests gaining him a national profile. He is also known as one of the best orators in Leinster House. Though his serious, almost stern, image befits the wearer of the mantle of James Connolly, he has a line in rhetorical flourishes that regularly brings the House to laughter.

The protest at the Dail was the apex of the fight by the Gama workers for proper pay, resolved when the Labour Court recommended Gama pay each striking worker €8,000 for every year of service in settlement for all overtime and outstanding pay claims.

The dispute started when 300 workers walked off Gama sites, claiming to have been paid between €2 and €3 an hour for an 80 hour week. The company had been paying a proportion of workers’ pay into accounts in a Dutch bank but the workers denied any knowledge of this. Higgins led a group of workers to the Finansbank in Amsterdam, proving the accounts existed and eventually leading to the money being paid to the workers.

Higgins received help along the way from an unlikely source, Fianna Fail [the main party in the governing coalition] junior minister, Conor Lenihan, who intervened during a particularly florid attack on the Taoiseach by Higgins and told Higgins to “stick with the kebabs” in reference to his support of the Turkish workers.

“I suppose, in an ironic way, his idiotic comments actually helped us,” says Higgins. “It gave an impetus to the campaign just as things were stalling. The workers had been striking for weeks and we still had no resolution.”

It was Higgins’ Socialist Party colleague, Councillor Mick Murphy, who uncovered the Gama abuse, through contacts with local workers. Murphy and Higgins go back 18 years, to the days of Militant Labour (also known as Militant Tendency), a radical leftist faction within the Labour Party that eventually split and went on to form the Socialist Party in 1996.

Higgins, then on the Labour Party’s Administrative Council, was expelled in 1989, along with his fellow bin charges veteran, Clare Daly. According to Labour’s Joan Burton, now a TD in the Dublin West constituency with Higgins, “they were basically a party within a party and that can’t work”.

Michael D Higgins, who was then chair of the Administrative Council, recalls that they had “vigorous debates about coalitionism, but they were good honest debates”.

“I understand Joe’s criticisms very well, we just have different views of the possibilities of change and the organisation of the Labour Party, on issues like coalition,” he said.

“The Labour Party provides absolutely no radical alternative these days,” says Higgins. “Watching the debates at the conference last weekend, it struck me how much has changed since the 1970s. There were major opportunities for the Labour Party until the massive sell-out at the end of the 1980s, but now the goalposts have shifted so far to the right that the only decision to be made is whether to get into power with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.”

Michael D had left the chairmanship of the Administrative Council by the time of Joe Higgins’ expulsion. “I wasn’t happy about the expulsions and everybody knew my opinions on the matter at the time,” he says. “I always liked the concept of the left talking to each other, such as we did during the Iraq war.”

Joan Burton is less amenable to Joe Higgins’ persuasion. “I don’t like that whole Militant strain – I think it’s more of a sect than a political party. I find his brand of Trotskyism very unattractive, very sterile and incompatible with a developing society. It’s a very exclusive organisation, a small group rather than a big party – it has tight control exercises, little room for differing opinion.”

Higgins was elected an independent councillor in 1991, and ran for the Dail in 1992 but lost out to Joan Burton, who polled almost 23 per cent in “the Spring tide” that saw the Labour Party double its representation.

But the introduction of water charges in 1994 galvanised the socialist movement, and Higgins was amongst the leadership of the two-year anti-water charges campaign until they were abolished in 1996. Mick Murphy remembers: “We were starting to make serious inroads, raising our profile… It was our first big campaign independent of the Labour Party and we won it.”

Higgins stood in the 1996 Dublin West by-election after the death of Brian Lenihan. Brian Lenihan Jr beat him to the seat by only 250 votes. In the general election the following year, running for the newly-formed Socialist Party, he topped the poll, while Joan Burton lost her seat when her vote halved.

After the 2002 election, Higgins was chosen by the Dail’s independent TDs to represent them as leader within the so-called technical group, comprising the Greens, Sinn Fein and the Independents. The grouping entitles them to put questions during Leaders’ Questions, and Higgins puts questions on behalf of the Independents. This has given Higgins a national stage on which to lobby and to hector the Government; it’s where he first raised the Gama issue, and challenged Bertie Ahern’s conversion to socialism last year.

