The controversy caused by the letter from Sabina Higgins to this newspaper will soon disappear from the headlines. But what lessons can be learned? The letter was written in response to an Irish Times editorial, which Ms Higgins took issue with for not encouraging ceasefire negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. The editorial had called on western governments to underline their commitment to support Ukraine for the long haul.
People are free to disagree with newspaper editorials and letters to the editor expressing diverse views allow debate and discussion. Ms Higgins expressed a view which has some support. This newspaper has consistently held that Russia, as the aggressor, should cease its campaign and that Ukraine should be supported in opposing it. Others take a different view. In a later statement, Ms Higgins, whose letter was criticised for not drawing a distinction between the two sides in its call for ceasefire talks, said she had " strongly condemned the illegal Russian invasion” from the outset. The letter would have attracted less controversy had this point been included.
The complication, of course, is that Ms Higgins is the wife of President Michael D Higgins, whose spokesman also issued a statement on his behalf, again condemning the Russian invasion. The spouse, or partner, of the head of State, as well as supporting the president’s work, is entitled to their own views. Precisely where the line is drawn in terms of what is appropriate in expressing such views remains ambiguous – which is no surprise given that the freedom of the president to debate current issues is itself at times controversial.
Notwithstanding this, the posting of Ms Higgins’s views on the president’s website – albeit in a section which covers her activities – was a mistake. It was unnecessary to do so as the letter was - and remains – accessible on this newspaper’s website, as do many others both supporting and criticising it. It should have been clear that posting it in this way gave the views expressed the imprimatur of the office in a delicate area of foreign policy. It afforded the Russian ambassador to Ireland a PR opportunity. The letter was later removed from the website. Ms Higgins expressed dismay that people would disagree with a call for negotiations and an end to the war – but the nub of the matter is the basis on which any negotiations should happen.
Ms Higgins has a long record as an anti-war campaigner and has worked hard alongside her husband in his role as president. No doubt some of the criticism she has faced reflects political anger about recent comments by President Higgins, notably on the housing crisis. Presidential spouses have taken on different roles over recent years. There is no rule-book. Ms Higgins is entitled to her views, but should have taken more care on this occasion.