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Donnacha Ó Beacháin: Sabina Higgins' letter - a damaging and avoidable controversy

The politics professor says the letter damaged Ireland’s reputation regarding its position on Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin

Updated Aug 3rd 2022, 2:11 PM

SABINA HIGGINS’ LETTER to the Irish Times, which was posted on the President of Ireland’s website, has attracted unfavourable media coverage at home and abroad. It has unnecessarily damaged Ireland’s reputation regarding its position on Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The letter would almost certainly have escaped attention but for the identity and status of its author.

It quickly and embarrassingly attracted the endorsement of the Russian ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov. With breathtaking hypocrisy, the Kremlin representative told us “we are all against war”, even as his counterparts in Russia’s London embassy tweeted comments that Ukrainian POWs deserved to die a humiliating death.

The controversy soon gathered pace and headlines such as “Irish president’s wife wins Kremlin kudos for Ukraine peace letter” appeared in the international media.

Dismay

In stark contrast, Ukrainians, not least amongst the ever-expanding number of refugees who have fled to Ireland, expressed alarm, dismay, and hurt. Former Ukrainian first lady, Kateryna Yushchenko said she was “saddened and surprised” that the letter didn’t recognise Ukraine’s existential threat. Ukrainian MP Kira Rudik said it was “extremely easy to comment on the war when you are not inside the war, and when it is not your country that is being attacked”.

The issue was transformed further when the letter appeared on the President of Ireland’s official website. This magnified in a very significant way the perception that the letter somehow represented an official position or had the president’s imprimatur.

Sabina Higgins has since clarified that the letter was published to a dedicated section on the President.ie website which she has had since 2014. She subsequently took it down when she saw it being presented as not being from her, but from the general President.ie website.

The letter itself was significantly at odds with Irish government policy. On the day the scandal broke, Ireland’s Ambassador to the United Nations emphasised that “at every meeting on Ukraine, Ireland has called on Russia to end this war and withdraw its forces. Too many people have lost their homes. Too many people have died. Russia alone bears responsibility for this war. Russia alone can end it.”

Commenting on this statement, Ireland’s former ambassador to the EU and the UK, Bobby McDonagh, tweeted: “This is what being truly anti-war in Ukraine looks like. The principled and only position of Ireland”.

Unpacking the letter

In a statement yesterday evening, Higgins clarified that she had “strongly condemned the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine” from the outset. She added that she was dismayed that people “would find anything unacceptable in a plea for peace and negotiations when the future of humanity is threatened by war, global warming and famine”.

Even at this late stage, Sabina Higgins says she does not recognise why her letter generated consternation and distress, particularly amongst Ukrainians. Understanding those reasons is an important first step in learning lessons from this episode.

The letter begins by controversially advocating a tripartite “peace settlement” between Ukraine, Russia, and (non-defined) “separatists”. There is repeated mention of war but nothing about Russia’s invasion or war crimes. No distinction is made between aggressor and victim. It is implied that presidents Putin and Zelenskyy have an equal responsibility to stop the carnage.

Calling for “peace”, as she did in the original letter, is one thing, but what might “peace” look like? The only clue we got was Higgins’ reference to an op-ed written by retired history professor Geoffrey Roberts in which he argues that the carving up of Ukraine by Russia is inevitable and so Ukrainians should be persuaded to settle now or lose more land/people later.

Without any qualifications, Sabina Higgins described this op-ed as “so welcome” and “thought-out”. The fact that no attempt was made to dissociate herself from the views accepting the dismemberment of Ukraine is remarkable.

To further her argument, Higgins then referred to “our own conflicts” and maintained that in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War “the fighting was ended by a ceasefire being called, followed by negotiation”.

This is neither relevant nor accurate. The civil war, for example, didn’t end with negotiations; the anti-Treaty side unilaterally dumped arms. In 1916, the Irish rebels unconditionally surrendered, were rounded up and shot. This is hardly a model Ukrainians would be keen to follow. Indeed, it is what they fear most, which is why many have said that if Ukraine wins, there will be no war but if Russia wins, there will be no Ukraine.

The letter finishes with reference to the First World War, a conflict between empires fighting for no great cause, which is easy to depict as senseless. The choice of poem with which the letter concludes – exhorting combatants to “quit thy foolish ways” – must seem particularly insensitive and patronising to Ukrainians under vicious attack.

This current conflagration is more akin to events that took place during World War 2 when a large nationalistic dictatorship sought to destroy its neighbours.

Sabina Higgins wrote in that letter of a “moral choice” that must be faced. Russia has the choice of stopping its murderous war at any time, but Ukrainians do not believe they have the option to stop defending themselves. Surely the real “moral choice” is whether or not to provide as much support for Ukraine as possible?

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University. For more than two decades he has worked and researched in the post-Soviet region and has published widely on the subject.

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Donnacha Ó Beacháin

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