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‘An offhand comment’: Louise Richardson on the President’s broadside in the neutrality debate

The Waterford-born academic and foreign policy expert was a low-profile figure until she became the focus of sharp criticism for chairing the Government’s forum on security

For someone who held leadership positions in some of the world’s top universities for more than 20 years, Louise Richardson was a low-profile figure in Ireland.

That was until she returned home to chair the Government’s forum on security and foreign policy in June.

The choice of Richardson (65) was questioned by far-left TDs and pro-neutrality campaigners who viewed the forum as an attempt by the Government to undermine Ireland’s traditional policy of neutrality. So far, so expected.

Then President Michael D Higgins jumped in with an extraordinary intervention that directly questioned the establishment of the forum, criticised the “drift” in Government policy and caustically referred to a gong Richardson was awarded by the British Government as “a very large DBE – Dame of the British Empire”. After that, although Higgins apologised, it was open season on her.


Richardson remained unruffled, went ahead with the forum’s meetings, delivering a sober and reflective report of the proceedings, published two months ago. Ireland’s neutrality, such as it is, appears to remain intact.

‘Look, I understand the ambiguity that Irish people feel about British honours; of course I understand that. I was surprised that he spoke, of course I was, in those terms’

—  Louise Richardson on Michael D Higgins

“Look, I think it was an offhand comment,” she says now of Higgins’s broadside.

“He apologised. Look, I understand the ambiguity that Irish people feel about British honours; of course I understand that. I was surprised that he spoke, of course I was, in those terms.

“I was somewhat more surprised, though,” she adds, “by many of the politicians who ascribed views to me that are antithetical to views I have publicly espoused for decades.”

This is a reference to accusations levelled at Richardson by TDs such as Richard Boyd-Barrett and Paul Murphy.

“I’ve been teaching courses on foreign policy for decades, my views on American foreign policy are well-known. So for it to be said in the Dáil and publicly, repeatedly, that I was essentially an apologist for American militarism... that was more of a surprise.”

“And they were much more personal attacks than the President’s. The President did apologise, so that’s the end of it really.”

EOY Mag Pics 2023

Did the President reach out privately to complement his public apology?

“No. But I must say he sent me a lovely letter when I was appointed as vice-chancellor of Oxford,” she says.

That was eight years ago.

Richardson grew up in Tramore, Co Waterford, in the house her mother grew up in. She was one of seven children. After the Ursuline Convent in Waterford, she went to Trinity College Dublin, but her Catholic education left a deep mark.

“I attribute my global worldview to and my belief in a more equitable world to my Catholic upbringing, the ethos of Catholicism that I was raised in. We were so conscious that there were people all around the world who were our equal in moral worth but who were much more deprived than we were,” she says.

‘Of all the cultural shifts I’ve made since, moving from Tramore to Trinity was one of the biggest,’ she smiles. She was ‘very much an outsider’ in Trinity, with very few people of her background in the class

One night she was babysitting and saw Northern Ireland civil rights activist and later nationalist MP and Fine Gael TD Austin Currie in a TV appearance on the Late Late Show, talking about his degree in history and politics. She decided that that was the degree for her and she applied for the course at Trinity.

The Dublin university was “hugely different”. “Of all the cultural shifts I’ve made since, moving from Tramore to Trinity was one of the biggest,” she smiles. She was “very much an outsider” in Trinity, with very few people of her background in the class.

“But that’s been a role my whole life ... and I think it’s not a bad perspective to have,” she says.

She excelled, nonetheless, and won a Rotary scholarship – having spotted an advertisement in The Irish Times – to study in the United States. It was a “mind-blowing experience,” she remembers. At the end of the year there, she spent three months travelling from California to New York, staying with Rotarian families and speaking at events run by local Rotary clubs.

The American bug had well and truly bitten, and Richardson returned, again on scholarship, for postgraduate studies in UCLA in California and then on to Harvard in Massachusetts. She remained there for 20 years, developing an expertise in foreign policy and terrorism – “a very obscure field” at the time. Then the ‘9/11′ attacks happened, and that expertise was suddenly in demand.

She argued for a “very different” approach to terrorism to the one ultimately taken by the George W Bush administration, urging that understanding the terrorists’ perspective was essential to tackling them effectively.

She advised that “this was a political threat, not a military threat” and not to exaggerate the importance of the threat.

Richardson was sought after by politicians, the US military and the intelligence community.

She sees parallels dangers facing Israel in the wake of the October 7th attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas.

“I do feel that Netanyahu is falling into the trap laid for him by Hamas and will end up expanding the ranks of Hamas and their supporters,” she says.

Around about the time that Richardson was catapulted into the spotlight because of events, she moved into academic leadership and administration, heading up the Radcliffe Institute, formerly a women’s college that was being integrated into Harvard. It would turn into a highly successful career swerve. In 2009, she was appointed principal of St Andrews University in Scotland, the first woman and first outsider to hold the post in its 600-year history.

Then the call came to become Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, in effect the university’s executive leader. Its Byzantine structure – 40-odd independent colleges make up the university – and the British obsession with Oxbridge, at a time when public funding for higher education was being relentlessly squeezed, made for a formidable challenge.

Richardson ruffled feathers but was also cheered by others for defending free speech at the university. Every new student was given a lecture by her warning that they had no right not to be offended. She worries now about students seeking to be protected from ideas they find uncomfortable.

“If universities don’t model how to have difficult conversations, how to engage with people with whom you profoundly disagree, nobody will,” she says.

And what does she say to people who say, it’s not a question of being offended, your speech makes me feel unsafe, or I perceive it as violence to me?

“Your perception, I’m afraid... We know what violence is, and if you’re at a university you’ve got to be prepared to listen to views that are antithetical to your own, and to engage with them. I’ve never liked this concept of a safe space,” she says.

Two achievements stand out from her time at Oxford. The proportion of students from poorer and non-traditional backgrounds increased sharply and she also ensured that the Covid vaccine produced by Oxford scientists and pharma giant AstraZeneca was distributed at cost around the world. Independent surveys suggested that the initiative saved 6.3 million lives. This earned Richardson her DBE.

She feels now that AstraZeneca didn’t get enough credit for the move – and that the other pharma companies, which made gargantuan fortunes from the pandemic, “should have got more grief” for profiting from the pandemic.

Last year, she finished her term at Oxford and moved to New York to head the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic foundation that gives out about $180 million every year.

But she retains her interest in foreign affairs and when the request came from Dublin to chair the Government’s forum earlier this year she thought it was “a fantastic idea”.

She agrees ‘completely’ that there is a widespread attachment to the idea of Irish neutrality, even if there is a fair degree of latitude in how it is practised

“Foreign policy and international security policy is really important but it tends to be reserved, as most matters of high politics do, to smaller and smaller groups meeting in closed rooms. So the idea of having a very public debate on Ireland’s role in the world, I thought was really quite admirable,” she says.

The meetings were occasionally rowdy, as pro-neutrality campaigners made their objections clear.

“You’ll always have small groups of really vocal people and a large number that are fairly indifferent ... and what tends to happen is that the vocal groups tend to get more attention because they are more vocal, and so the sense that their view is widely held is exaggerated,” she says.

She agrees “completely” that there is a widespread attachment to the idea of Irish neutrality, even if there is a fair degree of latitude in how it is practised.

“Nothing I say should be construed as disagreeing with that,” she said.

Her report noted this deep attachment, but also the consensus among experts that the concept needed to be updated.

Asked how many times we can lose our neutrality, she laughs.

“We have managed to take a unique line, and we are very proud of the line we have taken. But we haven’t had to pay a price for it,” she says.

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