Higgins is that rare breed in politics, a man of principle. That’s not to say that many if not most politicians are not as principled — or unprincipled — as any cross-section of society. But Higgins was always different.
Politics is about compromise and for Joe compromise is just another word for “nothing left to lose”.
His worldview is unyielding and clear-eyed. One expression of that view came in what was probably the most memorable exchange in the Oireachtas banking inquiry which reported last month.
Patrick Honohan, the former governor of the Central Bank, was the witness, and Joe was asking the questions.
“I have a general question first for the governor,” he began. “Some people would feel that in terms of a new report and indeed in other reports, in trying to get to this mystery of why there was not an intervention to stop the property bubble from being blown up, there is too much tiptoeing around the tulips and that we can get to a very fundamental reason.”
By this point some of Joe’s colleagues on the committee and the media contingent accustomed to his periodic exposition of capitalism turned off. All knew that what was to follow would undoubtedly contain nothing new. Except in this case, they were all wrong.
On he went: “Is it the case that the property bubble was blown to extremes by this scramble for super profits by banks, developers, and bondholders, that this is what the capitalist financial market is all about, that this ideology is shared by Government, the majority of the legislature in this State and by much of the media and that the regulatory authorities, most of whom came through the system, share that, and that the prevailing spirit is ‘Don’t separate the lion from its prey. That is what they do, let them at it’?”
For more election news, analysis and general banter join us HERE
Everybody awaited Honohan’s expected reply in defence of the system, but the witness surprised the room.
“That is right,” he said. “That is what I read.”
If the room was surprised, then Joe was flummoxed. All his political life he had been attempting to expose the evil of capitalism, often a lone voice against those who would do down the working man and woman, and here was a figure from the busom of the establishment admitting that he, Joe, had been right all along.
“You agree with me,” Joe asked in a voice thick with incredulity.
“In broad terms,” Honohan replied.
The remainder of the interrogation was a tame affair, the fire in Joe’s belly having been quenched. Finally, just as he was about to hang up his parliamentary spurs, one of “them” had admitted that he was right all along.
The exchange was also notable in that it was something of a throwback to the days, a decade earlier, when Joe had been in his prime.
He had been a more muted figure in the 31st Dail that ended a fortnight ago.
Much of that may be down to the Roy Keane factor. Anybody on familiar terms with Keane’s career would know that he never shone when those around him were doing their job properly. He reserved his best days for when there was a requirement to shake his team alive and grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
So it went with Joe. In the 31st Dail he was no longer a lone voice. Around him on the backbenches a whole team who were on top of their game, none more so than his former protégée, Clare Daly, who was probably the best-performing TD over the last five years.
So Joe didn’t shine as he once did, but part of that must also be attributed to his desire to stand back and ensure that those succeeding him in his party take the limelight.
No, Higgins’ prime time was the Dáil that presided over the years of illusory plenty between 2002 and 2007. During that period he was a lonely voice railing against the excesses which were held up by the governing parties — and most of the opposition — as exhibits of new prosperity, fuelled by enlightened politics.
Notably, Joe had a particular capacity for getting under the skin of the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who liked to consider himself far removed from the developer and banker classes who prospered most under that government.
In one moment of comedy in 2004, Ahern told a newspaper that he was in fact a socialist himself. This was too much for Joe. Once he got back from work abroad promoting socialism, he addressed the House about his incredulity at the latest outpouring from The Bert.
“You can imagine, a Cheann Comhairle, how perplexed I was when I returned to find my wardrobe almost empty. The Taoiseach had been busy robbing my clothes. Up until recently the Progressive Democrats did not have a stitch left due to the same Taoiseach but we never expected him to take a walk on the left side of the street.”
He went on to say that the revelation had prompted him to think: “Good man, Taoiseach, There are two of us in it and we will go down together.”
But while witty putdowns was a favoured arrow, Higgins also highlighted issues of substance that illustrated the times being lived.
In 2005, he and his colleagues exposed one of the most shameful episodes in the building bubble — the payment of as little as €2.50 an hour to Turkish workers involved in constructing parts of the State’s infrastructure.
Higgins used parliamentary privilege to blow open the exploitation of the Gama company, pointing out that there were more dog wardens employed by the State than labour inspectors. It was the first example of how the prevailing politics embraced light-touch regulation in order to let so-called wealth creators do their thing, with zero consideration for either the human or economic fall-out of such folly.
During those days, Joe appeared to be a man out of time, railing against the good times, which, we were told, were based on sound fundamentals. So it was that the electorate turfed him out in the 2007 election, presumably because of his obsession with acting the party pooper.
By the time the European elections came around two years later, the country had been turned upside down. Joe romped home in a victory that all but said, ‘Come back, forgive us for what we did. You were right all along!’
This time he is going of his own volition, but he is unlikely to retire. For even those who disagree with his worldview will admit that politics is not a career for him but a way of life, and will continue to be so.