AS I SEE IT
What have Kate Middleton, Sabina Coyne Higgins and Rebekah Vardy got in common? They are each in a sense a consort. They are in the public eye through their marriages. If Kate, aka Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, was not wed to William, heir to the British throne, Sabina to President Michael D and Rebekah Vardy to VIP footballer Jamie Vardy it is unlikely that any of them would have made headlines.
Playing second fiddle, overshadowed by a spouse who is royal, a president or a sports star isn’t an easy role to play either personally or in public. There are precious few, if any, rules but a lot of unwritten expectations. As a royal or a presidential spouse there are plenty of duties but no personal pay packet, although there are certainly perks. The spouse of a monarch is supposed to provide company and moral and practical support while the role of an American First Lady or a First Gentleman, is to be a hostess/ host and to focus on causes and social initiatives. And WAGS (wives and girlfriends of sportsmen) might consider keeping in step with the way that their husbands are seen as role models.
Whoever the consort happens to be, it’s hard to get it right, some accept what is involved in the role and adapt as Kate Middleton has done so successfully. But for Meghan Markle being a member of the royal firm was like being an ugly sister with Cinderella’s slipper. It simply didn’t fit, resulting in her and Harry’s Megxit to California and rupture with the Royal family.
Getting it wrong can go very wrong. Rebecca Vardy tried to make a name and money for herself selling gossip to the tabloid press. In taking a libel case against Colleen Rooney who had accused her of leaking gossip about her, resulted in a devastating own goal for Vardy ruining her reputation and costing herself and husband more than £3m.
Women in a consort role seem to come in for far more flack than men. Did you ever see clouds of controversy around businessman Denis Thatcher, the first ever Prime Ministerial mate? For that matter do we hear criticism of lawyer Doug Emhoff, Second Gentleman to Kamal Harris’s Vice President: the man is practically invisible. Maybe it’s because it is accepted that men just carry on doing their own thing.
Being able to find a personal vision in the consort role seems to help. In her book’ Becoming’ Michelle Obama revealed she initially felt overwhelmed by being the first African American First Lady, until she found her purpose during a visit to a girls’ school in London. There, many of the pupils came from modest backgrounds and ethnic minorities as Michelle herself had done “I knew they’d have to push back against stereotypes that would get put on them,” she said. But then she saw the young girls’ optimism and, in that moment, she says, she realised that being First Lady would open up a door of opportunity for so many others.
The acid test for consorts, it seems to me, is whether their behaviour is appropriate in the circumstances. Is writing a letter to the Irish Times an appropriate thing for the wife of the President to do as Sabina Coyne Higgins did? The answer depends on the letter. In this case Sabina’s letter dealt with the war in Ukraine and demand that “until the world persuades President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Vlodymyr Zelensky to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations the long haul of terrible war will go on”.
The letter supports husband Michael D’s anti-war views but foreign policy is a matter for the Government of the day, outside the Constitutional role of the President. It was not an appropriate area for comment by his wife nor for posting on the official Uachtaran na Eireann website.
As it was the letter, which appeared to equate a brutal invader with a president trying to defend his people, that stirred up a hornet’s nest, offending Ukrainians, putting President Higgins in a difficult situation, embarrassing the Government and giving the Russian Ambassador ammunition by appearing to support Russia.
Would the Irish Times have published the letter which addressed none of the complexities of the situation and had nothing new to say, if some eagle- eyed sub editor hadn’t spotted the by-line Sabina Coyne Higgins? I doubt it, it would have gone in the waste paper basket or the sub would have hit the delete button.