The Sabina Coyne Higgins Affair

Peace is an end in itself. Not merely the cessation or absence of violence and conflict, but an irenic state and civil disposition in which peace is actively sought and promoted is the highest moral objective of all civilised nations. It is the responsibility of state governments to establish and maintain peace within their territories for the good of the people they represent and to seek and promote peace abroad for the good of all people. Peace must be sought for its own sake. The rejection or preclusion of peace, in every conflict situation, is both irrational and unjustifiable. In wartime, regardless of aggressor or victim status, it is the bounden duty — of the highest order — of states to seek an end to armed conflict at the soonest opportunity. Both victory and defeat are morally subordinate to the state’s obligation to protect the lives of its citizens. So important is peace to the international order that it constitutes the first article of the United Nations’ Charter. The purpose of the United Nations is:

To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.

War, as a breach of international law, is the greatest international crime. It is the abject failure of diplomacy. In the face of foreign aggression and invasion, the purpose of resistance and defence is not revenge and the continuation of hostilities — in which more lives will be lost, but to restore peace.

On Wednesday (27 July 2022), The Irish Times published a letter penned to the letters section of the newspaper by Sabina Coyne Higgins, the wife of the President of Ireland (Michael D. Higgins), in which she wrote: ‘Until the world persuades President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations, the long haul of terrible war will go on.’ She was perfectly correct. Without an end to the fighting and without peace talks, the war in Ukraine will continue and many more thousands of people will suffer and die. She was correct also in her assessment that the Ukrainian armed forces are losing somewhere in the region of a thousand soldiers every single day — ‘killed, wounded or taken prisoner.’

Major General Mick Ryan (retired), the Australia Chair and adjunct fellow of the United States military think tank The Center for Strategic and International Studies, commented on social media that ‘the Ukrainians are masters of 21st century war.’ High praise indeed. With a thousand soldiers lost daily, with the loss of its entire Donbass and Mariupol armies, with Russian forces now in possession of 20-25 percent of Ukrainian territory, and with the loss of 20,000 civilian and 23,000 military lives since 24 February, it is difficult for any rational observer to see Ukraine’s apparent mastery of twenty-first century warfare. In military terms, Ukraine is doing well. It is holding its own. But the awful calculus of the conflict is quite simple; the longer the war continues, the more Ukraine will bleed. Without an end to the fighting Russia will continue to grind Ukraine down in a war of attrition. Kiev is fighting this war with weapons it cannot afford, gifted to it by the US and its allies in their efforts to overstretch and destabilise Russia to further US foreign policy objectives — while the attention of Washington is already turning to the South China Sea. In light of this precarious situation, Pope Francis, who has already acknowledged the United States’ role in provoking this war, said on Sunday (31 July 2022): ‘The only reasonable thing to do would be to stop and negotiate.’

Yet, none of these considerations have tempered the backlash against Ms. Coyne Higgins from prominent figures in the Irish political and journalistic establishments. Brendan O’Connor’s Newspapers Panel on RTÉ Radio 1 (31 July 2022), in which the host referenced ‘the clumsiness of the expression of [her] letter,’ hosted a panel of speakers which, following the propaganda model of the media, reflected only voices critical of Ms. Coyne Higgins. Journalist Michael O’Regan held no punishes in his bombastic and rather misogynistic comment on the show:

Michael D. and Mrs Higgins have done a very good job [being figureheads for the nation], you know the garden parties in Áras an Uachtaráin (the presidential residence) are a huge success; they’ve brought the people to meet them and all that kind of thing. They have to be conscious about the perception that at different times the president might be involving himself in.

Fine Gael Senator John McGahon, whose own party shares similar fascist origins as many of the leading political and military groupings in Ukraine today, wrote Ms. Coyne Higgins off entirely by claiming her views were ‘entirely out of touch with those of the Irish people’ and that her opinions are seen as ‘a tacit endorsement of the Russian regime.’ Political correspondent Jennifer Bray wrote of the calls from government politicians for the President to ‘distance himself’ from his wife’s comments after her letter was published and later removed from the President of Ireland website.

But there are endless problems with this opportunistic assault on the Irish President — and this is an assault on the President. Traditionally the Irish President, as head of state, keeps out of politics, but there is no law prohibiting the officeholder making his or her political opinions known — and President Michael D. Higgins, an extremely popular figure in Ireland, has made his thoughts known. He recently called the government out for the deplorable mess it has made of the housing and homelessness crises, which have only gotten worse under the mismanagement of a de facto Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalition designed to lock Sinn Féin out of government. While Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are historical opponents, Sinn Féin is the most popular party in the country.

Ms. Coyne Higgins stepping out of line with the narrative of unconditional support for the Ukrainian regime has given these chancers the perfect propaganda weapon with which to beat Mr. Higgins. On the ground, however, this is not going down well. Ordinary working people — who have been repeatedly shafted by these parties — are growing increasingly tired of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Given the polls favouring Sinn Féin and the public’s support of Michael D. Higgins’ criticisms of Ireland’s awfully right of centre regime — ‘the mobsters,’ it is clearly not the President and his wife, Sabina Coyne Higgins, who are out of touch.

Much has been said in this completely manufactured political and right-wing media maelstrom about the traditional role of the Irish President; that he or she should stay in their lane, that the President should stay out of politics — and in the main this has some merit. In Ireland, the role of the President is to safeguard the Constitution, and this is precisely where these bogus complaints against Mr. Higgins and his good lady wife run aground. Article 29 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) is clear on Ireland’s position with regard to international relations:

Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.

Ireland affirms its adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination.

Ireland has no office of First Lady (or First Gentleman for that matter), and so — strictly speaking — Sabina Coyne Higgins is a private citizen who is perfectly entitled to her own opinion. But this letter was republished on the website of the Irish President and so there are reasons why the warmongers are annoyed at this particular interjection. But her call for peace; for a ceasefire and negotiations, is perfectly consistent with Ireland’s constitutional neutrality and its international commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict. The loudest voices are screeching that she acknowledge Russia as the aggressor and that Ireland support Ukraine (that is what NATO instructs Ukraine) in its suicidal mission to fight on until Russia is completely driven out of Ukrainian territory (including Crimea). In the pursuit of peace, however, who started the war is irrelevant. Mr. Higgins has strenuously condemned the Russian invasion. What matters is that the war is stopped.

And that an Irish President should keep his or her mouth shut in times of war flies in the face of the proud legacy of Éamon de Valera, President of the Revolutionary Irish Republic 1921-22 and President of Ireland 1959-73, who courageously defended Ireland’s neutrality during ‘the Emergency’ (World War II) — and this even when threatened with a British (not German) invasion. He oversaw a peace, negotiations, and a treaty on the island of Ireland that resulted in the occupation of part of Ireland by the aggressor — Britain, which, as a member of the NATO alliance, it holds to the present day. Addressing the Irish people about the threats Mr. Churchill was breathing against Ireland, Mr. De Valera said with a steel resolution: ‘I shall strive not to be guilty of adding any fuel to the flames of hatred and passion.’

Ireland was neutral then and it is neutral now. Non-alignment and the pursuit of peaceful settlements to international disputes are written into our Constitution and it is the role of our President to protect our Constitution — even from the schemes of minority right-wing governments in Dáil Éireann. With the United States using NATO to poke Russia and China into a global war, we should be very proud of great Irish women like Sabina Coyne Higgins and great presidents like her husband, President Michael D. Higgins.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.


Bray, Jennifer. “President under Pressure to Clarify Stance on Wife’s Letter about Ukraine War.” The Irish Times, August 2, 2022.

Coyne Higgins, Sabina. “War in Ukraine: A Moment of Moral Choice.” The Irish Times, July 26, 2022.

Irish Statute Book. “Constitution of Ireland.” eISB. Accessed August 2, 2022.

McGahon, John. “Social Media Update.” Twitter, July 30, 2022.

O’Connor, Brendan. “Newspaper Panel.” RTE Radio 1, July 31, 2022.

Office of the President of Ireland. “The President.” Accessed August 2, 2022.

Pope Francis. “Social Media Update.” Twitter, July 31, 2022.

RTÉ Archives. “Taoiseach Outlines Ireland’s Right To Remain Neutral.” RTÉ Archives. Accessed August 2, 2022.

Ryan, Mick. “Social Media Update.” Twitter, August 1, 2022.

Teslova, Elena. “Russian Claims over 23,000 Ukrainian Troops Killed in War.” Anadolu Agency, April 16, 2022.

The United Nations. Charter of the United Nations, Article 1 § (1945).