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Michael D Higgins: ‘What I had was a form of mild stroke. It didn’t affect my cognitive abilities’

The President reveals details of his ‘little episode’ and holds forth on everything from the failures of EU migration policy, the future of Manchester United’s manager, King Charles’s prostate, and the fact that he will never stop speaking out

He may be slightly physically stiffer than he once was, his voice a shade softer, but the fire in the eyes of President Michael D Higgins burns as brightly as ever it did when a topic excites him.

We meet at the Hilton hotel in Deansgate in central Manchester, in advance of him receiving an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of Manchester, where he was a postgraduate student in the 1960s. On Wednesday, he is due to give a lecture in the university on the “consciousness our times need” for modern crises.

Ostensibly, we meet at the Hilton in advance of all of this to discuss the enduring ties between the people of Britain and Ireland. Yet in a freewheeling discussion conducted in his own inimitable style, Mr Higgins holds forth on everything from the failures of European Union migration policy, the future of Manchester United’s manager, King Charles’s prostate and the fact that, as President, he will never stop speaking out.

“Ask me anything you like, anything at all,” he says several times, clearly enjoying himself, as his aides realise the reins are off. Okay then: how is your health? This is the President’s first interview since he was hospitalised for a week at the start of March with what was, until now, a mystery ailment.


“Oh, my little episode?” says Mr Higgins, who is already sitting down before the interview is due to start until, with great effort, he drives himself to his feet for a hearty handshake.

“I’m fine now. What I had was a form of mild stroke. It didn’t affect my cognitive abilities. It affected simply my motor side, which was on the left-hand side.” He seems keen to dispel any notion that he is anything other than on the mend, even if he is clearly a little frailer.

“My left hand is fully back,” he says, punching the air on that side almost comically. “But [the stroke] somehow exacerbated stuff that I had in my lower back. I’m getting that fixed in the next week.”

He had a message on Monday from King Charles, when Britain’s monarch heard the President was coming to Manchester. They previously spoke on the phone when he was hospitalised last month, which wasn’t long after it had emerged that the king was also ill with cancer that was discovered after he was treated in hospital for prostate issues.

“I’ve had prostate operations and I told him that people will speak to you about ‘mild discomfort’ – I said that is one of the greatest abuses there is of the English language. We had a laugh about that.”

Mr Higgins highlights his good relationship with King Charles – both heads of state – in the context of the relationship between the people of Britain and the Republic, and how it endures above the hurly-burly of the politics that characterised recent years.

“I’m respecting privacies here. But let me put it like this: the king continues to use the word ‘warm’. We weren’t just going through the motions in relation to this. He appreciated very much the way that we talk to each other,” says the President.

“You can take for granted that the history [between British and Irish people] was understood [by the king]. Not just the deep history, but the proximate history. Members of the royal family are better informed than members of the Tory party.”

Despite the only recently-repaired political relationships between Britain and the State, which were severely tested by Brexit, Mr Higgins says he would describe the relationship now between people on the two islands as “good”.

“The texture of it now is very good. Just before Brexit was curiously perhaps the most tense time. That was a very difficult and, to be frank with you, a very misleading referendum consultation in Britain,” he says of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, driven by issues of identity. “And unfortunately some of the dire consequences have come to create current difficulties.”

But things are now back on an even keel, he suggests.

Mr Higgins appears to refer to recent controversies about the singing by young Irish people and some football fans of pro-IRA songs by bands including the Wolfe Tones. Critics suggest this damages the relationship between British and Irish people. But such incidents, the President suggests, need to be viewed in a certain context.

“About these songs that are sung at different times – things come out of culture, and culture is in a continual process of change. And the culture that exists now is one that is very positive. I often think: this is a very old question about people who have had the experience that Ireland has had with the British Empire.”

He says the language of the relationship between the people of Britain and Ireland can always be found in music and also football which is, as ever, never far from the President’s mind. Upon hearing that his inquisitor is a Manchester United fan, he feigns a look of exaggerated sympathy. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to take a decision on the manager,” he says, joking about the uncertain future of the embattled United manager, Erik ten Hag.

He contrasts the different experiences of previous waves of Irish emigrants from, say, the 1950s when his twin sisters emigrated out of poverty to Greater Manchester, and the experiences of young affluent Irish people now who go to Britain out of choice.

“If you have agency, everything is different,” he says. For earlier generations, the emigration was more out of necessity and the experience was not always as positive. “There’s no agency in that.”

The writings of emigrants, says the President, are where such ideas are best understood: “Migrants wrote so that they wouldn’t be left out of history. So that the way they experienced it isn’t forgotten.”

Mr Higgins then peels off into a discussion about immigration and how it has emerged as a divisive political topic in many countries, including the US and Britain. He appears to criticise how immigration policy is handled in the EU, where some countries want a tougher line. “Some of the EU members: their approach to migration is ill informed, it’s not based on decent scholarship, it’s not based on consultation with the source countries.”

He also refers indirectly to countries that outsource some of their immigration policy. Britain, just this week, passed a law in Westminster that will allow it to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda. He appears to criticise “the idea of paying client countries in Africa to do certain things that you could have done [yourself] if you’d went about understanding it properly”.

The President is often accused of ideological bias in political discourse, of speaking out of turn. But he says the persistence of injustice, such as unequal land rights and the difficulties faced by immigrants, means he feels he has no choice.

“This is why I’m afraid I will always be on that side. I have to take sides. I don’t think it creates discomfort for anyone [that he speaks out] but it certainly isn’t going to dissuade me from saying anything that I feel is necessary.”

The President, who turned 83 last week, is due to finish his 14-year stint in office in November next year. “I’ll be doing it [speaking out] for another year and a half as President, and then I hope to continue doing it long after that.”