This is a comment I left on a piece by the Irish Times’s political correspondent Stephen Collins, titled ‘President’s comments show a novel interpretation of his constitutional role’, in which Collins speculated -without being too specific- that Michael D. Higgins was intervening in public life in ways that were not ‘above politics’.
Where is politics? The name of this series of columns is ‘Inside Politics’, indicating there are places where politics happens, and other places where it does not. We find this idea of limits on politics expressed here too in the notion that the President ‘is supposed to be above politics’ and that he has now entered something called ‘the political arena’.
But in democratic societies, in which everyone is entitled to make decisions in common about how society is to be organised and run, there’s no way to place boundaries on where politics will begin and end. What is more, any such delineation imposed is deeply political, such as the statement that certain things are ‘above politics’. Says who?
It is easy to understand how a political establishment would conceive of politics as a professional activity, one with a fixed set of boundaries. That is a conception many people regrettably share: “are you thinking of going into politics?” is a common reaction to the expression of a political viewpoint in Irish society, and it is also common for people to hold that a person’s viewpoint has neither truth nor validity unless it can be tallied with someone else’s electoral mandate.
The ultimate embodiment of the notion that certain things are beyond politics can be found these days in the European Central Bank and the IMF: institutions set up to ring-fence economic questions of enormous import and place them beyond politics. But as I mentioned above, this is a deeply political project: the point is not to place things beyond politics, but beyond democracy. In so far as the prevailing liberal orthodoxy, as Stephen Collins rightly describes it, places matters of immense import beyond democratic influence, it’s important for any person with a commitment to democracy to oppose such things. Or is the ideal that Ireland’s head of state should have no commitment to democracy?