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I don’t “revere” Michael D. Higgins the way British monarchists revere the Queen. And that’s a good thing.

August 4, 2015


Let’s be clear, I think Michael D. Higgins is far more gracious, dignified, charismatic and eloquent than any member of the British royal family.  But my respect for him cannot compare with what some people feel in the presence of royalty.  And a good thing too.

This isn’t just me – nobody feels the same way about Michael D. Higgins that some people feel about the British queen.  Michael D. Higgins is a popular human, who has lived a complicated life and who now has a mandate to represent the Irish people at popular functions at home and abroad.  When he makes speeches – which is often because he’s good at it – they are praised when they are good and criticised when they’re not so good.   Usually they are praised because usually they are very good.

Like his immediate predecessors, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, he’s managed to combine dignity and approachability in something like equal measure.  He lives in (or rather has the use of for the duration of his presidency) a house that’s big enough to host some moderately swanky parties – but nobody would call it a palace.

When some Brits tell me that nobody could feel the same way about an elected President as they do about a monarch – I agree with them and I say “good”.  The feelings that some people have about monarchy are, quite simply, not healthy.  They corrode the faculties of judgement.  When people go week at the knees at the spectacle of a smile or a wave or a ribbon severing as exercised by people for whom, quite frankly, a curriculum vitae and a birth certificate are essentially the same document – then the ability to say whether anything is reallly good or bad is compromised.

In short, I think that the kind of uncritical reverence bestowed on royals is inappropriately bestowed upon any fellow human after you’ve turned eleven.  Not only does monarchy infantilise people, of course, but it infantilise the poor royals themselves, who habituate themselves to applause for stuff that the rest of us stop getting applause for after we’ve turned eleven.

I’ve witnessed three Irish presidents at work at various functions.  They’ve done well on each of those occasions  and I’ve remarked to friends about it.  But there’s an authenticity to the the common view that they’ve done well that’s guaranteed by the fact that it would be perfectly normal to point it out had they done badly.  They had to do more than just show up.  An Irish president is more than the sum total of some awe-struck expectations.

British royals seem to be very gauche, clumsy and undignified to me – but there’s no point in making this point to a devoted royalists, because royals are, for royalists, nothing less (or more) than a particular feeling that they already want to feel.  And which I don’t.  They bring these feelings to the table ahead of time – and then they feel them.

An elected presidency for Britain would not “replace” the monarchy because the monarchy is not something that should be replaced.  Sovereignty is not be transferred from a hereditary monarch to an elected president.  Sovereignty is to be lodged in the people, and the graciousness, warmth and affection which a President enjoys (or doesn’t – but elected failures are correctable) is a function of their ability to represent this popular sovereignty.


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