Monday 26 September 2016

Who said that being First Lady would be easy, Sabina?

The President's wife can choose to be a tigress or a pussy cat - but she can't be both at the same time, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30

PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina — ‘This tendency to go off on solo runs is increasingly the mark of the Higginses as a political couple. They both did it during the Rising centenary too’. Photo: Damien Eagers
PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE: President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina — ‘This tendency to go off on solo runs is increasingly the mark of the Higginses as a political couple. They both did it during the Rising centenary too’. Photo: Damien Eagers

If there's one thing that has scarred the debate on abortion in Ireland, it's the tendency of both sides to use their moral certainties as weapons.

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Pro-lifers glibly accuse those who back abortion of killing babies. Pro-choicers just as casually assert that those who object to it are endangering women's lives.

Both positions are internally consistent when viewed in isolation from one another, but there's no doubt that this retreat into absolutism on both sides has poisoned the national conversation on abortion to the point where rapprochement or compromise has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

Each argument contains within it a need to annihilate the legitimacy of the other, so they go toe to toe like heavyweight boxers trading blows in the ring.

Anyone venturing publicly into this debate has a choice. They can either bring a can of petrol to the scene of the fire, or a hose.

Sabina Higgins made her choice last week, and the flames are still roaring.

In unscripted remarks to the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland in Trinity College, she slammed the circumstances in which traumatised women are forced to give birth to babies with a "foetal abnormality" as "outrages against the world and nature" and "against women".

It was later clarified that she meant to say "fatal abnormality", to refer to those women who have spoken movingly of being trapped by Irish law between going to Britain for a termination or else carrying to term babies which have no chance of surviving outside the womb; but this is the danger of making unscripted interventions into contentious debates.

A wrong word gets uttered and there's no written version to immediately set the record straight, so misunderstanding reigns.

What happened next was a classic example of how the issue of abortion is abused in Ireland.

Pro-lifers immediately claimed that Mrs Higgins had called certain babies "outrages against nature". She hadn't. She was referring to forced pregnancies. To suggest otherwise is to twist her admittedly muddled words.

Pro-choicers then responded by stating that Sabina's critics were denying her the right to an opinion on a subject about which she felt strongly. That wasn't true either.

Neither side cared if they misrepresented the other's views, because the aim was to win a tactical advantage in an ideological battle.

That risks making it seem as if Sabina was innocently caught in the crossfire, but of course she wasn't.

She must have known what she was doing when she stood up to speak, and that her remarks would have a greater impact precisely because of who she is.

Not Sabina Coyne, former actress and mother, but Sabina Higgins, wife of the President of Ireland.

Had it not been for that biographical detail, it would hardly have caused a stir that a lifelong card-carrying liberal feminist had criticised the country's abortion law as an "outrage".

What gave her words potency was that they were spoken by a woman who represents Aras an Uachtarain. Because it's absurd to pretend that she doesn't.

There may be no rules about how the spouse of a President should behave, and each holder of that position may only have instinct and convention to guide them; but it is still undeniably a real role.

The Aras website even has a whole section detailing the President's wife's engagements, and it includes numerous pictures of her at formal events, under such captions as "Sabina attends the official opening of the restored Rich mond Barracks".

Some of these events are held at the Aras, such as last October's 'Tai Chi Reception'.

This was not a private event at her private home, but a public event in a public building, and she spoke as such, turning to her husband at one point and saying: "Maybe next year we'll have another day." The "we" was unambiguous.

There's a clear understanding here, even if it isn't written into Constitutional law, that Sabina is part of a package. If not, why is she being presented to the Irish people as such, and why was the aforementioned clarification issued through the President's own head of communications?

The question then is whether a woman who lives alongside her husband in well-upholstered luxury at the people's expense, enjoying the advantages that come from being given this quasi-official role inside the fabric of national life, should also accept the responsibilities that come from being part of the Presidential set-up.

The most important of which is to be Presidential.

That means representing all Irish people, not only those with whose opinions one happens to agree. Whether her husband does so either is another matter; there are times when he seems more intent on establishing his right-on credentials with the student politics crowd than with speaking for Middle Ireland.

But those are questions for him to answer.

Sabina must answer for herself, and her supporters certainly should not hide her behind the farce that she is an independent woman free to speak her mind without consequences. There are always consequences.

Being Presidential doesn't mean doing and saying nothing, like some surrendered wife. It means doing and saying what is appropriate in the circumstances.

Last October, there was a reception and "latching-on morning" at the Aras for Cuidiu, the National Parenthood Support Charity, attended by over 100 new mothers.

Sabina spoke at that of her own experience breastfeeding twins in the 1970s; she was also given an award in honour of her support for breastfeeding.

The difference there was that she did not use the event to denounce in intemperate language those who do not share her views.

This is the crucial distinction between her and Martin McAleese, whose name was invoked by defenders of Sabina all week to supposedly prove that there's nothing unusual or wrong about the spouse of a President getting his or her hands dirty with politics.

It was a facile comparison. The reconciliation that McAleese sought with the representatives of loyalist paramilitaries was done quietly behind the scenes, with the approval of the government of the day; he made no one-sided public pronouncements.

There would only be an equivalence if Sabina Higgins had taken on the task of facilitating a symbolic peace process between warring factions in the abortion debate - speaking to both sides in an effort to identify common ground, a project which could have a positive effect if undertaken in good faith - but Sabina didn't set out to build a bridge last week.

Instead she all but blew up any chance of building even the ricketiest bridge between pro-life and pro-choice communities.

This tendency to go off on solo runs is increasingly the mark of the Higginses as a political couple.

They both did it during the Rising centenary too, and those currently defending her only do so because they happen to agree with her on this particular issue.

If the President's wife was a vocal pro-life Catholic appearing at public events with the imprimatur of the Aras calling abortion an "outrage against nature", they'd hardly be so sanguine.

And, of course, pro-lifers are the same, only attacking her for speaking out because they don't like her views.

These are the sorts of toxic divisions which Sabina Higgins could commit herself to healing, if she too has the patience to devote years of hard work to the necessary dialogue and diplomacy; listening, rather than merely evangelizing.

If she is not prepared to desist from taking up partisan positions on some of the most contentious issues of the day, then the very least the President's wife can do is to have her pronouncements scripted, so that the rough edges can be smoothed out to avoid offence.

Senior public figures cannot just talk off the tops of their heads.

Or, you know, she could just stop co-hosting events with her husband on this unspoken semi-formal basis and strike out on her own as a feminist campaigner.

That could be fun too. But she can't do both.

Sunday Independent

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