From Issue 36 - 3-9 June 2005 Village Magazine.
This is a prominent magazine in Dublin. Permission has been obtained from Vincent Browne, the publisher, to add this article online. Copyright belongs to Village
Last man standing - profile of Joe Higgins TD
He studied to be a priest, was kicked out of the Labour party for
being too left-wing, and spent a month in Mountjoy jail.
Ruairí McCann and Colin Murphy profile Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins
The staff of Buswell's hotel opposite Leinster House should be used to
seeing our TDs in exuberant mood, but it seems safe to say they can
never have seen it quite like this. As the music started, they drifted
out onto the steps of the hotel to watch the goings-on on Marlborough
Three hundred Turkish workers, employees of the company Gama, were
thronged outside, surrounded by supporters and curious onlookers. At
the centre of the crowd, a dozen or so men formed a dancing circle, and
in the centre, the Dáil's whirling dervish himself, TD Joe Higgins. The
music was a break between speeches at a protest, and Higgins had been
coralled into the dance by the workers, and was awkwardly - but good
humouredly - stomping and flailing about with the Gama men.
Joe Higgins, sole Socialist deputy in Dáil Eireann, has enjoyed a
rising profile during the life of this Dáil, with his roles as the
figurehead of the anti-bin tax and Gama workers' protests gaining him a
national profile. He is also known as one of the best orators in
Leinster House. Though his serious, almost stern, image befits the
wearer of the mantle of James Connolly, he has a line in rhetorical
flourishes that regularly brings the House to laughter.
The protest at the Dáil was the apex of the fight by the Gama workers
for proper pay, resolved when the Labour Court recommended Gama pay
each striking worker €8,000 for every year of service in settlement for
all overtime and outstanding pay claims.
The dispute started when 300 workers walked off Gama sites, claiming to
have been paid between €2 and €3 an hour for an 80 hour week. The
company had been paying a proportion of workers' pay into accounts in a
Dutch bank but the workers denied any knowledge of this. Higgins led a
group of workers to the Finansbank in Amsterdam, proving the accounts
existed and eventually leading to the money being paid to the workers.
Higgins received help along the way from an unlikely source, Fianna
Fáil junior minister, Conor Lenihan, who intervened during a
particularly florid attack on the Taoiseach by Higgins and told Higgins
to "stick with the kebabs" in reference to his support of the Turkish
"I suppose, in an ironic way, his idiotic comments actually helped us,"
says Higgins. "It gave an impetus to the campaign just as things were
stalling. The workers had been striking for weeks and we still had no
It was Higgins' Socialist Party colleague, Councillor Mick Murphy, who
uncovered the Gama abuse, through contacts with local workers. Murphy
and Higgins go back 18 years, to the days of Militant Labour (also
known as Militant Tendency), a radical leftist faction within the
Labour Party that eventually split and went on to form the Socialist
Party in 1996.
Higgins, then on the Labour Party's Administrative Council, was
expelled in 1989, along with his fellow bin charges veteran, Clare
Daly. According to Labour's Joan Burton, now a TD in the Dublin West
constituency with Higgins, "they were basically a party within a party
and that can't work".
Michael D Higgins, who was then chair of the Administrative Council,
recalls that they had "vigorous debates about coalitionism, but they
were good honest debates".
"I understand Joe's criticisms very well, we just have different views
of the possibilities of change and the organisation of the Labour
Party, on issues like coalition," he said.
"The Labour Party provides absolutely no radical alternative these
days," says Higgins. "Watching the debates at the conference last
weekend, it struck me how much has changed since the 1970s. There were
major opportunities for the Labour Party until the massive sell-out at
the end of the 1980s, but now the goalposts have shifted so far to the
right that the only decision to be made is whether to get into power
with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil."
Michael D had left the chairmanship of the Administrative Council by
the time of Joe Higgins' expulsion. "I wasn't happy about the
expulsions and everybody knew my opinions on the matter at the time,"
he says. "I always liked the concept of the left talking to each other,
such as we did during the Iraq war."
Joan Burton is less amenable to Joe Higgins' persuasion.
"I don't like that whole Militant strain - I think it's more of a sect
than a political party. I find his brand of Trotskyism very
unattractive, very sterile and incompatible with a developing society.
It's a very exclusive organisation, a small group rather than a big
party - it has tight control exercises, little room for differing
Higgins was elected an independent councillor in 1991, and ran for the
Dáil in 1992 but lost out to Joan Burton, who polled almost 23 per cent
in "the Spring tide" that saw the Labour Party double its
But the introduction of water charges in 1994 galvanised the socialist
movement, and Higgins was amongst the leadership of the two-year
anti-water charges campaign until they were abolished in 1996. Mick
Murphy remembers: "We were starting to make serious inroads, raising
our profile... It was our first big campaign independent of the Labour
Party and we won it."
Higgins stood in the 1996 Dublin West by-election after the death of
Brian Lenihan. Brian Lenihan Jr beat him to the seat by only 250 votes.
