President Michael D Higgins, a man suffused with his sense of self-importance, has been at it again. When Fidel Castro passed away last weekend Higgins immediately issued a statement extolling the Cuban dictator's magnificent achievements. It was, as one senator here put it, a "fawning and wholly inappropriate" tribute to a man whose totalitarian regime brutally put down any opposition and killed hundreds. Castro made life in Cuba miserable for so many of his own people, with widespread poverty, no free speech, limited human rights and a force-fed diet of propaganda.
Yes, there were some positives – compared with Haiti, for example – in basic education and health services. But they did not counterbalance or excuse the misery he inflicted on the Cuban people over five decades, as other places in the world opened up and progressed. No wonder so many Cubans, tired of being constrained by an archaic, stultifying system, fled to Miami.
Even for all those radical students of the 1960s in the U.S. and Europe who once had posters of Che on their bedroom walls and who believed in socialism and the end of the capitalist system, Castro's record is severely compromised. Yes, he overthrew a vile regime against the odds and with great courage, but it's extremely hard to justify what he did once he had established himself in power.
He turned into a mini Stalin and Cuba became a sort of North Korea, except that it had sunshine and no one was actually starving. Internet access was banned in case it might open up local minds to what was going on in the rest of the world.
Free movement, free assembly, free speech were all curtailed. Arrests, detentions, even torture and executions, were a part of preserving Castro's state system for so long.
So what did our president have to say about Fidel? You can find the full text in the news section on www.President.ie and read it for yourself.
He begins as follows, "I have learned with great sadness of the death of Fidel Castro, founder of modern Cuba, and its prime minister from 1959 to 1976, as well as its president from 1976 to 2008. Following the revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro brought significant political and social change to his country, overcoming not just the regime of General Fulgencio Batista but also the economic isolation forced upon Cuba in the years that followed."
Now it is traditional here to express sympathy for all kinds of people, good and bad, so we need not read too much into that. But the unquestioning admiration for the "significant political and social change" is hard to take since there is no consideration of the intimidating, claustrophobic, controlled society which Castro created. Nor is there any context for why the economic blockade continued and no mention of a nuclear threat at one point.
The gloss continues, "Having survived some 600 attempts on his life, Fidel Castro, known to his peers in Cuba as ‘El Comandante,’ became one of the longest serving heads of state in the world, guiding the country through a remarkable process of social and political change, advocating a development path that was unique and determinedly independent."
The truth is that Castro was one of the "longest serving heads of state in the world" because he was a dictator who enforced his power for five decades with an iron fist. But this does not appear to have occurred to Higgins.
Or maybe he thinks that the Cuban version of democracy (in which Castro and his comrades effectively vetted all candidates in elections) is genuinely democratic. In reality it was as "democratic" as the Chinese system.
Higgins’ paean of praise goes on like this, pointing out Cuba's "100 percent literacy," a health system that is "one of the most admired in the world" and inequality and poverty that are "much less pronounced in Cuba than in surrounding nations."
There is some truth in these claims but the reality is much more nuanced than what he says.
As you will see if you read the entire statement online, there is only one sentence which raises any doubt about Castro's time in power. "The economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics," Higgins writes.
And he leaves it at that. Note that he is merely saying that there was "a restriction" in Cuban society which brought some "critics" – he is not including himself among the "critics" and he is not saying that he agrees with them.
No doubt all the gays who were locked up and all the political activists who wanted a different kind of Cuba and dared to speak out and were incarcerated or shot for doing so will agree that there was "a restriction" in Cuban society.
This feeble single line was a totally inadequate attempt by Higgins to give some balance to his assessment of Castro. After that one line he was back again to his unadulterated admiration for the Cuban leader who, he concluded, "will be remembered as a giant among global leaders."
Now you might say that none of this matters. You might say it's just Michael D being Michael D, our diminutive president puffing himself up to bestride the world stage like a colossus.
It's Higgins issuing yet another pronouncement of great profundity that is supposed to make everything clear for the rest of us dimmer mortals. Just ignore him, you might say.
But it's not as simple as that. The difficulty is that he is president of Ireland, and when he issues a statement like this he speaks for all of the Irish people. And not all of the Irish people are admirers of Castro the way Higgins is.
Interestingly, the president does not have to submit speeches or statements like this one in advance for government approval. That is because the role of president here is largely ceremonial as a figurehead for the nation. It's not supposed to stray into politics and did not do so until relatively recently.
Higgins, however, has been pushing the boundary ever since he took office, lecturing the Irish nation on where we have been going wrong and what we should be doing to set things right in all minds of areas. He is a more political president than any of his predecessors.
This statement on Castro is further evidence that it may be time for the government to rein him in a bit, before his hubris makes him come out with something even more embarrassing. It has provoked widespread criticism here, not just from people on the right but from people who are left of center in Irish politics and from human rights activists.
Amnesty International’s executive director in Ireland, Colm O'Gorman, said in reaction that it was impossible to ignore Castro’s “horrific’’ and “monstrous’’ abuse of civilian and political rights for nearly 50 years.
“Any suggestion Castro’s delivery on social rights balances out his appalling violations of civilian and political rights is nonsense,’’ he said.
The negative reaction to the Castro statement has been so strong that a spokesman for the president (who writes very like Michael D himself!) issued a clarification that tries to make a great deal out of the single line mentioned above. It's supposed to prove that Higgins was far more critical about Castro's human rights abuses than he was.
But it's a lame and unconvincing defense. The damage has been done and there's no way it can be explained away.
The reality is that most of us from the radical sixties who once believed in socialism eventually grew up as real life kicked some sense into us. We learned the need for self-reliance, efficiency, productivity, the profit incentive and, above all, how precious democracy is.
For those, like Higgins, who remained in academia where he was a lecturer in social studies (it's what students opted for when they didn't know what to do in college!) it was possible to remain in the make believe world where radical thinking and torrents of words could change everything.
Unfortunately, this minor furor over the Castro statement comes as little surprise. Higgins is a classic champagne socialist, still stuck back in the sixties when he too probably had posters of Castro and Guevara on his wall.
These days he always seems to be lecturing us about something in a way that he clearly thinks is powerfully intellectual, illuminating and uplifting, but which usually comes across as gushing leftie waffle.
His constant hectoring about our shortcomings as a nation has become tiresome, particularly when he drifts into economic topics about which he knows very little. He has spent a lifetime on the state payroll, in one form or another.
The high point of his political career was as minister for arts, so he was never allowed get near anything to do with running the country. But that has not stopped him pontificating about all kinds of difficult issues that Ireland has had to deal with after the crash.
He likes to give the impression (perhaps even believes it himself) that he is speaking from great experience or knowledge. But it's simply not true. And we should take his statement about Castro with that in mind.
All this would make you nostalgic for the old days and presidents like Paddy Hillery, who played golf, turned up for a few events now and then, patted a few kids on the head and made a few innocuous remarks to the crowd and maybe even told a quiet joke or two. Hillery, who really had a lot of political experience, was modest enough to adopt the figurehead role of president as it was meant to be, instead of forever trying to prove himself as some kind of superior intellectual being.
It's a pity Higgins would not do the same and give us all a rest.