There has been very considerable media coverage in the last two days concerning the decision of Joe Higgins not to stand for re-election to the Dáil at the end of this term. Yesterday morning Joe was interviewed at length on the Sean O Rourke programme for RTE Radio, in an interview that focused on his career inside the Dáil. Sean noted that it’s often said all political careers end in failure, and that this could be said of Joe’s – something he completely rejected. I thought it would be interesting to look a little at Joe’s decades long political activism in Dublin briefly on the site here.
While Joe Higgins ultimately built a strong political base in Dublin West, he was born in the Dingle Gaeltacht in 1949, one of nine children. He enrolled in the priesthood following his graduation from Dingle Christian Brothers School, not a totally unusual choice for a young Irishman at the time. Sent to a Christian seminary school in Minnesota, Joe was exposed to anti Vietnam war activism and the political left for the first time. In an interview with Village magazine in 2005, he recalled that:
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Church was a big part of life in Ireland, the Catholic faith inculcated into you. Then you move on and develop and begin to see the world differently, you begin to think critically for yourself.
Higgins recalled his time in the United States in an interview with The Kerryman newspaper in 1989, telling them that:
I think being in the US at that time and the experience of the Vietnam war had a big influence on me. What the US was trying to do to the Vietnamese people and the horror of that, made me realise that fundamental changes were needed to end that kind of war which was basically a war of big business.
On returning to Ireland in 1972 he enrolled at University College Dublin, which began decades of political activism in the Irish capital. About this period he has stated “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”. Joe became Chairman of UCD Labour Youth during his time at Belfield. Higgins and others in Labour Youth were vocal opponents of Labour’s time in coalition with Fine Gael during the 1970s, evident from a letter that appeared in The Irish Times in 1975, with Higgins noting:
Within the Labour Party there is a growing call for Labour to seize the opportunity for independent action, and stop being the rubber stamp for Fine Gael’s policies…..At some stage, even the most moderate leaders will have to call ‘Halt!’ to Labour’s disastrous excursion into coalition.
Higgins belonged to a tendency within the Labour Party that became known as ‘Militant’, a term which was also applied to its co-thinkers in the British Labour Party. Essentially this tendency grew around an internal newspaper, which pushed Trotskyite politics as the way forward for the Labour Party and broader left. Early editions of Militant’s newspaper have been digitised by the excellent Irish Left Archive, and I’ve linked to one below. Militant called for a united Socialist Ireland, yet rejected armed Irish Republican violence, noting that “a bloody sectarian war would throw the Labour movement backwards.”
Tensions between Labour Party leadership and the Militant tendency of the party were ever-present throughout the 1980s. Higgins wrote to the national media in 1984, following the expulsion of five activists for publishing articles in the Militant paper, that “in each of the past several decades, the right-wing leadership of the Labour Party has attempted to keep control of the party through victimising left-wing members mainly by expulsion. This present ‘witch hunt’ of socialists in the Labour Party will, however, fail.” Militant also received considerable state attention, with the offices of their newspaper raided by authorities in that same year.
The question of expelling Higgins and other radicals from the party was often raised by senior Labour Party figures throughout the decade, though inevitable expulsion did not come until the Labour Party conference of 1989. The Irish Times reported that:
A motion from Dublin West constituency council calling for the exclusion of Militant Tendency members from the party was passed on a show of hands by at least two to one. The motion, which was amended, also debarred from membership supporters of the Militant Tendency. Two prominent Labour TDs, Mr. Michael D. Higgins and Mr. Emmet Stagg, voted against the motion.
Higgins was furious, noting that the motion was “extremely destructive of the traditions of socialism, of Connolly and Larkin. Banning a group because they supported a newspaper might be appropriate in South Africa, but not in the Irish Labour Party.” Higgins, a member of the Administrative Council of Labour, noted that the after the Labour Party had been “shifted to the left” and built as a “socialist alternative to the capitalist parties”, those expelled would be “reinstated with honour.” Dick Spring was confronted by Militant supporters protesting against the expulsions. Interestingly the Labour Party conference which expelled the Militant faction occurred in Tralee, and The Kerryman newspaper provided plenty of coverage to the “Marxist from Dingle” throughout the ordeal.
The debacle within the Labour Party led to the establishment of a new party, Militant Labour, that was formally launched in 1993. This was unsurprising as many of those who had been expelled from Labour has remained politically active as a unit, indeed Joe Higgins was elected in 1991 as a Councillor, topping the poll in Mulhuddart, Dublin West. Joe ran in the 1996 Dublin West by-election for Militant Labour, coming very close to winning a seat, ultimately falling just short of the late Brian Lenihan. At the time water charges were being discussed and appeared inevitable, and Joe ran on an anti water charges platform, with the full endorsement of the Federation of Dublin Anti Water Charges Campaigns. Following a merger with the Labour and Trade Union Group of Northern Ireland, Militant Labour became the Socialist Party in this same year. The following year brought success for this new party, with the election of Joe into Dáil Éireann. He would hold this seat for a decade, before losing it in the 2007 general election, only to be elected into the European Parliament two years later.
Recent years have seen Joe involved in a wide variety of campaigns, though he noted in his interview with Sean O’Rourke he is particularly proud of the GAMA workers campaign, which saw significant improvements gained by migrant workers in the construction industry, and the defeat of the initial attempt at introducing water taxes. The bin tax campaign saw Joe Higgins and his one-time Socialist Party colleague Clare Daly jailed in Mountjoy for a period of one month in 2003. At the funeral of his mother in 2013, Higgins recalled informing his elderly mother that he had been jailed for this role in the campaign:
I rang with some trepidation, I have to say, but I really needn’t have worried. ‘What harm boyeen, sure I’ll be up next week to visit you’, and she did,” he recalled.
We wish Joe the best in retirement (a retirement he insists relates only to parliamentary politics and not all political activism) though he has some time to go inside the Dáil. It has certainly been an interesting career to date, expulsions and all.