Higgins originally joined Fianna Fáil in UCG while a mature student and was elected its branch chairman in 1966; he switched to the Labour Party shortly thereafter. He was a Labour candidate in the 1969 and 1973 general elections but was unsuccessful on both occasions. One of the people who canvassed for him was future leader of the Labour Party and Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, who was then a UCG student. Higgins was appointed in 1973 to the 13th Seanad Éireann by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. He was first elected to Dáil Éireann at the 1981 general election as a Labour Party TD. He was re-elected at the February 1982 election; he lost his seat at the November 1982 election (blaming his loss in part on his opposition to the Eighth Amendment), but returned to the Seanad when elected by the National University of Ireland panel. He served as Mayor of Galway on two occasions, 1982–1983 and 1991–1992. Within the Labour Party during the 1980s he was one of the main figures, along with Emmet Stagg, who opposed going into coalition.
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