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Wife of Irish president stirs furore with call for Ukraine-Russia talks

Ireland’s president and his wife have stirred controversy after first lady Sabina Higgins called for Ukraine and Russia to negotiate to end their war, in a letter briefly posted on the presidential website.

The letter, published in the Irish Times last week, was praised by the Russian ambassador to Ireland, Yuri Filatov, who told the newspaper the argument “makes sense”.

But some politicians criticised the letter for appearing to put Ukraine and Russia on the same footing rather than casting Moscow as the aggressor in the war that started in February.

“Until the world persuades President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations, the long haul of terrible war will go on,” the wife of President Michael D. Higgins wrote.

Ireland’s government, which has stressed it is militarily but not politically neutral in the conflict, has demanded an end to the Russian invasion.

The letter from Ms Higgins, who has in the past campaigned against wars, was slammed as a “propaganda victory” for Russia by Cormac Smith, a former adviser to Kyiv’s foreign ministry.

The letter has now been removed from the presidential website. The Irish president’s office did not immediately reply to a request to say why it was posted and then withdrawn.

The row follows other EU messages that have angered Ukraine’s government, including a remark in June by French president Emmanuel Macron urging the West not to “humiliate” Russia over its invasion.

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, has in the past called for a ceasefire, but not reiterated such calls recently.

Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, in May called for a ceasefire and for international pressure to bring Moscow to the negotiating table. Draghi was under pressure from coalition partners, who claimed Italy’s supply of weapons to Ukraine was fuelling the conflict. Draghi has stressed that any peace deal must be acceptable to Ukraine.

Higgins’ office said in a statement to Irish media that the president had been “unequivocal in his condemnation of the Russian invasion”, describing it as “illegal, immoral and unjustifiable”, and had called for an “immediate Russian withdrawal and end to the violence”.

Erin McGreehan, a senator from Fianna Fáil, a party that is part of Ireland’s ruling coalition, said publishing Ms Higgins’ letter “disrespected our nation” and urged the president to apologise. “If he doesn’t he should most definitely consider his position,” McGreehan wrote on Twitter.

The president has taken contentious stances in the past. In June, he slammed Ireland’s chronic housing crisis as “our great, great, great failure” and a “disaster”.

Last year, he refused to attend an event marking the centenary of Northern Ireland’s partition. Simon Coveney, Dublin’s foreign minister, said at the time “President Higgins is the kind of person who makes his own decisions.”

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in Rome and Guy Chazan in Berlin

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