Wednesday 17 January 2018

President 'rebuffed' on Castro speech row

President Michael Higgins and his wife Sabina sign the book of condolence for the late Fidel Castro at the Cuban Embassy on Pearse Street, Dublin. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
President Michael Higgins and his wife Sabina sign the book of condolence for the late Fidel Castro at the Cuban Embassy on Pearse Street, Dublin. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

John Downing, Kevin Doyle and Niall O'Connor

The decision not to send a minister to Fidel Castro's funeral signals Government dismay at President Michael D Higgins's lavish praise for the former Cuban dictator.

It is also an attempt to defuse controversy caused by the President's effusive tribute to the man who ruled Cuba for 50 years.

Minister Leo Varadkar said the Government possesses a more "nuanced view" of Castro's "mixed legacy". However, Mr Varadkar acknowledged President Higgins's right to freedom of expression.

"There is a long-standing tradition of government ministers not criticising the President because he's above politics, and the President not criticising the Government for exactly the same reason," Mr Varadkar said.

"What I would say though, when it does come to Castro, the Government, and certainly I as an individual, would take a more nuanced view on Castro's legacy."

He acknowledged Castro's health and education achievements and also his stance against American aggression.

The book of condolence
The book of condolence

Mr Varadkar described Castro as an unelected dictator whom nobody in Cuba ever voted for.

"He handed over power to his brother, executed and imprisoned his opponents and even put people in mental institutions for disagreeing with him. So, it's a mixed legacy at best," Mr Varadkar said.

In an official statement issued after Castro's death, President Higgins praised Castro's health and education achievements, and noted the unjust and prolonged US economic embargo.

The only reference to Castro's infamous regime of repression was to note that economic and social reforms were "at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics."

The late Fidel Castro. Photo: Reuters
The late Fidel Castro. Photo: Reuters

President Higgins concluded that Fidel Castro was "a giant among global leaders" who sought freedom for his own people and oppressed people across the world.

Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath was scathingly critical of the President, saying his "moral authority was in tatters".

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach and his Fine Gael Ministers have spent three days avoiding direct criticism of the President.

However, they have all struck a determinedly different tone to the President.

The Taoiseach has avoided any comment whatsoever on former President Castro's death or political legacy.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan took the lead in commenting on the issue, noting Castro's "mixed legacy", stressing a different view to the unconditional approval of President Higgins.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin offered guarded support, saying his former party colleague was a life-long human rights advocate.

"His comments on the passing of Fidel Castro cannot be divorced from his career-long history of passionate activism for human rights causes," Mr Howlin said.

Speaking in Rome, the Taoiseach said the President "is entitled to make his comments" but again did not offer any view of his own on Castro's passing.

Ireland's Ambassador to Mexico, Sonja Hyland, will represent the Government at the funeral.

"Most countries will be represented by an ambassador, some may send other representatives... Ambassador Hyland will represent us," Mr Kenny said.

Irish Independent

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