Mary McAleese - Strutting without Purpose

  • 26 October 2007
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Mary McAleese is the living, breathing personification of the colour pale pink – easy on the eye, unthreatening and acceptable to the fashion police. By Justine McCarthy


What does a president have to do around here to get noticed? Maybe, accuse Northern Protestants of rearing their children like Nazis?  Eulogise Pearse's blood sacrifice and demonise the British administration in Dublin Castle for running the country out of their wing-backed leather chairs in the Kildare Street Club, perhaps? Or address a conference in Saudi where the other – sinisterly veiled – females are hidden behind a screen to remove temptation from the menfolk? No. Been there, done that, had the nine-day-wonder controversy. End of story.

Such is the consensus that Mary McAleese is a safe wee pair of  hands, she could blow up the Áras and run the site it as a training camp for the French Foreign Legion and nobody would utter as much as a quelle surprise.  The woman is as safe as a bunker in Switzerland. And, of course, for ‘safe', read ‘boring'. Now that Eoghan Harris has stopped fretting about the ‘tribal timebomb' ticking towards nationalist Apocalypse and Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens having  implicitly conceded that, between them, they could not produce a candidate to contest her re-election, whatever fizz was originally in the McAleese presidency has gone flat.  

She is the living, breathing personification of the colour pale pink - easy on the eye, unthreatening and acceptable to the fashion police. Newspapers that once slavishly chronicled President Mary Robinson's every twitch and jaunty head bob, do not even bother assigning reporters to cover the majority of President Mary McAleese's gigs.  Not that her workload is terribly inspiring.

Take the week starting October 1st last.  On Monday, her day began at 11am when she opened the International Dairy Federation Summit on the theme, “Dairying - Can it manage Change?”, in Dublin's Burlington Hotel. At 2.30pm, she presented awards in Aras an Uachtarain to schoolchildren for a road safety project and, at 4pm, she opened a meditation garden in Kilbarrack to mark the jubilee year of the Church of St John the Evangelist.   

Tuesday was even quieter.  She received the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Paddy Byrne at 10.30am (for what purpose is not clarified in her diary) and, at 11.30am, received the diplomatic credentials of the new ambassadors from Egypt, Canada and Iran. She had the afternoon off.

No engagements were scheduled for the next day either. Thursday began at 11am with the President giving an opening address at a conference on migration organised by the Immigrant Council of Ireland. At 2.45pm she visited a school on the northside of Dublin for its 50th anniversary and, at 4pm, she gave a speech at an entrepreneurship conference in Dublin Docklands.  She had no engagements that Friday or throughout the weekend.

The problem with Mary McAleese is not so much that she is an invisible president as that she is, largely, an ignored presence.  She has fallen victim to a convergence of phemomena.  One being the great sigh of relief emitted by her erstwhile critics, seduced by her informal amicability and eager fence-mending with loyalists and unionists.  (One of its most practical manifestations was a seminar organised by Martin McAleese on how to deal with the strangulating red tape of the EU, at which farmers and businesses in the republic are famously adept).  Another being the palpable sense that Mary Robinson had already stormed all the old barricades of the job, leaving no frontiers for her successor.  
But probably the most pertinent is that Mary McAleese is a cheerleader of the status quo. Bertie Ahern, who pops over to see her in the Park every five weeks, is a political soul mate of the woman who once chased a Dáil seat (unsuccessfully) for Fianna Fail in Dublin South East and whom he chose as the party's presidential candidate 10 years ago. She still cleaves to the Fianna Fail culture; a nationalist who exults in Ireland's economic success and counts some of the richest builders in the land among her most ardent financial supporters.

All these ingredients were there too for her first seven-year stint as president. The difference this time round is that the peace process is as good as complete, rendering redundant her mission to build bridges (which she and Martin have done with consummate discipline and, mostly, behind the scenes), within the narrow confines of cross-border bonding, as she has defined it.  

Peace was far from secure during McAleese's first term, giving her the opportunity to shine as a compassionate, articulate and relevant earth-mother to the aspired whole nation.  Her dignified attendance at the memorial services following the Omagh bombing, when she greeted her old Queen's University adversary, David Trimble, were probably her finest hour, capturing her in a role as patron for the whole island.  

