A Good Samaritan
The Ennis and Clare branch of Samaritans has been providing emotional support to people experiencing distress, despair or suicidal feelings since 7 June 1982. I have had the immensely fulfilling privilege of being a listening volunteer in the branch for 15 of those 40 years.
Mindful of President Higgins’ deep roots in Clare and of his frequent and thoughtful expressions of support for the work of Samaritans, our Branch Director wrote to Áras an Uachtaráin in January inviting the President and Mrs. Higgins to visit the Branch to mark this significant anniversary. Silence ensued until mid-May when a call came from the President’s security team looking to check out the premises ahead of a possible visit. The Gardaí came, blessed the building and the visit was duly confirmed for a fortnight later on 28 May.
When leaving the presidency in 1997, Mary Robinson said that her lasting memory would be the smell of fresh paint everywhere she went. Our branch is a serviceable but undistinguished early 20th century bungalow on the Kilrush Road about 10 minutes walk from the centre of Ennis. The former garden has long since been converted to a car park for volunteers and visitors. It didn’t get a paint job. But our Director and her team of elves spent many hours ensuring it would be well spruced up for our visitors.
All current and former volunteers were invited to a branch birthday party to co-incide with the visit. A marquee was set up in the car park. The place was bedecked with flowers and welcome signs. The weather gods were benign. The sky was cloudless blue.
We knew the President was “ours” for only 40 minutes. How every minute of that time might be used was plotted in detail. The plan was to show the visitors our operations rooms where the calls come in first and then sit down in our training room for a collective chat and a presentation to long serving volunteers. Because of the tight timing and limited space within the branch, the expectation was that only about 20 of our volunteers would get to “meet and greet” the presidential couple. Everyone else, 50–60 people, would wait in the marquee before being part of a group photograph in the car park. Then, off the visitors would go.
The official car breezed into the car park exactly on time just after midday. Everything went according to plan — except this. When they came out of the building for what we thought would be a snappy group photograph, the President and Mrs. Higgins spontaneously asked to meet everybody who had been waiting patiently outside and did the rounds of an informal receiving line. Deviating thereafter only for the photographs and for presidential thanks to the two traditional musicians who had been playing quietly in the background, the visiting party hopped into the waiting cars and whizzed off to the next gig at St. Flannan’s College.
So to my impressions.
First, although time was indeed tight, neither the President nor his officials ever projected any sense of impatience or of wanting to nudge things along. They went with the flow. And, in the end, despite the visitors behaving as if they had all the time in the world, the visit overran schedule by only five minutes.
Second, there was no standing on ceremony at all. Everything was easy and relaxed. Neither the President nor Mrs. Higgins ever gave any impression of the visit being about them in any way. It was all about official recognition, respect and appreciation for the important, we would say essential, service the volunteers deliver day in, day out.
Third, though only one of them is President, this couple are a team, a double act very much in tune with each other. The whole really does exceed the sum of the parts.
Of course, you might say, isn’t that their job? Likewise, it has been said that if you can fake authenticity, you will go a long way. But a job can be done adequately without being done well and this couple were not only thoroughly professional and polished, but obviously genuine.
All of that is a prelude to registering my priors for what follows. We are fortunate to have Mr. and Mrs. Higgins as our Head of State and consort. End of story.
As everybody knows by now, on 27 July, The Irish Times published a letter from Mrs. Higgins responding to an editorial of the previous week about the war in Ukraine. Mrs. Higgins expressed “disappointment and dismay” that the editorial…
…did not encourage any ceasefire negotiations that might lead towards a peace settlement between the Russians, the Ukrainian forces and the separatists
She welcomed an opinion piece in the same newspaper two weeks previously by historian Geoffrey Roberts which contained this advice:
It is a very bitter pill but now is the time for Ukraine to seek peace.
Instead of pouring arms into a losing battle, western states should be encouraging and assisting Ukraine to secure a ceasefire and peace deal that will safeguard its future freedom and independence.
Instead of fighting a proxy war with Russia, the West should be using its moral and material might to extract concessions from Putin that will get Ukraine the best deal possible.
Mrs. Higgins postulated this as “a moment of moral choice” for “concerned people of the world” to demand that the war be brought to an end or that the conflict be let go on.
As everybody knows well too, the letter generated a furore between those arguing that Mrs. Higgins was dead right to write as she did and those who were no less certain that she was gravely wrong to do so.
