Alison O'Connor: Presidential couple can’t keep testing outer limits of the office

Both President Higgins and his wife are fully aware of the constraints that apply to speaking out on such issues
Alison O'Connor: Presidential couple can’t keep testing outer limits of the office

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina. Picture: Sam Boal/

In the midst of the significant diplomatic fallout caused by those high-profile remarks from Sabina Higgins on the war in Ukraine there may be some solace for the Government.

Perhaps for the foreseeable future, the Higgins’s of Dublin 8 will have had their cough softened as to constitutional parameters and remain within the constraints of the office, as they are supposed to do.

For a while now, there has been a sense our President Michael D Higgins has been sailing dangerously close to the wind.

Certainly, in some of his public utterances, there has been a feeling he either did not recognise the boundaries of his office, or somehow felt personally above them.

That letter signed by Sabina Coyne Higgins, Dublin 8, published by The Irish Times last week, would indicate these boundary issues are not peculiar to one half of the relationship.

There is indeed a key difference between both spouses here, in that one has been elected the President of Ireland — twice as it happens — and the other does not hold office.

But there is also a reality when the person you are married to puts themselves forward for a high profile, protocol-heavy job, the constraints of which are outlined in the Constitution.

As a couple, both of you have to navigate this new reality. None more so, surely, when that job involves your husband being the first citizen of the country.

In her section of the presidential website, there is some biographical information: “Sabin [sic] Coyne, now Higgins was born on the Galway/Mayo border and moved to Dublin at the age of 18 to work in the office of the Land Commission.

“She began to study acting using the Stanislavsky method after Deirdre O Connel’s [sic] wedding to singer Luke Kelly [The Dubliners] and became, with Deirdre, one of the founding members of the Focus Theatre where she worked with Tom Hickey, Timmy McDonald, Mary Elizabeth Burke Kennedy, Joan Bergin and many others.”

It relates how the couple met at a party in 1974 and were married in Dublin’s Haddington Road Church. We are told she moved to Galway, “where in addition to working as a partner with Michael D in every campaign and in public life for over 30 years, she maintained her involvement with theatre and community arts and working with the world-renowned Druid Theatre, An Taibhearc and other groups”.

It’s rather sweetly loyal and, indeed, political, that in this introduction to the wife of the President of Ireland, it also finds space to note that Michael D was inaugurated President in 2011 for a seven-year term and again on November 11, 2018 for a second term.

“With over a million votes, he had the highest ever number of votes of any politician in the history of Irish election [sic].”

Bar these few paragraphs and some photographs and a video of ‘Featured Engagements’ there is not a lot more information.

You’d imagine then the letter sent to The Irish Times would have seemed unusual, and even out of place, to those who saw it after it was posted there, and before it was taken down.

In that letter, published on July 27, Ms Higgins wrote that fighting between Russia and Ukraine would continue until the leaders of the countries were persuaded to agree to a ceasefire and enter negotiation.

In her statement earlier this week, finally issued when it was clear the controversy was not going to go away, Mrs Higgins said she was “dismayed” that people had been critical of her call for a ceasefire. She also defended the letter being put on the official website of the presidency, saying it appeared only on her dedicated section.

The fact is she should never have written that letter to a newspaper, let alone allowed a sense to remain the two countries were of moral equivalence, rather than distinguishing between Russia the aggressor that invaded Ukraine, the victim of that aggression.

This followed a statement on Monday by her husband, after a weekend of heightening controversy, saying the President is “unequivocal in his condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine”. But again he declined to comment on the letter written by his wife.

Looking back to 2016, this column addressed remarks by Sabina Higgins at an event organised by the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland where she referred to “the whole thing of the choice in abortion and health” and said there had to be a choice for women when it came to foetal abnormalities and that cases where the “person or persons” were “made carry” were “really outrages against women and outrages against the world and nature”. It was subsequently clarified she meant to include the word, fatal, in the phrase.

Despite finding myself in total agreement with Sabina Higgins then, I wrote she was wrong to say what she did, just as she was wrong to send that letter to a newspaper.

It has been much rehearsed of late that there are no constitutional impediments on what a Presidential spouse may say publicly.

Constraints apply

But as I pointed out then, when your spouse runs for election and you agree to support that bid, certain constraints apply regardless of what is or isn’t explicitly stated in the Constitution.

Even back then there were already instances of her husband skirting close to those constitutional limits and how it was in the eye of the beholder as to whether he had overstepped the mark.

These have been mounting up since and the real worry in Government circles has been the increasing abandonment of restraint by the President in his public utterances. The most recent was in June when he said housing policy in Ireland was “our great great failure” and also used the words “a disaster”. He was bang on.

But when Michael D, already a veteran of Irish politics, decided to run for President in 2011, he knew full well these sort of remarks are a political bullseye when you’re elected to Leinster House, but a no-no when it’s Áras an Uachtaráin.

The Government feel utterly impotent in attempting to deal with the situation because of fear over the President’s high popularity rating; the sense that for so many that he can do no wrong. In general he represents the country exceptionally well as President, as does Sabina Higgins alongside him. But the seriousness of these instances cannot be overlooked.

On Wednesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin worked to defuse this latest Presidential controversy saying the President’s wife had clarified her views. He said it was time to move on.

In reality he and Cabinet colleagues would probably like to place a gagging order on the couple who will soon approach the fifth year of a seven-year term of office, leaving plenty of time to keep stirring the pot from the Phoenix Park. Or maybe now we’ll see a little more Presidential discretion.

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