Don’t get me wrong. I like and admire Mary Mac. We go back a long way to the days before she went to the Park and we argued like cat and dog as fellow members of Queen’s Senate. She always looks the part and brings dignity to the office while being refreshingly normal in private. (She still greets Northerners with a natural, friendly “What about ye?”) And in 14 years she has very rarely put a foot wrong: quite a feat for a person with strong views in a job which puts considerable constraints on the holder’s freedom of speech. That she has strong views is what I like most about her. She defends her corner tenaciously like the best of gutsy Northern women.
No, my problem is that I just don’t happen to agree with those views very often. Fourteen years in the Áras is a long time. Views change, people change. None of us would like to be held to things we said 20 or 30 years ago.
And, while she has been looking at the world from the viewpoint of Phoenix Park, rather than the Queen’s common room or Ardoyne, who knows what revisions have taken place? But we know she was at the diehard end of Fianna Fáil under Haughey at one time and fairly anti-European with it. And we do know she was sufficiently anti-abortion and anti-divorce to be trusted as the bishops’ spear-carrier at the New Ireland Forum, although, in fairness, she bit back by showily taking Anglican communion upon becoming President.
What certainly don’t seem to have changed much are her nationalist views. Never one to associate herself publicly with the SDLP when she was in the North, let’s gloss over her ‘Prods are like Nazis’ remarks at Auschwitz in 2005 for which she fully apologised.
What sticks in the craw were her comments in Dublin Castle during the Queen’s visit. Again, in fairness, the long-overdue visit might never have happened without Mary McAleese’s determination. And a great success it was, too.
But did she have to drone on about “colonisers and the colonised”? Do presidents of Commonwealth countries do that when the Queen visits? They don’t — because the reality of past relationships is undeniable. But are these terms very useful when the equal reality is that before 1916, the people of this island were not just praying or starving or fighting for their freedom? Ask people in India or the Caribbean or Africa: the Irish were merrily colonising as well, occasionally massacring dark-skinned people as they went. Who are the majority of the people of Australia if not the descendants of colonisers from both these islands who pushed the Aborigines into the interior?
The President also seemed to have a bit of a problem with constitutional niceties. “The tides that surround each of us,” she said. Aren’t the tides flowing past Down the same as those flowing past Louth? Was she forgetting that her guest is — and 94% agreed this — the “legitimate” (to quote Good Friday) head of state of the Northern bit of this island? Yes, there are two main islands and two states but they are not contiguous. Accepting that was, in large part, what made peace possible. We are playing with fire if we forget it.
Naturally, the President paid tribute to great Britons from this island — and great Irishmen and Irishwomen who have contributed to the United Kingdom (a term which never fell from Mary’s lips). But, curiously, she couldn’t come up with the name of a single great Briton from this island born after 1920. The subtext was clear.
Now, you might be thinking the President should be cut a bit of slack. But turn the tables for a second. Can you imagine the reaction if the Queen had stood up and said how much she valued her 1.7 million citizens in Northern Ireland? What would have happened if she had responded to Mary McAleese’s “deeply proud of Ireland’s difficult journey to national sovereignty… to build a republic which asserts religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities…” with how deeply proud she is of her security forces’ fight against terrorism and the cult of death, and the United Kingdom’s 500 year-long stand for Reformation values? There would have been rioting in the streets.
The Queen doesn’t need to say these things. She pins medals on the lapels of those who have fought the IRA and their obnoxious loyalist counterparts. She doesn’t pray for the Pope on a Sunday. She makes her best citizens from Northern Ireland — from all religions — knights and dames and peers of the realm. She doesn’t make childish, nationalistic, “aren’t-we-great” remarks on State occasions.
So, I’m glad May McAleese’s term is nearing its end. I look forward to a good old debate with her about all these issues someday when she is a private citizen again and can argue back at me as ferociously as she did before she was elevated to high office. And, I suspect, she will enjoy the rough and tumble as much as me. Nevertheless, that she can’t make her dubious points as President for much longer is a source of great personal relief.
But what next? Having just written the above, I fully realise any candidate for the Presidency endorsed by me will be regarded as dangerously anti-nationalist. Fortunately none of those currently in the field wholly appeals.
Michael D? A true gentleman and cultured with it, but perhaps too anti-American? Mairéad McGuinness? Do we need a farmers’ president? Avril Doyle? She’d do a good job but isn’t she just in it to stop Mairéad McGuiness? Gay Mitchell? Too Dublin? Pat Cox? Is Ireland quite that pro-European anymore? Mary Davis? Impressive on the stump and would be a great FF candidate if FF were flavour of the decade which they aren’t. Seán Gallagher the same. Niall O’Dowd? That would be out of the nationalist frying pan and into the fire.
Which leaves David Norris. It seems a pity the incumbent president can only nominate him or herself since Norris seems to be the most popular contender currently. His campaign needs to get back on track, though. “Vote for me, I’m a victim of homophobia” isn’t a winning strategy.
So, let’s see if there are any further runners and riders. It should be Fine Gael’s race to lose. Having never won the Presidency before, they would dearly love to break the duck.
But the lesson from the Robinson and McAleese campaigns is that the public wants someone perceived to be ‘independent’, even if the two Marys were technically Labour/WP and FF candidates. Someone from the FG gene pool but not someone who has recently stood on the party ticket?
I can think of such a man, but can he be persuaded? If he can’t, FG might be advised to back the strongest Independent. Running a losing candidate cost Alan Dukes the leadership, remember, and the stakes were much lower then.