President Michael D Higgins has apologised for any offence he caused by making a “throwaway remark” about the chair of the Government’s Consultative Forum on International Security Policy being a dame of the British Empire (DBE).
A clarification issued by his office on Monday said President Higgins referred to Prof Louise Richardson of Oxford University and her “very large letter DBE” in a casual manner during the course of a long interview, which was published in the Business Post on Sunday.
The references to the DBE were received in some in some quarters as the President disparaging the objectivity of the Waterford-born academic, in advance of her chairing the forum.
The statement from Áras an Uachtaráin referred to President Higgins looking through a copy of the programme for the forum at the time of the interview. It said he was referring casually to the fact that almost every reference to Prof Richardson in the programme was in a bold typeface, with DBE in capital letters after her name.
“Indeed, the President’s exact words were ‘a very large letter DBE’”.
The statement continued: “The President intended no offence by such a casual remark. He apologises for any offence which he may have inadvertently caused to Prof Richardson by what was a throwaway remark.
“As a political scientist and sociologist, the President is familiar with Prof Richardson’s work. He has too, with others, an appreciation for the initiatives for which Prof Richardson was awarded her DBE, in attracting more undergraduates from non-traditional or deprived backgrounds to Oxford University.”
Prof Richardson, former vice-chancellor of Oxford University, will chair the forum which will be held in Cork, Galway and Dublin this week and next week, and will feature a range on international and national experts, academics, diplomats and politicians.
Speaking in London, Tánaiste Micheál Martin defended the appointment of Prof Richardson to chair the conference.
Mr Martin said he planned to speak to Ms Richardson on Tuesday, following the comments from Mr Higgins.
Speaking following the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, Mr Martin said the Government was “thankful” Prof Richardson had agreed to chair the forum.
He said she was chosen on her record as a political scientist. He also noted that her DBE award was given partly on the basis of her work helping disadvantaged people access university education.
“I think the president has recognised Prof Richardson’s qualities we well,” said Mr Martin.
He also defended the conference, which takes place over four days in Cork, Galway and Dublin and brings together a range of international experts and diplomats on issues such as neutrality and related topics.
The Fianna Fáil leader said that anyone who looked at the conference “objectively” would conclude that it is covered wideranging issues and not just some “binary choice” between the State remaining militarily neutral and joining the US-led Nato military alliance, whose members include Britain. He said there were 80 speakers and only 10 of them came from military backgrounds.
He declined to directly condemn the President’s remarks, which were the latest in a long line of interventions in which Mr Higgins appeared to criticise Government policy: “I have never sought to embroil the presidency in any controversy and I’m not going to do so now.”
The Government rejected claims by People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd-Barrett that the forum was a “ready-up” to prepare Ireland to align with NATO.
Minister of State for Trade Neale Richmond dismissed claims that the forum would be biased or was designed to have a predetermined outcome, as claimed by Mr Boyd-Barrett.
“There is a range of speakers and they include Irish people who have served in peacekeeping missions, policy analysts, UN officials, and representatives from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.
“Each forum is open to attendees from all perspectives and though some have reached capacity, the online option remains,” he said.
Speaking on RTÉ on Monday morning, Mr Boyd-Barrett claimed that the forum was booked out, that it was biased, and that nobody with a track record of campaigning against militarism was represented on any panel.
He added that he, as a TD and president of the Irish Anti-War Movement, was not informed about the forum by the Government.
However, those claims were specifically dismissed by Government officials.
The Department of Foreign affairs informed all members of the Oireachtas on May 31st, according to a Government source, and there had been briefings since then, including the distribution of the full programme to all TDs and Senators on June 14th.
In addition, anti-war and pacifist organisations were also invited including Afri, the Irish Neutrality League, Quakers, and the Stop the War Coalition.
Mr Martin attended the intergovernmental conference with Helen McEntee, the Minister for Justice, while Britain was represented by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Steve Baker, a minister for state in the department.
The two sides discussed the political logjam in Northern Ireland due to the boycott of Stormont by the DUP, as well as security matters and also the Irish Government’s opposition to proposed laws in Britain designed to end the prosecution of British soldiers for crimes committed during the Troubles.