I am going to dwell too much on those arguments. They are well tilled ground, though bristling with landmines. A lot of the professed support for Mrs. Higgins’ call for peace came from recognised peaceniks who get off on parading the bravery of their virtue rather than actually contributing to positive change in the world. A lot of the opposition to her apparent perception of equivalence between Russia and Ukraine came from people who would resist Russian aggression to the last drop of Ukrainian blood — from the comfort of their own keyboards.
I suspect that if the reel of time could be wound back, Mrs. Higgins might have set her pen aside or at least worded her letter differently. The rueful words of Queen Elizabeth at the state dinner during her visit to Ireland in 2011 apply:
… with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all.
But which of us has never had occasion for such wistfulness?
Like motherhood and apple pie, the concepts of a ceasefire and its transition to a more durable settlement are indisputably a “good thing”. The real challenge though is to establish a robust path from the “here and now” towards that eminently desirable destination. We all know the desired end point. Nobody knows with total confidence the perfect route to getting there.
I take you back to similar circumstances in a different context eight decades ago.
By the last week of May 1940, Winston Churchill had been three weeks in office as Prime Minister. But his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, remained leader of the Conservative Party, many of whose MPs would have preferred to see the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, appointed Prime Minister ahead of Churchill. Both Chamberlain and Halifax were members of Churchill’s five man war cabinet, the others being Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, leader and deputy leader of Labour which had come together with the Conservatives in a national government.
Having successfully invaded Norway on 7 May, the German army began sweeping through Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France on 10 May reaching the English Channel within a fortnight. By 25 May, a French capitulation looked inevitable and it seemed doubtful that British forces in France could be evacuated safely back to Britain.
The situation was bleak. Churchill’s disposition was to continue fighting nonetheless, alone if necessary. Halifax’s was to explore the scope for a peace settlement that would leave Hitler in control of mainland Europe in exchange for respecting the independence of Britain and its empire. He favoured engaging Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, as a mediator to pursue dialogue in that direction. Halifax wanted to save something from the apparent wreckage rather than seeking vainly to continue a now unwinnable war.
The French Prime Minister, Pierre Reynaud, favoured pursuing the Mussolini channel, in the thin hope that France might secure slightly less awful terms than unconditional surrender. The French preference was that US President Franklin D Roosevelt might be approached to encourage Mussolini to take on the mediator role but a direct joint approach to Mussolini by Britain and France would be an adequate second best. Anxious to keep France fighting as long as possible, while opposed to attempted mediation, Churchill was loath to reject Reynaud’s suggestion head-on.
The issues were played out over three days of intensive war cabinet meetings from 26–28 May, the direction perhaps swayed by the comparatively successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk on 27 May.
The two Labour members were clearly supportive of Churchill’s position. For a long time, Chamberlain kept his own counsel. Churchill could possibly survive the resignation of Halifax but maybe not that of Chamberlain as well. Only on the afternoon of the third day of meetings, did Chamberlain come out definitively in Churchill’s support whereupon Churchill took the matter to the wider cabinet where support was unanimous for not pursuing mediation.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
In part, this was about difference of personality. Halifax was lugubrious, pessimistic, he would say realistic. Churchill was undoubtedly more courageous, some would say cavalier, perhaps born of a deeper well of optimism. He would have been disposed to fight on anyway. But, he would also have been sceptical of Mussolini’s qualities and bona fides as a mediator and of Hitler’s reliability as a negotiating partner, a reasonable perception based on the experience of Munich less than two years earlier.
From this distance, it seems beyond argument that Churchill was entirely right and Halifax entirely wrong. But, hindsight is indeed 20:20 vision. Foresight rarely is that. The qualities of courage and optimism that led Churchill to his standpoint got him and his country into hot water before. Churchill was the principal architect of the disastrous Gallipoli expedition of World War 1 when thousands of British and empire soldiers died for nothing.
And the correctness of the decision to fight on alone hung on threads of contingency. What if Hitler had not invaded Russia? Or if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbour bringing the US into the war? Both events always possible but never probable.
But, leaving those uncertainties aside, most important in Churchill’s mind would have been the belief that if Britain had broached a settlement with Germany directly or indirectly, Hitler would have seen his hand strengthened leaving him better able to impose terms rather than obliged to agree terms or to abide by whatever terms he might agree.
The future is inherently unknowable and counterfactuals are always pristine. But, this is a certainty. While we would all like the war in Ukraine to end and lives to be saved, whichever of the warring parties makes the first step in that direction has immediately swung the balance of negotiating leverage towards the other side.
“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” These stirring words from President Kennedy’s inaugural address sound as compelling as they are uplifting. But it is equally true that a hesitancy to negotiate is not always attributable to a fear of doing so.