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16 June 2016

No shrinking violet, but by fuelling fire of abortion row President's wife may have made major mistake

It is risky for Heads of State to speak out over politics... but even worse when their spouses put their two-pennethin, argues Ruth Dudley Edwards

Last week the Queen suffered a minor embarrassment because her umbrella apparently formed a parabolic curve that magnified her speech

Last week the Queen suffered a minor embarrassment because her umbrella apparently formed a parabolic curve that magnified her speech.

And so a famously discreet woman was recorded referring to some Chinese officials as "rude".

Although no one blames her, there was a bit of a fuss since discretion is such a basic requirement for the monarch.

It is also for the monarch's spouse: Prince Philip has strong opinions, but although he occasionally makes a minor gaffe he never strays into politics.

In theory the same rules and conventions apply to Head of State of the Republic of Ireland and their spouses, but it's harder for them to obey because they come from political backgrounds and have had years of expressing their opinions freely.

President Mary Robinson from the Labour Party, who had been a well-known campaigner for liberalisation of laws on, for instance, contraception and homosexuality, had a difficult relationship with Charles Haughey and was muzzled on occasion, but in general she managed to have a high profile yet avoid being specifically political.

President Mary McAleese from Fianna Fail occasionally put her foot in it, but she tried not to and apologised when she needed to.

President Michael D. Higgins from the Labour Left has spent a lifetime making socialist speeches, loves the sound of his own voice, and sails very close to the constitutional wind with his attacks on the free market, capitalism, "neo-liberalism", tax cuts and others of his many betes noires.

He's got away with it so far because he's popular and his views are fashionable.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been nervous about taking him on, but it would be surprising if he hasn't been given the occasional private rebuke.

Until now, however, spouses haven't caused any problems.

The wives of the male Presidents who preceded Mary Robinson were rarely seen in public and always kept their mouths shut.

Nick Robinson, a lawyer and writer with a particular interest in historical cartoons, was a quiet support to his wife.

In his efforts to build bridges behind the scenes, dentist Martin McAleese got close to some rather dodgy ex-paramilitaries, and notoriously took Jackie McDonald to play golf at Ireland's poshest course, but in public he was just his wife's escort.

Sabina Higgins is different.

A former actress who shares her husband's rather South American attitudes to politics and economics and loves attention as much as he does, she has been very visible publicly by his side, where she is appreciated for being friendly and well-dressed.

Sometimes, however, she goes solo, as when in March she made a speech in Glasnevin Cemetery extolling the virtues of 1916 socialists whom she hoped would inspire this generation to take on inequality and contemporary capitalism.

Since it read just like one of her husband's speeches, it attracted little attention.

Last week, though, she crossed what many think of as a red line by weighing in on abortion, one of the most divisive issues in Irish politics, which is why politicians run away from it as much and as fast as they can.

Having been asked to speak to midwifery students about maternity services, Mrs Higgins referred to "the whole thing of the choice in abortion and health" and said that cases where a woman could be made to carry a baby with foetal abnormalities to term were "really outrages against women and outrages against the world and nature".

It's not just the pro-lifers who are shocked by this: many pro-choicers have condemned her meddling in politics.

Her defenders say there are and should be no constraints on her freedom of speech, but that makes no sense when she's accepting invitations and attracting media coverage solely in her capacity as the wife of the Head of State.

As Eilis O'Hanlon put it, "anyone venturing publicly" into the abortion debate has the choice of bringing "a can of petrol to the scene of the fire, or a hose".

"Sabina Higgins made her choice last week, and the flames are still roaring."

She and her husband love their new jobs, but if they persist in ignoring Presidential conventions they might yet lose them.

Meanwhile, the Queen will already have ensured that her future umbrellas will pass a privacy check.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards