Michael D Higgins is our most popular political figure by far. So much so that even if he is critical of government policy – as he was recently on the failure of the housing plan – some members of the Cabinet regard him as beyond reproach. He is not of course. Nobody is.
But being intimidated by his popularity does not mean some who lean to the right do not resent that this leftist is hard to handle. So when they feel they have found a chink in the President’s armour, they do not hesitate to exploit it.
Right now they feel that chink is Sabina Higgins, the wife of the President, because she had the temerity to express an opinion on the war in Ukraine.
Basically, she called for an end to the war and suggested the best way to achieve this might be a ceasefire on both sides followed by negotiations.
On the face of it, nobody could disagree with those sentiments. But to some, the very suggestion of a ceasefire by both sides and negotiations involving both sides is to equate the moral position of Russia – the invader – with that of Ukraine. But that is untrue and grossly unfair.
In mentioning both sides, Sabina Higgins was merely stating the obvious: negotiations require at least two parties. Nowhere in her letter does she urge the Ukrainians to accept any particular terms, just so peace can be achieved.
She does not, for example, suggest surrendering any territory to Russia. She merely recognised the reality that Russia, militarily in terms of arms and troops, is a much stronger nation than Ukraine.
There is no sign of Russia ending the conflict unilaterally. Vladimir Putin is still popular in Russia, and thanks to the authoritarian nature of Russia’s faux democracy, there is no large-scale opposition there to the war.
Russian people believe the West is trying to oppress them, with a string of Nato countries along their border and Finland and Sweden threatening to add to that list. The Ukrainians – who in the old Soviet Union days were regarded almost as fellow citizens and certainly as allies – were now threatening to add to that noose around their neck by applying to join Nato.
Many Russian people have also swallowed the lie that the invasion was a rescue mission for oppressed Russians in Ukraine, which is straight out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook. Many, too, have been taken in by Putin’s lie about the need to cleanse Ukraine of neo-Nazis.
Because of the superior firepower of the Russians and because there is no real pressure on Putin at home to end the war, the strong likelihood is that it will go on.
The fact that the Russians have been shown to be somewhat inept on the battlefield does not mean, sadly, that Ukraine will triumph. It merely means this war will endure much longer than was believed when it started.
As a result, tens of thousands more will die on each side, or suffer appalling injuries. Many more will be displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge abroad. The breadbasket of Europe has the potential to be turned into a wasteland, with tragic consequences for the rest of the world.
The present reluctance of Ukrainians to sit down with the Russians in negotiations is understandable. They do not trust them, with good reason, given all that has happened since the war began. And in Putin they know they are dealing with a liar and a war criminal.
Nevertheless, they did manage to negotiate at arm’s length, via Turkey and the UN, to get shipments of grain released for export through the Black Sea ports. That could be something to build on.
Ireland, as a neutral country, has gone above and beyond the call of duty to help Ukraine, taking in tens of thousands of refugees, sending non-military aid and working hard to back the Ukrainian application for EU membership.
Many countries in the West have sent weapons to the Ukrainian army, but not enough and not of sufficient firepower to match the Russians.
The effect of the sanctions imposed on Russia at the start of the war has been disappointing. And western countries have made it clear they will not send troops. Nato is playing a form of Catch 22 with Ukraine – if you were a Nato member, we would join you in the conflict in a flash, but you are not and these things take time, so tough.
Bullied by the background possibility of escalation to a nuclear conflict, the West will continue to cheer Ukraine from the sidelines, but essentially the message to Ukraine is: “You are on your own.”
This is a great comfort to Putin. As well as assuring him that unless he directly attacks a current Nato member he is safe from any western retaliation, he also knows we in the West have forfeited any moral authority to dictate to Ukraine how it should progress in the conflict. That includes any thoughts we might have, should the two sides find a way to talk to each other.
Sabina Higgins said no more than if it is a choice between negotiations that might save lives and this terrible war going on and on, until Russia has eventually and almost inevitably crushed the Ukrainians, she would prefer to see negotiations sooner rather than later.
Those who criticise her are effectively saying there can be no negotiations – and the Ukrainians must keep fighting and dying – until Russia surrenders unconditionally. Nothing in what she said suggested she believed in a moral equivalence between Russia and Ukraine.
Her critics demanded that she make this explicit and she has done so, pointing out that she has repeatedly condemned the illegal Russian invasion. But now her critics have turned on the President, demanding that he disavow her opinions because they appeared for a while on the Áras website.
As if he would. And what reason is there to suppose the President – who has himself done much to condemn Russia and encourage Ukraine – does not share the perfectly valid views of his wife?
Churchill was fond of saying “jaw, jaw” was better than “war, war”. And nobody ever accused him of being soft on Hitler.