Finn McRedmond: We should not expect contrition from Michael D Higgins

Several times the President has shown he cares little about the limitations of his office

President Michael D Higgins has expressed surprise over the scale of the reaction to his recent comments about Nato and the Consultative Forum on International Security Policy. Addressing delegates at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions biennial conference in Kilkenny, he said he only wanted to see the broadest possible debate. But how surprised was he really?

In an interview with the Business Post, the President also seemed to question the objectivity of the forum’s chair, Louise Richardson, thanks to her status as dame of the British empire.

Áras an Uachtaráin since clarified that the President’s exact words referred to “a very large-letter DBE [dame of the British empire]”. On Tuesday, he said this was merely an observation with regard to the larger print in which the honour was listed on the forum agenda, but added that she had “graciously” accepted his apology.

The apology was for “any offence which he may have inadvertently caused”. Inadvertently! He may as well have said “I’m sorry if you were offended.”


Equivocation and blame-shifting are two of the classic hallmarks of a badly rendered apology. And everyone knows – whether you mean it or not – that contrition and humility form the cornerstone of a good one. As traits, however, they do not come easily to politicians.

It is reminiscent of the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last year. Through an ill-advised metaphor about Europe being like a manicured garden and the rest of the world like an unkempt jungle, he caused some upset in the international community. He was quick to say sorry, sort of: “Some have misinterpreted the metaphor as ‘colonial Euro-centrism’. I am sorry if some have felt offended.” If? It must be better to say nothing at all.

Political apologies are a delicate art, and usually navigated poorly by those who would most benefit from navigating them well. Let’s not forget last October when Liz Truss stepped down after her 44-day premiership, in which she proffered the biggest tax cuts in 50 years without a plan to pay for them; confounded the markets and sent the pound plunging; left mortgages in disarray and pension funds on the brink; and fired chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng.

It’s a bad legacy. But a hint of contrition could have gone a long way on her slow path to redemption. Instead, the opening line of Truss’s resignation speech was this: “I came into office at a time of great economic and international instability.” And just like that: blame shifted. Responsibility ducked.

Samuel Beckett wrote in Waiting for Godot “there’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet”. Or in Truss’s case, blaming on the economy the faults of her ludicrous monetary policy.

So, apologies are hard. Perhaps even harder when you don’t think you owe anyone one. We might conjecture that this is exactly the problem Higgins is facing. His comments about a drift away from neutrality and perhaps towards Nato membership were an overreach of his office. His experience as a public figure should have taught him by now that his comments about Richardson’s DBE would be taken as a slight on her objectivity. What, exactly, did he expect?

The takeaway here is not that Higgins does not know how to apologise, but rather that he appears to think he does not have to. We shouldn’t be surprised. Several times the President has shown he cares little about the limitations of his office.

Only recently, he condemned Elon Musk’s “dangerous narcissism” when the entrepreneur decided to buy Twitter. Last year, a letter by Sabina Higgins calling for Ukraine and Russia to negotiate the end of the war was briefly posted on the presidential website (and was praised by the Russian ambassador to Ireland).

A few years ago he took to the pages of the Guardian to chastise Brits for failing to properly remember the worst excesses of the British empire. He did this without consulting his electorate about whether they wished to be represented in a newspaper this way. And, for a man who talks so fervently about the importance of reconciliation and the need to move on from the past, his decision to turn down an invitation to a service of reflection and hope marking a centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland was certainly surprising.

“I have the right to exercise discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance,” the President said. He elaborated that the invitation to the event had become “a political statement”. Ironic, that.

Attending that commemorative ceremony was too much of a political statement for Michael D Higgins. But commenting on Ireland’s future in Nato; the purchase and sale of Twitter; hosting a letter about brokering peace in Ukraine on the presidential website; and writing in the Guardian about British imperialism are all, apparently, on the right side of that line. Talk about being selectively principled. It is abundantly clear that Higgins conceives of the nature of the presidency in a very different way to his predecessors. So, we should not have expected real contrition when he crossed the line in his recent comments about Ireland’s “drift” away from neutrality. He doesn’t think he owes it.