Higgins destroys Tea Partier

Irish president goes head-to-head with conservative radio host

Back in 2010, Michael Graham, a conservative American talk show host, interviewed Michael Higgins, president of Ireland. The interview (which you can listen to here) has recently gone viral, perhaps because the President’s indictment of the American right is ever the more relevant as election day looms.

Higgins incited the showdown by saying, “they deserve our support, the people Gaza”. Predictably, this spurred Graham into Tea Party mode. The interviewer retorted:

I wanna ask, why is it that when the withdrawal occurred why is it that almost the next day rockets started pouring into Israel?

The Irish President then went on to accuse Graham of ignorance (a theme that marked pretty much all twenty minutes of the interview)

Well of course it didn't happen that way, I was in Gaza five weeks after the withdrawal. I can tell you, this is the difference, i know the kind of stuff you're on.

To which Graham, rather unaware of the ass-kicking that would ensue, semi-humourously replied:

I’m proud to say it's Guinness

And so Higgins went on:

They should patent it because it's having an effect I've never heard before. The point is, I was in Gaza. I was there with Andreas van Aaght, the former prime minister of Holland, and six others. We had our own translator, our own bus. We spent about two weeks generally in Israel and going into Gaza. And the rockets did not start immediately, not at all. You're talking about Sderot, which I also visited. And in fact for several months before the invasion of Gaza there were no rockets at all. And what people are continually saying now is that you have an equal proportion of violence between supporters of Hamas and Israel. The response of Israel, if you look at the number of Palestinians (they don't 'call themselves Palestinians' they are Palestinians), you're talking about their homeland and you're talking about the West Bank, you're talking about people. And you're right about it, the children of Abraham for example, which include the Jewish people as well, all occupied the same place. But the issue is one of respect for the rights of Palestinian people to live in peace. The particular suggestion that has been around for some time is the creation of two states. You could never have created a state in Gaza. For example, you speak about the withdrawal. The withdrawal didn't include, for example, control over the sea ports, the right to land a plane. It didn't include control over the borders. What it did was it took the road blocks out of the internal part o Gaza and it increased a great deal of security on the border. So Gaza needed to be contiguous and connected to the West Bank, you needed to give that state the right to take its decision that any other state would. And then you'd be getting somewhere.

He concludes that Graham-type ignorance is the bane of US foreign policy:

But frankly, you know what it is - I’ve listened to you very carefully - the contribution of the fundamentalist madness from the United States into the Israelis is probably one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the region.

But Graham didn’t quite get it, and insistently kept asking Higgins “why the people of Gaza” kept “firing at Israels”. Higgins dealt a low blow:

You're onto the Sarah Palin madness now.

Graham took offence, of course, and went on a rant against how the President – and Europeans more generally – are anti-Semitic Hamas supporters. Higgins reacted to the rant by elaborating on the previous ‘Palin’ jab:

Both of you have the same tactic - the tactic is to get a large crowd, whip them up, try and discover its greatest fear, work on that and feed it back, and you get a frenzy. (…) You have one of the most gifted presidents (…) you regard someone that has been a professor at Harvard as handicapped but don't find anything wrong at all with this tea party ignorance that has been brought all around the united states which is regularly insulting people who have been democratically elected.

After being accused of ignorance regarding the Tea Party, the President went on:

I lived in the Midwest, in Willie Nelson country, I was a student there at the end 60s and a professor in Illinois into the 70s. The magnificent, decent, generous people of the United States (…) the difference between them and the tiny elite that are in charge of the warmongering foreign policy of the United States is just enormous. When you go on your picnic around the country you are not representing the decent United States people who are very proud, correctly, of the president they've elected.

Graham insisted on going back to initial issue, asking Higgins about the ships that were captured en route to Gaza with “loads of weapons (…) from Iran". When pressed about which ships, exactly, the interviewer was at a loss… “From Iran”?? Higgins pounced at this:

As you get farther and farther away from the facts you'll be able to increase the number of ships. The ship that my colleagues are on is called the Rachel Corrie. Who is Rachel Corrie? Why is it called Rachel Corrie? Because Rachel Corrie was bulldosed into the ground as a peace worker. But she doesn't matter. You’re not dealing with facts.

Graham replied:

I’ll keep quoting facts and you keep quoting propaganda

This clearly ruffled Higgins’ feathers:

You're talking about ships you don't know the name of, you don't know the number of. You’re really a good student of that kind of journalism that says, 'if I can get away with it’s good, if I can work people up its even better'. This is very very dangerous stuff. For example, how can you say I am in favour of anyone murdering any Jewish people?

Graham then, reflexively, accused Higgins of anti-Semitism, who replied in equal measure:

You're doing your Sarah trick now. Sarah Palin doesn't know where Russia is and she's going to look up at the sky and say 'I’m watching them and they’re coming and threatening you and me and my tea party’s might are going to defend you all. God help America'. (…) This is called the radio of hysterical ignorance. I’ve been in Sderot and I’ve seen the rockets. (…) This is the interesting thing: there were no rockets before the Israeli invasion for nearly nine months. I can tell you the number of rockets that landed in Sderot. Why? Because I went to Sderot and talked to the mayor of Sderot. But you have the neck to say that people like me, who are willing to talk to people and are on each side building peace, are somehow in favour of people who want to murder jewish people. That is an outrageous statement. I am not anti-Semitic, I am not in favour of murder. And unlike you, I make my profession in politics. And I worked in human rights, and I condemn Hamas for rockets. None of that will mater to you. I wish you well - keep drinking Guinness and keep ranting away. But don't suggest that those of us who are working for peace in the heat of the day are somehow interested in murdering Jews.

(…) There’s a man in the United States (…), he represents fourteen Jewish organisations in New York. He organized 45 members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter condemning Barack Obama for giving Mary Robinson the medal of honour. I was debating with him on a program like this. I said to him, ‘how can you conclude that Mary Robsinson is anti-Semitic?' and he said, 'Bishop Tutu, for example, is anti-Semitic as well'. You're going down that road, and really, it is very dangerous stuff. The fact of the matter is that young people form the United States are travelling all over the world again. They’re welcome in Europe, they’re backpackers in hostels. People are talking to them, because the image of the United States  - we've got away from this warmongering - is getting better. There are many mistakes Obama is making. At least 47 million people the likes of you condemned to no health care in a country I was proud to work in. These people are going to have some healthcare.

So therefore be proud to be a decent American rather just be a wanker whipping up fear.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit