Now the President's wife fans US flights fray
Sabina Higgins' visit to jailed 'peace activist' Margaretta D'Arcy has caused consternation, writes Jody Corcoran
While you would have to admire Margaretta D'Arcy's enthusiasm for a protest, even if you would have to wonder at the ultimate futility of it all, the greater wonder this weekend is just what the President's wife is up to.
For despite what Aras an Uachtarain may hope or claim, in the aftermath of the revelation that Mrs Higgins visited the protester in jail, the President and his wife are at the centre of another controversy, political in nature.
MrsHiggins had Limerick Prison opened especially for her last Sunday in order that she could see Margaretta D'Arcy, who was convicted at Ennis District Court last month of endangering lives by encroaching on a runway at Shannon Airport in late 2012.
It is fair to assume that Mrs Higgins did not travel to Limerick by bus or train.
D'Arcy was sentenced to three months in prison, which was suspended for two years on condition that she enter into a "good behaviour bond," in the words of Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, and stay away from entering any part of Shannon Airport which is not authorised to the public.
Having failed to enter the bond, the sentence was activated by the court and "the person" was committed to Limerick Prison to serve that sentence, Shatter told the Dail.
Under 'Topical Issues' – there's an understatement – the issue of Prison Committals was discussed in the Dail last week, during which reference was made to the President's wife, in itself a notable occurance.
Eamon O Cuiv, grandson of Eamon de Valera, a Galway West TD, recently replaced as deputy leader of Fianna Fail, in whose constituency D'Arcy has lived for many years, was first to speak.
O Cuiv said D'Arcy and the late John Arden, her husband, were long-time anti-war campaigners. Their opposition was to the entire concept of war and its terrible consequences for people. He said he understood she was committed for refusing to "give an undertaking on what she sees as a matter of principle". However, D'Arcy is 79, frail and suffers from Parkinson's Disease.
Knowing the woman, he said, the sincerity of her beliefs and her family, her continued imprisonment "offended human rights" and he asked the minister to release her on humanitarian grounds.
Clare Daly, who resigned from the Socialist Party before she was forced out in a difference of opinion over her friendship with Deputy Mick Wallace – and who, with Wallace, has been to the forefront of the garda penalty points controversy – said she "had the privilege along with Deputy Wallace of appearing as a witness on behalf of Margaretta D'Arcy".
Daly claimed the campaign that D'Arcy conducted as a citizen, to defend neutrality, was "supported by the overwhelming majority of citizens." She asked the minister's opinion on this "national embarrassment". She added: "Letters were published in today's edition of The Guardian..."
Then she said: "I salute the gesture of Mrs Higgins, the President's wife, who visited her former colleague." And in an extraordinary moment, she challenged the Minister for Justice to "reciprocate" the actions of the President's wife.
The Ceann Comhairle did not intervene at this reference to the President's wife.
Towards the end of last year, Daly said, the United Nations Committee Against Torture asked the Government what it was doing about its use of Shannon Airport.
Every month, she said, "we" come into the House and "we" ask the minister and his colleague, Eamon Gilmore, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, about the "countless numbers" of US aircraft that pass through Shannon Airport.
"They are supposed to be unarmed, not carrying explosives or ammunition and not engaged with intelligence gathering; but even when aircraft display cannons, they are not inspected and are granted permission to continue," she said.
Daly then cited the Garda Siochana, although she did not make reference to her own recent arrest on suspicion of drink driving – a suspicion that turned out to be without substance.
She asked: "How can the minister allow a committed peace activist to lie in jail without a single garda being sent to investigate US military aircraft travelling through this State? It's a national scandal."
Richard Boyd Barrett, whose extended family is steeped in the arts, made reference to Margaretta D'Arcy's membership of Aosdana, an association established to honour artists whose work has made an "outstanding contribution", and described her as a writer – "like the minister".
Membership of Aosdana, which is by peer nomination and election, is limited to 250 living artists who have produced a distinguished body of work. Members receive an annual stipend of €25,000.
Mick Wallace, a former property developer and, it must be said, a tax dodger, and himself the part-subject of a briefing by the Garda Commissioner to the Minister for Justice for alleged use of a mobile phone while driving, said D'Arcy "has done what this State has lacked the courage to do", which was to highlight that war is "senseless and stupid".
In reply, Shatter, who was last year involved in a controversy centred at a garda checkpoint at a time when he was then Fine Gael spokesman for Justice – he denies he behaved inappropriately – immediately picked up on the contribution of O Cuiv.
The minister noted that the Fianna Fail spokesman on Finance, Michael McGrath, when asked whether D'Arcy should be released, stated that it was a matter for the judiciary and that no politician should interfere in such decisions.
Shatter said it was a "matter of regret" that D'Arcy – he did not refer to her by name at any stage – did not avail of the opportunity afforded by the judge to enter into a bond and thus "avoid the necessity" to serve the sentence that the court felt it "appropriate" to impose.
But he had to say that "encroaching" on an airport runway was a "very serious and dangerous act". It potentially placed the lives of those who encroach at risk. It also puts the lives of gardai, airport workers and airplane passengers in danger. It was a "highly irresponsible act" and "cannot be justified" by adherence to "any cause".
This was not a question of someone deprived of a right to protest, he said – "I respect the right of individuals to protest" – but he also expected "those people" to respect the rights of others.
He said that between 2004 to the end of 2013, additional garda costs "amounting to over €17.3m" have been incurred "in connection with the security operation" at Shannon Airport.
This was money that could have been more "usefully" used for "normal policing work" and for the provision of "additional garda equipment".
But because of the actions of a "very small minority" in this country, these valuable resources had to be expended on "maintaining law and order" and ensuring safety.
He said the Irish Prison Service had informed him that the mechanism of temporary release had been explained to D'Arcy on her committal to prison.
It was his understanding that she remained unwilling to enter into a "good behaviour bond". He said the "rule of law must prevail" even where it creates "difficult circumstances". He said "nobody is above the law irrespective of their age".
Alan Shatter asked those who called for the "individual's" immediate release whether this "individual" by future action on her own, or accompanied by others, [should] be permitted again to encroach on a runway.
He asked: "Is she to be ignored and allowed to do so repetitively? If such further encroachment takes place with a resultant loss of life, would any of the deputies who spoke take responsibility for such an eventuality? Are they prepared to give a free pass to those who so behave and, by so doing, place lives at risk and the law in disrepute?"
He said he did not believe the individual concerned should be presented in this context in "heroic guise" or that it was "in the public interest" that she be so depicted. A court decision had been delivered. He expected a "majority of people" outside the Dail would "readily understand".
In reply, O Cuiv accused the minister of "over-egging it a little"; Daly referred to the case of Mary Kelly, who had her conviction for damage to a US naval aircraft overturned; Boyd Barrett said D'Arcy was "acting also on the principle of the Nuremberg judgments, with which the minister may be familiar, arising out of the trials of Nazi war criminals and the obscenities they inflicted on the Jewish people".
Mick Wallace referred to a WikiLeaks revelation that "showed the US ambassador congratulating the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr Dermot Ahern, on his staunch rejection of the Irish Human Rights Commission's recommendation that the Government inspect aircraft suspected to have been involved in rendition flights".
Shatter noted with "great interest" that although there has been "much hyperbole", not a single deputy addressed his questions.
What was until that point an interesting debate thereafter descended into farce.
D'Arcy, who has been jailed in the past for protesting at the banning of a H-Block march in Northern Ireland, was in 2011 involved in another controversy: she refused to stand for a minute's silence at a meeting of Aosdana in honour of Catholic PSNI officer Ronan Kerr, who was murdered by dissident republican terrorists outside his home.
Also last week, the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, who denies he was a member of the Provisional IRA, raised the imprisonment of the "peace activist" with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. He referred to her treatment for cancer and said she was "not a criminal and poses no danger to the public".
While in Limerick Prison, D'Arcy has access to a 24-hour nursing service and to a doctor daily, if requested, or on referral by the nursing staff. In addition, any hospital appointment she may have scheduled will be facilitated by prison management.
In Davos, meanwhile, Mr Kenny met the Chief Operations Officer of US multi-national, Facebook, and told her that Ireland would not alter its corporate tax rate. Sheryl Sandberg, in turn, praised Kenny as a "brilliant leader of a brilliant country".
And President Higgins, who has become embroiled in several other controversies recently, from accusations of partisan and political interventions to the resignation of his former chief adviser amid reports of blocked access to the President, has defended the actions of his wife.
He said: "Sabina was visiting a friend of long standing, whose health is frail and who is a fellow artist. Sabina is a person who can speak for herself and who is a person of very good judgement. We do a lot of things together, but we do a lot of other things as well."
The President last week also appointed a new adviser, Liam Herrick, the executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns for the rights of people in prison.