ALISON O'CONNOR: I agree with what Sabina Higgins said, but she shouldn’t have said it

Sabina Higgins remarks in Trinity are not the only ones made by the first couple on the thorny issue of abortion, writes Alison O’Connor.

I’M AN admirer of Sabina Higgins. As her husband Michael D’s presidency has progressed that admiration has grown. I’d long been a political fan of him, but knew nothing about her until the presidential campaign.

She has a wonderful bearing and adds gravitas to the role of first spouse. Her experience as an actress stands her in good stead, because she is constantly on public view and that must seem interminable.

But these last few months have been especially good ones for her and her husband, given their leading role in the Rising centenary celebrations.

It is hardly a surprise that Sabina Higgins has views on abortion and fatal-foetal abnormalities, nor that they would be of a liberal inclination.

Indeed, one only needs compassion to feel outrage on behalf of the women we force to carry such a pregnancy to term, or to travel abroad to have a termination, if that is what they want.

So it was no great surprise to hear the views she expressed at an event organised by the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland in Trinity College. She referred to “the whole thing of the choice in abortion and health” and said there had to be a choice for women, in relation 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 that she meant to include the word “fatal” in the phrase.

I could not agree with her more and find it an outrage that such a situation continues, where couples who are given such a diagnosis are forced to travel abroad, away from family and friends, to have a termination.

That they are left to organise the logistics of bringing home the body of their dead baby, often by courier, or to undergo the first part of the procedure in the UK and risk flying home before it is complete, is barbarism.

As a society, we should be hanging our heads in shame at those who have felt compelled to identify themselves in public to tell their harrowing stories and get the law changed. Nothing has been done, apart from lip service.

However, despite being in total agreement with Sabina Higgins, I believe that she was wrong to say what she did.

I appreciate that while there are constitutional restraints on what a President can say publicly, there are no such impediments on a spouse.

As a committed feminist, our President would, no doubt, be fully behind his wife’s autonomy. It can’t be easy, either, being stuck up in the Áras, in splendid isolation, having uprooted yourself from friends and community. Sabina Higgins is in a permanently supporting role, expected to look at all times impeccable and to keep schtum.

However, when your spouse runs for election and you agree to support that bid, there are certain constraints that go with that, regardless of what is explicitly stated, or not, in the Constitution.

There is form here. There have been times when Sabina Higgins’s husband has skirted very close to the limits, and it’s been in the eye of the beholder as to whether he has overstepped the mark with his “presidency of ideas”.

A man as clever as Michael D is well able to recognise the ambiguity in his role; how poorly it is defined in the Constitution, leaving the incumbent with considerable scope to frame his/her Presidency.

The remarks in Trinity College are not the only ones made by the first couple on the thorny issue of abortion.

The President reflected the public mood, but seriously raised the ire of the government, in 2012, following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. He said it was his wish “that there be some form of investigation, which meets the needs of the concerned public and meets the need of the State”.

He has also made clear his distaste for neo-liberalism and that he has issues with the outcome of our economic recovery and how much inequality has been left in its wake. He was closest to breaking the convention of not commenting on government policy in his remarks on tax-cuts proposals, during the recent general-election campaign — even if it was no surprise to anyone that he was against them.

I’ve almost wholeheartedly agreed with everything he has said and highlighted, especially given the propensity we have, as a society, for not learning the lessons of even the recent past.

But if you add those latest remarks by Sabina, you have not just a President who likes to live on the edge of what is permissible, but also a spouse who does. She has not sworn any oath of office, but there are conventions. She was invited to the Trinity College event in her role as the wife of the President. She resides in the Áras.

I’ve seen it argued, somewhat facetiously, that if she is not allowed to speak out, then this also precludes her and Michael D’s daughter, the newly elected senator, Alice Mary Higgins, from addressing issues. But this is a nonsense.

In 2014, when Sabina Higgins visited her good friend, peace activist Margaretta D’Arcy, in Limerick Prison, in what a spokesman said was a “private capacity”, most people viewed it somewhat benevolently. But when it comes to the most divisive issue in Irish society — abortion — such remarks as we heard are massively alienating to certain sections of the population. This couples with the previous remarks by her husband. Are controversial remarks, however much they might fit in with one’s own world view, what the Presidency should be about? What sort of precedents are being set?

During the recent general election campaign, Sean O’Rourke interviewed Taoiseach Enda Kenny. A question was put to the Fine Gael leader about the remarks President Higgins had made on tax-cut pledges. Judging from the response, I’d bet that the Government had made their displeasure on the subject known to the Aras.

No government would tangle lightly with any President, least of all one who is as popular as Michael D Higgins. However, the memory of those election-campaign remarks do linger, and there is the added, and significant, fact that there is no longer the extra protection for the President of having his own party, Labour, in Government.

It really would be a terrible pity if, between them, the President and his wife, who have done such a magnificent job in so many ways, overstepped the mark once too often.


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