But, in the afterglow of Ian Paisley's benign power grab and his avuncular handshake with Bertie Ahern at Farmleigh, the North has receded as a significant national issue.  Mary McAleese's reluctance to let go creates the impression of a single-agenda figurehead stuck in a time warp.  Rather like Miss Havisham, sitting by the window in her good frock waiting for the Queen of England to arrive and crown her crusade.

While those who were initially fearful of her presidency now form the vanguard of her fans, many people who voted for her 10 years ago believe that the unchallenging tone of her tenure has turned the clock back on the office to the dull old days of Paddy Hillery (a person who was uncomfortable in the office and, genuinely, served in the national interest, certainly not his own).  

Or worse. That she is now unelected by the people, having been shooed back into the job by the cosy establishment, is a major handicap at a juncture when Irish democracy is being incrementally undermined by such events as the resurrection of Beverley Flynn, the conviction of ex-Fianna Fail TD Michael Collins on tax charges, the nominations of Ivor Callely and John Ellis to the Seanad and Bertie Ahern's unedifying appearances at the Planning Tribunal.  Surely, it is a fundamental contradiction of the ideal of self-determination when the people are denied the right to choose their president; the person who is required to reflect the full, unaligned complexity of the citizenscape, as distinct from the agenda of the ruling class.

In assessing Mary McAleese's 10 years as president, it is not only necessary to look back, but also to imagine forwards.  What will be her legacy and how will it shape the criteria for her successor? Whether that be Gerry Adams or Bertie Ahern, Emily O'Reilly or Ronan Keating, or Eamon Dunphy or Pat Shortt, the Aras will be a much different place to the one Mary Robinson prematurely vacated in 1990. Had Labour, nominated Michael D Higgins to run against McAleese in November 2004, or had the Greens had faith in Eamon Ryan's candidacy (or even the anti-war former UN assistant secretary general, Denis Halliday's, as was touted), a debate would have happeend on the role of the president.  Because the political firmament ran scared of a campaign less than three years before a general election, any robust examination was blocked. That she had cultivated cross-party friendships with politicians in all the main parties during her first seven years ensured an unusual depth of goodwill towards her in Leinster House.

The complacency about Aras affairs these days partly can be attributed to a public relations failure to spark media interest in the president's day-to-day work.  Unless she is putting her foot in it by insulting Northern Protestants or upsetting sensitive revisionists with her version of Irish history, the attitude is that she is doing a grand job and leave her alone.  

Though people who admire her as a lawyer, writer and campaigner wonder how she could willingly retreat into the impotent shadows of the Park from her previous life as a criminal law academic and director of major company boards like Channel 4 and Viridian, that is to underestimate what she has achieved.  

Whereas people respected and even revered Mary Robinson, they like Mary McAleese and that translates into a receptive populace. It also lets her get away with the occasional trespass beyond her constitutional constraints.
Twice in the run-up to Sinn Fein's special Ard Fheis to debate its Stormont-make-or-break policy on policing, she uttered public comments. The first occasion was a visit North when she was photographed with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.  The second was in London when she commented on a report by the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, on RUC and Special Branch collusion in loyalist murders. The report would, opined the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, add impetus to Sinn Fein's resolution to support the PSNI, which was to be voted on two days later. This startlingly-political intervention elicited not a squeak of protest from any quarter.  It seems that politicians on both sides of the border are prepared to forgive her the odd indiscretion as long as it is in synch with the agreed choreography.

The biggest gamble she has taken as president has been to conduct much of her work behind the scenes, a departure from the job's bread-and-butter as greeter-in-chief.  An inveterate letter-writer, she personally corresponds in private with citizens caught up in headline-setting tragedies. “You'd be amazed at how hard she works,” says a frequent visitor to the Áras.  “She's often still sitting at her desk at 11.30 or midnight, still writing and clearing paperwork.”

For all its geniality and pleasantness, there is a  staleness about the McAleese presidency after 10 years.  With four more years to go, the atmosphere should be conducive by the time of 2011 campaign for a real debate about what the job should entail.  The method of nominating candidates needs to be revised and the anachronistic age ban on anyone under 35 offering themselves as a candidate. Above all, the idea must be challenged that the same person can continue to reflect a rapidly changing country for 14 unbroken years.  Perhaps that debate will be Mary McAleese's enduring legacy.                

Justine McCarthy wrote the unofficial biography of the president, “Mary McAleese: The Outsider".