“If this conversion was genuine,” he told the Dail at the time, “we would have to go back 2,000 years to find another as rapid and as radical. Saul’s embrace of Christianity on the road to Damascus stood the test of time but the Taoiseach’s embrace of socialism on the banks of the Tolka hardly will.”

Independent TD Tony Gregory explains: “Joe has spent a long time looking to ask questions but up until now there was never a mechanism to do that.

“I’m sure he spends entire weekends dreaming up these great phrases – he certainly doesn’t come up with them on the spot. He always arrives in a panic the morning he has to ask the question. He gets nervous, says it puts him under a lot of stress.”

The independents are a mixed bunch of ideologues, single-issue candidates and long-time local representatives; the role of supposedly representing them could prove awkward.

But Gregory says Higgins has been very careful. “Some of the Independents have reminded Joe that when he raises an issue he’s raising it on behalf of all of us but in fairness, he’ll always mention some of us or indicate in some way that he’s representing the whole group of Independents with his question.”

The introduction of bin charges in 2003 presented Higgins and his comrades with another opportunity, without the success of previous campaigns but attracting a lot of support. “There were tactical difficulties more than anything,” says Mick Murphy. “What do you do when they leave your rubbish around?”

The campaign landed Higgins and Clare Daly in Mountjoy, for defying a High Court injunction against the blockading of bin lorries. “We didn’t expect to end up in jail for a month,” says Clare Daly. “We just wanted to take things as far as we could, and I think people respect that.”

Joe Higgins was born in 1949 in Lispole, Co Kerry. His parents had a small farm, and nine children. Murphy says of their mutual backgrounds:

“We share the same background – I’m from a farm in Tipp, he’s from one in Kerry. We understand each other and unlike many on the old Left, we see the common interests of small farmers – the rural poor – and the city poor.”

Higgins schooled with the Christian Brothers, and then went to the US to study for the priesthood at St Mary’s College in Minnesota. He got caught up in the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests, left the seminary, and then went to Australia for a year, where he worked in construction. “I did an awful lot of digging,” he says.

Returning to Ireland in 1972, he studied English, French and economics at UCD, where he joined the Labour party and then trained to be a teacher. He taught at Emmet Road and North Strand vocational schools in Dublin’s inner city.

Somewhere along the way, he lost his religious faith. “In the 1950s and 1960s, the Church was a big part of life in Ireland, the Catholic faith inculcated into you,” he says. “Then you move on and develop and begin to see the world differently, you begin to think critically for yourself.”

Ultimately, he substituted one creed for another.

“I started reading about socialism when I became active at college but books were never my first inspiration. I’m instinctively a socialist.

It doesn’t take much to recognise that there is obviously huge inequality of wealth in the world – why are millions living in destitution when there is so much food, clothes and shelter to serve everyone? It’s common sense to be a socialist.

“I’m a revolutionary socialist. I stand for the complete transformation of society with all institutions, banks and big industry democratically owned and controlled by the people.”

A week after Higgins was dragged by garda riot police from the gates of Leinster House during an anti-war protest in 2003, Michael McDowell responded to hectoring from Higgins in the Dail by saying, “I have a right to make a speech without being barracked by somebody who is not a democrat but believes in establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat as soon as he possibly can”.

The Taoiseach, too, has denounced Higgins’s “far left or ‘commie’ resistance to everything”.

“That’s par for the course at this stage,” says Higgins. “They have tried to hang the crimes of Stalin around my neck at various times when anyone with any knowledge knows that we [the Socialist Party] represent democratic socialism, supporters of which were rounded up and killed by the Stalinist bureaucrats in Russia.”


From Issue 37, 10-16 June, Village Magazine


Michael D Higgins

Last week in Village magazine, in an article entitled “Last man standing”, a quote from Joe Higgins in the article read as if it was given by Michael D Higgins. This was a mistake in editing, as each quote from Joe Higgins and Michael D Higgins should have used their full names.

A highlighted quote which was pulled out of the text, in which Joe Higgins spoke of watching the recent Labour Party Conference, was also mistakenly attributed to Michael D Higgins. Village is very sorry for any confusion or embarrassment caused by this.

Articles reprinted with kind permission from Vincent Browne, Village Magazine

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June 2005