Remember Martin McAleese, that very fine peace activist? His spouse, Mary McAleese, was president of Ireland.
Today, Sabina Higgins is an equally fine peace activist. Her spouse, Michael D Higgins, is currently President of Ireland.
Martin McAleese’s peace activities earned universal applause. He brought many loyalist paramilitary leaders from Northern Ireland to Dublin to “build bridges” at a time when his wife was president. The couple worked hand in glove to deliver peace and promote reconciliation between North and south, Protestant and Catholic.
Courting paramilitaries who were hostile to southern Irish governments was a brave, but risky, move. The loyalist gangs were not mass murderers on the scale of Vladimir Putin, but they had a gruesome record of sectarian killings and thuggery.
Among those whom Martin McAleese cultivated were former supreme commander of the UDA Andy Tyrie and commander of the UDA South Belfast Brigade Jackie McDonald.
Remember, too, that the UDA had a vicious armed wing known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters. In 1989 McDonald was sentenced to 10 years in jail for extortion, blackmail and intimidation.
Nevertheless, McAleese swallowed hard and did a fine job persuading some UDA commanders that the road to peace was the only way forward. No one ever accused him, let alone his wife, of giving support, comfort or solace to loyalist thugs.
Martin McAleese’s motivations were noble. So are Sabina Higgins’s. The spouses of both presidents have striven to end foul murders and war crimes. McAleese took risks by meeting such unpalatable enemies, while Higgins took a similarly unconventional route when she appealed for peace talks to both Ukraine and Russia. Her ambitions were maybe greater than his: she challenged genocide, he tackled a barbaric local pogrom.
Both spouses and presidents have done Ireland proud. Sabina Higgins has been abused in recent days for supposedly expressing views that do not coincide with Ireland’s current official consensus on the Ukraine-Russian war.
Her words in a letter to The Irish Times have been skilfully twisted by propagandists from Russia and opponents at home. She has never wavered in her record as a proud anti-war activist, a stance she took long before she arrived in the Áras with Michael D.
Sabina would undoubtedly have been better protected from current assaults if she had run her letter past the meticulous mandarins in Iveagh House. In that case it would not have been her letter.
They would have tweaked her diplomatically incomplete sentences to include a prudent preface, a reassurance to the people of Ukraine that she still stands shoulder to shoulder with them, as she undoubtedly does. Instead, she made a brief pitch for peace to both parties.
It lacked explicit signals that she stood on the side of the Ukrainian oppressed against the Russian oppressors. The Russian ambassador, Yuri Filatov, spotted the gap. He pounced, instantly misrepresenting her stance while welcoming the letter with a Soviet bear hug. He damned her with his applause.
His disingenuous greetings to her letter provided a perfect political opening for enemies of Michael D to pour scorn on the President himself. Mrs Higgins is not the real target of the local criticisms. She is simply a proxy for an ambush of the President.
Domestic enemies of Michael D have been waiting in the long grass for him to falter for nearly 12 years. He is probably the most popular president in the State’s history. For years his polished performance has been almost above criticism. His approval ratings have been the envy of former political rivals. His re-election in 2018 was a coronation.
Martin McAleese was never subjected to such abuse when he supped with the devils of loyalism. His wife, Mary, was a Fianna Fáil president. Although she was a Fianna Fáil nominee, Martin himself was nominated to the Seanad by Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny. The McAleese team had both big parties covered.
As a member of the Seanad for a short time while his wife was president, he spoke out on contentious issues passing through the upper house, including sex education, Northern Ireland, restorative justice and other matters.
Nobody queried whether his opinions were shared by his wife. It would have been an impertinence to them both to do so.
It is no secret around Leinster House that some Fianna Fáil TDs were incensed by Michael D’s eloquent recent speech about housing.
In June he asserted that Ireland’s ongoing housing problem was no longer a crisis, but was now a “disaster”. He pointedly declared it a “great, great, great failure”.
Members of the Government were apoplectic, whispering in the ears of journalists that he had gone too far. None of them had the bottle to challenge him openly — partly because he was right, but more probably because he was popular. So they seethed silently in the background, outraged that the President of Ireland had a moral compass.
Last week, when Sabina Higgins appeared to have stumbled, one or two members of Fine Gael took a swipe at him, but the majority of his critics came from Fianna Fáil, the party that holds the poisonous housing portfolio. Fianna Fáil TDs and senators demanded to know why her statement was on the President’s website.
They criticised its contents and tried to implicate the President in a row, seizing the Russian ambassador’s intervention as ammunition to fire in Michael D’s direction. Filatov, holed up in his Orwell Road fortress, must have raised a glass of vodka to Fianna Fáil. Members of the party demanding answers from the Áras included former minister Willie O’Dea, minister Robert Troy, and senators Malcolm Byrne and Erin McGreehan.
On Tuesday, President Higgins answered them comprehensively. He had never hesitated in his support for Ukraine and his condemnation of the Russian invasion. His wife followed with a show-stopper. There had been a “Sabina Higgins” dedicated section on the President’s website for eight years. No one had as much as raised an eyebrow in all that time. She had taken down the post immediately when she saw opponents were using her views to damage the President.
That almost put an end to it, but not before McGreehan had milked a final ounce of publicity from a tweet demanding an apology from the President and, failing that, even more absurdly, his resignation.
On Wednesday Micheál Martin called off the Fianna Fáil dogs of war. He had allowed them to undermine Michael D for a few days. It was Government retaliation for a series of shows of independence from the Áras.
No doubt this weekend the Fianna Fáil backwoodsmen will be muttering to each other that they “put manners” on Michael D. Let us hope they didn’t.
His willingness to speak out on some of the great wrongs of our time — like homelessness, the invasion of Ukraine, the destruction of our environment, human rights and other shameful national failures — must not be curtailed or suffocated as risking a phoney constitutional crisis.
We should be proud of the works of peacemakers Sabina and Michael D, preceded by the efforts of Martin and Mary McAleese.