All that's left?
A profile of Joe Higgins TD in the Sunday Business Post
17 April 2005 By Alison O'Connor
When Joe Higgins rises to his feet in Dáil Eireann, there is usually an air of expectancy. The majority of his 165 colleagues would probably claim that the Socialist Party TD's politics are off the wall, but would surely also recognise him as the best parliamentary performer in their ranks.
With his Kerry accent and impeccably timed delivery, he has them laughing with a clever mixture of humour, metaphors and an array of props that have, in the past, included handcuffs and half a pound of sausages.
They try to heckle Higgins with name-calling, shouting “commie'‘ across the floor of the chamber, as well as making mention of Stalin and Trotsky.
The Dublin West TD has no problem with this, and says it is their historical ignorance that has them mentioning the two names in the same breath.
“Obviously, they don't know of the huge chasm between Trotskyism and Stalinism when they try to hang the huge crimes of Stalin around my neck,” said Higgins. “What I represent is democratic socialism, supporters of which were slaughtered in Russia.”
For a one-man socialist band, this politician certainly manages to attract a lot of attention. He has been imprisoned in Mountjoy for his part in the anti-waste charge protests; been photographed with his trousers apparently about to split as he was carried away from an anti-war protest in front of Leinster House; and has regularly upbraided the Taoiseach for overseeing a corrupt economy built on greed.
A few weeks ago, Higgins played a major role in the return of deported student Olukunle Eluhanlo. His assistance including making arrangements for Eluhanlo to be cared for by Nigerian socialists while in that country.
More recently, of course, Higgins has been the driving force behind the campaign to expose the low pay and poor conditions of Turkish workers employed by Gama and brought to Ireland to build roads and power plants.
In February, when he first made the sensational allegations concerning the abuse of migrant labourers, he was admonished in the Dáil by Ceann Comhairle, Rory O'Hanlon, for naming in the House a company which was not in a position to defend itself. His regular sparring partner, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, gave the revelations a fairly cool reception, except to give assurances that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment would look into it. Higgins took a risk, but obviously felt sure of his ground when he raised the controversial issue.
Less than a month later, he was telling the Dáil that this was a “master fraud by a major entity in the construction industry in this country, a grand larceny of worker's wage amounting to millions of euro each month stolen from the workers and tens of millions over the last year alone'‘.
Last Tuesday, he arranged for 40 of the Turkish workers to sit in the Dáil visitors' gallery and listen as he once again raised the issue, which by then had become a significant embarrassment to the government and the Taoiseach.
Earlier, up to 300 Gama workers had loudly protested at their treatment outside the Dáil, with workers' spokesman Enver Alan claiming that the company had made them work for more than 80 hours a week, at rates of between €2.20 and just over €3 an hour.
Alan added that the company never told workers about the existence of bank accounts in Finansbank in Amsterdam, into which a percentage of their salaries had been paid.
Higgins had been considering chartering a plane to bring the workers to Amsterdam to demand statements of their accounts. But his efforts, bolstered by government intervention with the bank, soon ensured that such a trip was unnecessary. Letters were sent by courier from each worker to Amsterdam, with the bank agreeing to fax back statements.
Gama, which has been the subject of an investigation by the Department of Enterprise's Labour Inspectorate, denies the claims.
There are plenty of other Independent TDs in the Dáil, but in the visibility stakes none of them even comes close to Higgins. He is a member of the Dáil's technical group, an informal alliance of the Green Party, Sinn Féin and a number of Independents, but Higgins would have very little in common politically with these colleagues.
Despite this, they selected him to represent them at leader's questions, where his exchanges with the Taoiseach have produced some memorable parliamentary moments.
Despite sweetening the pill of his question time attacks with some humour, Higgins is usually seen in Leinster House looking like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He does not deny this portrayal of himself.
“I do have a lot of pressure of work,” he said. “For instance, the Gama thing has been a huge pressure. There were hundreds of guys depending not just on me, and I was spearheading the thing in parliament to ensure the lads got justice.”
Born in 1949 in Lispole, Co Kerry, Higgins was one of nine children. His father was a small farmer. Educated locally and at Dingle CBS, he entered the priesthood and was sent to a Catholic seminary in Minnesota in the US. He said that witnessing anti-Vietnam war demonstrations helped to make him more politicised.
He soon abandoned his training for the priesthood, and has since come full circle in that he now describes himself as an atheist.
“What choice did you have in Ireland, especially in my time, when you had the Catholic faith inculcated in you from when you were baptised?” he said. “Then you get to think critically for yourself.”
Higgins returned to Ireland, completed a degree in UCD, and taught in inner-city schools in Dublin for a few years. He was a member of the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s, strongly opposing coalition, a position that he said got him expelled from the party in the late 1980s.
In 1991, he was elected to Dublin County Council, and then contested the 1992 general election in Dublin West. Four years later, he came very close to causing a major upset when he almost beat Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan jnr in a by-election.
Higgins finally won a seat in 1997, having set up the Socialist Party the previous year.
When he spent a month in Mountjoy Prison in 2003 for his part in the anti-waste charge protests, he used it as an opportunity to lose half a stone, deciding to buy only fruit in prison and running each day.
“It was like a very spartan youth hostel of long ago,” he said of the conditions in Mountjoy. “If you're used to swanning around in five-star hotels, you may not find it very conducive.”
Despite the regular attacks on the government and, more specifically, the Taoiseach, Higgins said he did not intend any of it personally.
“I see Bertie Ahern as a representative of the establishment business and politics. He represents the type of system and establishment that allows the privatisation of services and the exploitation of workers. He is a representative of everything that I oppose in society.
“Whether he is a personable fellow or not, I don't know. I have no personal relationship with him whatsoever.”
Living in a modest house in Mulhuddart, west Dublin, Higgins drives a second-hand car and makes a point of living on the average industrial wage.
He believes that, as a genuine socialist, it is vital to live on the same wage as the average worker, this year about €29,000. This is necessary, he said, to avoid becoming “soft and being co-opted into the establishment'‘.
Last year, he gave about €30,000 to his party and to various campaigns. Recently, while attempting to market himself as a socialist, Bertie Ahern said he had been observing Joe Higgins for three decades but had never heard him say anything positive.
“He displays what I believe to be a far-left or ‘commie' resistance to everything,” said Ahern. “He does so in the hope the world will discover oil wells off our coast which will fall into the ownership of the state, thereby allowing us to run a great market economy with the state at its centre. That utopia does not exist.”
Higgins rejects the “negative'‘ tag, saying that socialism is extremely positive and that the Gama campaign is a perfect example of a positive outcome. He is also adamant that he will remain apolitical loner, saying that nobody else would embrace the Socialist Party's programme or what he describes as its “mission'‘. The party's membership currently stands in the hundreds.
Given a little luck, the Socialist Party could win another Dáil seat, with the election of councillor Clare Daly in Dublin North at the next general election. Nonetheless, the chances of them ever becoming a major political force could best be described as slim. But in that utopia described by Bertie Ahern, how would a society run by Higgins and his followers operate?
“It would be a society where the majority of financial institutions, big banks and industry would be democratically owned and controlled,” he said.
“Production would be based on the needs of people and society, rather than on the basis of greed and maximisation of profit. Democratic socialism is the key to providing solutions to the burning issues of our time.”