Elected as President of Ireland in November 2011, Michael D Higgins had already won the unofficial vote amongst Irish emigrants far and wide in many on-line polls. Now, from Áras an Uachtaráin, the presidential residence in Phoenix Park in Dublin, he has agreed to answer a number of questions for our readers in the Canary Islands.
- Island Connections:
President Higgins, first of all thank you so much for agreeing to answer a few questions for our readers. There is a small but significant Irish community living in the Canary Islands – often not perhaps as visible as other European emigrant groups as they have integrated into Canarian society. Many Wild Geese made their way to these shores in the past centuries, and have left their mark politically as well as in business and social circles in the islands.
Today too the local Irish community tends, perhaps more than others, to wish to assimilate into Canarian society without losing their Irish identity. In fact it is often commented upon by Canarians too that the Irish are a different kind of emigrant – in your own travels and contact with the many Irish communities living abroad I wonder if you have seen similar levels of integration, and why that might be?
Irish people have integrated well into the society of their adopted country whilst at the same time holding on to our culture and heritage and sharing it with our adopted countrymen. When studying and working in the United States and in the UK, I saw how the richness and depth of Irish communities became part of the fabric of the societies into which they settled. In a recent visit to London, my first visit abroad as President, I had the pleasure of meeting Irish community groups and was struck by how significant a part of the society and of the business community in Britain they have become. Irish people in general like to learn about and get involved with their communities and I think this is a big help in the integration process. While Irish people have tended to emigrate to English speaking countries in the past, Irish people today are to be found all over the world. As you may know, I have a particular interest in South America. Large numbers of Irish emigrants settled in Argentina in the 19th century and assimilated very well there.
IC How important is the role of the Irish emigrant in representing the country abroad?
The Irish emigrant plays a very important role in representing our country abroad. For many people, their first knowledge or connection with Ireland is through an Irish emigrant with whom they work; do business with; have as a neighbour; play sport with or enjoy a social evening with. Ireland is often experienced through that people to people interaction and those encounters are therefore very important. Irish people are generally considered to be hardworking, entrepreneurial, generous and pro-active in their communities and for that we have to thank our Irish emigrants.
IC. No matter how far Irish emigrants travel or how many years they have left home, most of them still feel fiercely and proudly Irish – more than other nations perhaps. Why do you think that may be?
There are perhaps many reasons why our emigrants are very fond of their Irish heritage. Having fought so hard to become an independent nation, we carry with us in our psyche or maybe in our genes a great sense of our heritage, of being Irish. We take enormous pride in the achievements of our artists, musicians, writers and sportspeople. We have won the respect of many countries around the globe in the areas of peace building, human rights and humanitarian assistance and have fruitful diplomatic relations with people and countries throughout the world. Our literature, art, drama and song is internationally recognised. Our emigrants too are a source of pride as they represent us so well in every corner of the world. Perhaps it is for all these reasons that we are fiercely and proudly Irish and that no matter how long we may have left our beautiful shores or how far we have travelled we will always carry that with us.
I.C The world-wide economic crisis is perhaps particularly hard for emigrants who have a yearning to return to Ireland but a fear of swelling the ranks of the unemployed and of course leaving secure jobs in the country they are living. As President are there words of comfort you can offer those who still have a need to feel Irish and not forgotten.
I specifically mentioned Irish people living abroad during my inauguration address and again in my Christmas message and they can be assured that they are not forgotten- not by me nor by the Irish people at home. I personally have a deep affinity with our emigrants who because of circumstances have moved away and would love to come home. I believe that by working together to address the circumstances that generate involuntary emigration, we can and will resolve these economic problems in the years ahead. We need to strive with all our energy and intellect, with mind and heart to create an Ireland in which our young people feel they have a future and to which our emigrants may wish, in time, to return. However, to succeed in that endeavor we need to create an economy and a society that will attract our dispersed people back. I invite all of the Irish, wherever they may be across the world, to become involved with us in that task of remaking our economy and society.
IC. President Higgins, during the election campaign for the presidency you were very much the choice of the emigrant as shown in on-line voting which saw you top the poll among ex-pat voters. You have expressed support for some voting rights for Irish living abroad, could you detail those for our readers?
In my inaugural address I made reference to the fact that Bunreacht na hÉireann is 75 years old this year and that the Government is planning a Constitutional Convention. This Convention may provide an opportunity in which this important issue can be fully considered. In my address, I encouraged all our citizens both at home and abroad to take the opportunity to engage with that important review in whatever way was possible.
IC. Apart from the right to vote, many of us who have lived abroad now see things in a broader context as a result of our personal and professional experiences in other countries. Would you agree that this experience could and should be somehow harnessed to Ireland’s benefit? Perhaps via some form of emigrants advisory body or council?
I have no doubt that the personal and professional experiences of our emigrants can be of use to the overall benefit of Ireland. The very successful Global Irish Economic Forum held in Dublin Castle last October sought to harness the goodwill and positive energy that our Global Irish Network has to offer. Over 270 of the most influential members of the Irish Diaspora from 37 countries came together to lend their experience and their influence to assist with Ireland’s recovery and to help to restore Ireland’s reputation abroad. I also appointed as one of my seven nominees to the Council of State, Sally Mulready who in her late teens emigrated to London with her mother and has lived there since then and has done enormous work for the Irish community. I see Sally as an important voice of the Irish emigrant.
IC: St Patrick’s Day is without doubt the most internationally celebrated national feast day in the world. It’s a day when everyone wants to be Irish. As your first St Patrick’s Day as President of Ireland have you any special wishes or greetings for those who like to ‘wear the green’ on March 17th, no matter where they come from?
My deepest wish on St. Patrick’s Day is that everyone, Irish or simply ‘Irish for the day’, is inspired by our wonderful Irish heritage and enjoy the celebrations of this our national day wherever they may be. Beanachtaí na Féile Padraig go léir. Espero que todos su lectores en las Islas Canarias disfruten la Fiesta de San Patricio.