In the general election the following year, running for the
newly-formed Socialist Party, he topped the poll, while Joan Burton
lost her seat when her vote halved.
After the 2002 election, Higgins was chosen by the Dáil's independent
TDs to represent them as leader within the so-called technical group,
comprising the Greens, Sinn Féin and the Independents. The grouping
entitles them to put questions during Leaders' Questions, and Higgins
puts questions on behalf of the Independents. This has given Higgins a
national stage on which to lobby and to hector the Government; it's
where he first raised the Gama issue, and challenged Bertie Ahern's
conversion to socialism last year.
"If this conversion was genuine," he told the Dáil at the time, "we
would have to go back 2,000 years to find another as rapid and as
radical. Saul's embrace of Christianity on the road to Damascus stood
the test of time but the Taoiseach's embrace of socialism on the banks
of the Tolka hardly will."
Independent TD Tony Gregory explains: "Joe has spent a long time
looking to ask questions but up until now there was never a mechanism
to do that.
"I'm sure he spends entire weekends dreaming up these great phrases -
he certainly doesn't come up with them on the spot. He always arrives
in a panic the morning he has to ask the question. He gets nervous,
says it puts him under a lot of stress."
The independents are a mixed bunch of ideologues, single-issue
candidates and long-time local representatives; the role of supposedly
representing them could prove awkward.
But Gregory says Higgins has been very careful. "Some of the
Independents have reminded Joe that when he raises an issue he's
raising it on behalf of all of us but in fairness, he'll always mention
some of us or indicate in some way that he's representing the whole
group of Independents with his question."
The introduction of bin charges in 2003 presented Higgins and his
comrades with another opportunity, without the success of previous
campaigns but attracting a lot of support. "There were tactical
difficulties more than anything," says Mick Murphy. "What do you do
when they leave your rubbish around?"
The campaign landed Higgins and Clare Daly in Mountjoy, for defying a
High Court injunction against the blockading of bin lorries.
"We didn't expect to end up in jail for a month," says Clare Daly. "We
just wanted to take things as far as we could, and I think people
Joe Higgins was born in 1949 in Lispole, Co Kerry. His parents had a
small farm, and nine children. Murphy says of their mutual backgrounds:
"We share the same background - I'm from a farm in Tipp, he's from one
in Kerry. We understand each other and unlike many on the old Left, we
see the common interests of small farmers - the rural poor - and the
Higgins schooled with the Christian Brothers, and then went to the US to study for the priesthood at St Mary's College in Minnesota. He got caught up in the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests, left the seminary, and then went to Australia for a year, where he worked in construction. "I did an awful lot of digging," he says.
Returning to Ireland in 1972, he studied English, French and economics
at UCD, where he joined the Labour party and then trained to be a
teacher. He taught at Emmet Road and North Strand vocational schools in
Dublin's inner city.
Somewhere along the way, he lost his religious faith. "In the 1950s and
1960s, the Church was a big part of life in Ireland, the Catholic faith
inculcated into you," he says. "Then you move on and develop and begin
to see the world differently, you begin to think critically for
Ultimately, he substituted one creed for another.
"I started reading about socialism when I became active at college but
books were never my first inspiration. I'm instinctively a socialist.
It doesn't take much to recognise that there is obviously huge
inequality of wealth in the world - why are millions living in
destitution when there is so much food, clothes and shelter to serve
everyone? It's common sense to be a socialist.
"I'm a revolutionary socialist. I stand for the complete transformation
of society with all institutions, banks and big industry democratically
owned and controlled by the people."
A week after Higgins was dragged by garda riot police from the gates of
Leinster House during an anti-war protest in 2003, Michael McDowell
responded to hectoring from Higgins in the Dáil by saying, "I have a
right to make a speech without being barracked by somebody who is not a
democrat but believes in establishing the dictatorship of the
proletariat as soon as he possibly can".
The Taoiseach, too, has denounced Higgins's "far left or 'commie'
resistance to everything".
"That's par for the course at this stage," says Higgins. "They have
tried to hang the crimes of Stalin around my neck at various times when
anyone with any knowledge knows that we [the Socialist Party] represent
democratic socialism, supporters of which were rounded up and killed by
the Stalinist bureaucrats in Russia."
Apology - Michael D Higgins
From Issue 37 - 10-16 June Village Magazine
Last week in Village magazine
, in an article entitled Last man
, a quote from Joe Higgins in the article read as if it was
given by Michael D Higgins. This was a mistake in editing, as each
quote from Joe Higgins and Michael D Higgins should have used their
A highlighted quote which was pulled out of the text, in which Joe
Higgins spoke of watching the recent Labour Party Conference, was also
mistakenly attributed to Michael D Higgins. Village is very sorry for
any confusion or embarrassment caused by this.
Here's another recent profile of Joe Higgins, TD, from the Sunday Business Post.