Irish president’s wife wins Kremlin kudos for Ukraine peace letter

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DUBLIN — The wife of Ireland’s president is facing accusations of pro-Kremlin bias and pushing a bogus sense of moral equivalence after calling on Ukraine “to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations” with Russia.

Sabina Higgins’ intervention initially flew under the radar when it appeared this week in the Irish Times letters page using only her name and Dublin postal code — not the fact she plays a prominent role representing Ireland.

The nation took notice once Moscow’s man in Dublin, Ambassador Yuriy Filatov, said her letter “makes sense” and aligns with Russian aims.

Filatov said Higgins “suggests that everything should be done to end the hostilities as quickly as possible” and reflects Moscow’s claim to be countering “a proxy war by U.S. and NATO.”

“She’s against war. We’re all against war,” Filatov told the Irish Times.

While Higgins didn’t directly endorse Moscow’s view of events, she did place equal responsibility for ending the war on the shoulders of the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. She also lauded a University College Cork historian’s assessment that NATO is “pouring arms into a losing battle” and that Ukraine should agree to surrender territory seized by Russia.

“There will be no peace, or even a ceasefire, if Ukraine does not agree to demilitarize and to eschew any ambition to join NATO,” wrote Geoffrey Roberts. Higgins called his views “deeply concerned and thought out.”

The government and the office of President Michael D. Higgins declined to comment. Behind the scenes, government officials expressed dismay that the office of the president — a ceremonial head of state supposed to avoid divisive political debates — was undermining Ireland’s pro-Ukrainian stance.

Like many with deep roots in Ireland’s left, the president traditionally has cast a cold eye on capitalism and NATO, and sympathizes with socialist regimes. For example, he praised Fidel Castro following the Cuban dictator’s death in 2016.

Last month, Higgins irritated the government by criticizing its failure to fix a housing crisis featuring sky-high prices and rents amid heavy investment by foreign property funds.

Government officials said they were alarmed to see Sabina Higgins following her husband’s apparent lead, pushing Irish political traditions further into uncharted partisan territory.

“Her letter makes it sound like the Ukrainians are at the gates of Moscow. It’s appallingly naïve on its own terms and entirely inappropriate given her position,” one government official told POLITICO.

But there’s nothing the government can do to limit the Higginses under terms of a 1937 constitution that enshrines presidential independence.

And Higgins, an elfish 81-year-old given to waxing lyrical on poetry and native culture, enjoys public approval higher than any Cabinet minister.

While Ireland’s politics for decades has been dominated by center-right parties, Higgins twice has handily won elections, in 2011 and 2018. His current term runs to 2025.

From the start his wife has enjoyed a high profile as a presidential spouse, standing in for her husband at events and contributing to presidential podcasts, including her reading of an anti-war poem that also concluded her Ukraine letter.

Politicians and commentators rounded on Sabina Higgins’ take on Ukraine.

“When the Russian ambassador praises your view of the Ukrainian invasion, it’s time to rethink your stance,” said John McGahon, a senator in the governing Fine Gael party.

“Other European governments will notice that the Russian ambassador praised our president’s wife,” said a Dublin barrister, William Quill.

And University College Dublin politics professor Ben Tomra said, if the president’s office does address the controversy, it should avoid expressing “regret” because Sabina Higgins wrote the letter “with deliberate intent.”