Sabina Higgins’s right to views as a private citizen became a serious public issue the moment they appeared on the Áras an Uachtaráin official website.
Her commentary, calling for a negotiated peace, in essence gives the same moral ranking to Russia and Ukraine in this bloody war caused by Moscow’s illegal, immoral and barbaric invasion of its smaller neighbour.
It appears to give moral equivalence to the criminal aggressor Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
What began as a letter to a newspaper remained on the presidential website for the greater part of a working day before being mysteriously taken down. Neither the placing of Mrs Higgins’s comments on the website, nor their removal, has been given any accompanying explanation by the President or his staff and yesterday a presidential spokesman repeated that there would be “no comment” on the issue.
The President’s wife’s contentious comments about the war in Ukraine were, however, seized upon by the embattled Russian ambassador to Ireland, Yuri Filatov, who clearly found them advantageous. This ambassador has been the subject of calls from members of all parties for his expulsion from this country over very contentious comments about this horrific war deemed by many as untruthful.
The Government is clearly embarrassed by this incident. But, like the President, it has maintained an official silence in hopes this stunning gaffe will just quietly melt away in the political holiday quiet.
President Michael D Higgins has, however, faced calls to state support for the Ukrainian cause and voice opposition to Russian aggression after Sabina Higgins’s letter to the Irish Times last week about the war.
Inappropriate, unhelpful and distasteful
In her letter she challenged a previous editorial comment on the conflict, arguing that the fighting would go on until the world “persuades President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations”.
Critics of this letter, including barrister and former government minister, Willie O’Dea, of Fianna Fáil, have suggested Mrs Higgins was drawing an equivalence in the defensive actions of Ukraine and Russian aggresssion.
Several key figures from the three-party coalition government have voiced serious concern. Former Fianna Fáil Kildare South TD, Senator Fiona O’Loughlin, who heads the women’s cross-party political caucus at Leinster House, said Mrs Higgins was “tone-deaf” to the suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands of Russia. She said the comments could not be represented as those of a private citizen.
“The decision to publish her letter on the presidential website was very ill-judged and broke all protocols,” Ms O’Loughlin said.
Fine Gael senator from Louth John McGahon also heavily criticised the letter and said it was “inappropriate, unhelpful and distasteful”.
“She is a private citizen, she is entitled to promote whatever type of view she wants. But she is married to the President of this country, she does live in Áras an Uachtaráin and she officiates at events run by the State,” Mr McGahon told the Irish Independent.
“And because of the high-profile nature of her position I believe her views on the Ukrainian invasion are open to critique. I believe they’re open to criticism.”
Mr McGahon said the letter clearly made a “moral equivalence” between Russia and Ukraine. “If you were to read that letter you’d think that this is a dispute between two countries over a contested piece of land,” he said.
“But it is Russian tanks that have rolled into Ukraine. It is Russian missiles that have flattened Ukrainian cities. It is Russian soldiers that have murdered women and children in the streets of Ukraine,” he added.
Senator McGahon added that the comments were “a slap in the face to the 47,000 Ukrainian refugees who have come to this island of Ireland to seek safety and seek sanctuary”.
So, President Higgins must explain this one – and the sooner the better. Or, perhaps Mrs Higgins would re-think and withdraw her comments and concede she had not quite thought this one through.