PRESIDENT Mary McAleese was forced into a humiliating apology last night for appearing to compare Northern Protestants to the Nazis.
The President said she was "deeply sorry" for comments in which she said that the Nazis gave their children an irrational hatred of the Jews "in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred of Catholics, in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different colour and all of those things".
After a storm of controversy over the remarks - Ian Paisley Jr denounced them as "disgusting" - the President went back on the airwaves last night to deliver an abject apology.
President McAleese said she was "personally devastated by the controversy" she had "inadvertently" caused. Her point was made very clumsily, she admitted.
And the President said she should have balanced her comment by including the fostering of hatred for Protestants by some people in the example she used.
Less than 11 hours after making the gaffe on RTE's Morning Ireland programme, the President withdrew her words on the the station's Five-Seven Live.
She said in her apology that she was trying to say that everyone should be strong enough, when they hear remarks that are sectarian or racist, to say: 'That's unacceptable'.
She added: "Ironically, in saying that, I came across as putting the blame for that on one section of the (Northern) community. That was entirely wrong, and I hope that I have rectified that now.
"Good people that I know, that I really wouldn't want in any way, shape or form to hurt, I'm sure they were hurt by those words. I want to take back that hurt, and to assuage it and heal it the quickest way I can."
A spokesperson for the President had earlier attempted to explain that she had been responding to a question about intolerance and the damage it can cause.
She had included Northern Ireland among other examples of intolerance in situations around the world, such as Darfur, Rwanda, and even mentioned incidents of racism on the streets of Dublin.
"One of the examples was the irrational outrages of hatred against Catholics but she wasn't targeting or singling Protestants out by saying they had the monopoly on hatred," the spokesperson claimed.
"She was not equating Auschwitz with Northern Ireland but saying the seeds of intolerance and hatred lay at the root of these atrocities," she added.
She said there were no plans for the President - who is due to visit Belfast next month - to contact Protestant bodies or individuals in the North to apologise.
Mrs McAleese was "universally acknowledged as a bridge-builder" between communities in the North, she said, and had done a "tremendous amount of work".
Several prominent Unionists, including Mr Paisley and former Stormont Culture Minister Michael McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionists, warned that the President's comments would damage the peace process, as well as her outreach work with unionist communities in the North.
The Taoiseach last night staunchly defended President McAleese as a huge ally of the peace process and a tireless campaigner for greater tolerance between both communities.
He rejected claims by Mr Paisley that her comments about the Auschwitz anniversary had irreparably damaged the peace process by vilifying Protestants.
"It would be totally inappropriate for me to comment on the President's remarks - but I would like to say the Government are whole-heartedly and deeply grateful for the work that the President puts in all of the time in building up peace and reconciliation between both sides of the community in the North," he said.
In the North, SDLP leader Mark Durkan also defended Mrs McAleese, saying he did not believe she had attempted to equate directly any of the prejudices which exist in the North with the "systematic policies of deadly hatred of the Nazi regime".
Mr Paisley had earlier described the President's remarks as "irrational" and "in very bad taste".