Going public

SO Ireland has a new head of state.

Going public

Michael Daniel Higgins will today move into Áras an Uachtarain and judging by the million-plus votes he received in the election, most people feel he deserves it.

Having represented Galway West as a TD for 30 years, Michael D is no stranger to the political stage and as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht he had an important role in the ‘rainbow coalition’.

As President, the Limerick man will be thrust into the limelight, a limelight which will pose new challenges for the 70-year-old and his family.

It is all well and good for the new President; he, after all, is used to being mimicked by Mario Rosenstock and his ilk, he is used to the criticism and scrutiny that goes with politicking, but we should probably spare a thought for his family and particularly his wife, Sabina Coyne.

From the safety of relative obscurity, Sabina will become a figure of media curiosity in her role as ‘first lady.’

From today on, every button on Sabina’s dress will be analysed and mulled over, every flower on her lapel will have to be carefully chosen and what sort of tack she takes will have to be thought through.

Nick Robinson, husband of former President Mary Robinson, and, to a lesser extent, Martin McAleese, husband of departing President Mary McAleese, stayed quiet.

“They will naturally be scrutinised somewhat more, but I don’t believe they will be hounded by the press,” says Elaine Prendeville, editor of VIP magazine.

“I think Sabina’s dress sense will be analysed in the media, but, again, it’s unlikely to be headline news. I don’t think we’re looking for a new national style icon in the President’s wife. She has a very classic sense of style and this won’t change. One important consideration would be her championing of Irish designers, however not to do so could attract negative media comment.”

Luckily for Higgins and his wife, the new President’s family are grown up. Michael D will not have to deal with the fall-out from a teenage offspring getting drunk on a night out as Tony Blair had to in 2000 when his then 16-year-old son, Euan, went out and got so drunk that police found him ‘drunk and incapable’ in Leicester Square.

US President Barack Obama recently joked that one of the perks of running for a second term was having secret service agents assigned to his soon-to-be teenage daughter Malia.

The pressures on the families of public representatives must sometimes be overwhelming.

“It’s dependent on age,” says psychologist Dr Kate Byrne. “But, first of all, the family has to keep a sense of absolute balance. It’s not easy for a child to go from leading a relatively normal life to moving away from friends and family and into a different environment.

“But if their parents are in the limelight, be they celebrity or public figure, they might find [within their peer group] that they have novelty status or that they’re bullied because of it and each of those experiences brings their own pressures.

“With teens, everything they do will come under scrutiny. That can be very hard and there’s enough pressure being a teenager without all that coming into the milieu.”

The pressure continues for grown-up children of high-profile parents, says Byrne.

“They become semi-public figures and fair fodder for information. If something happens, negative or positive, it will get attention,” she says.

This hyper-vigilance can lead to stress-related issues, warns Byrne.

The Higgins family are all in their 30s and established in their careers. Given that they have grown up with a high-profile father, it is unlikely any of them will suffer from high stress levels due to intrusive media exposure.

Traditionally, the Irish media has maintained a hands-off approach to the children of our presidents. Those who have made headlines include: Erskin Childers’s daughter Nessa who is a Labour MEP; Mary McAleese’s daughter Emma, who got married in 2009 to Michael O’Connell, son of Kerry GAA legend Mick; and Mary Robinson’s son Aubrey, who is one of the organisers of the Occupy Dame Street protest.

The Higgins’s eldest child, Alice Mary Higgins, as her father’s adviser, has just come through a gruelling campaign. The 36-year-old is a former policy researcher with NGO Older and Bolder, which was established in late 2006 to call for a commitment to the development of a national strategy on ageing.

Before that, she worked with Trocaire. Alice Mary has three younger brothers; twins, Michael and John, who are aged 32, and Daniel who is 31. John is an assistant producer with Dublin-based Moondance Productions which has made several documentaries for TG4 and RTÉ. Moondance makes the popular TV show The Zoo and it has worked with music acts such as Sinead O’Connor and U2. Michael works in human rights and he recently came back to Ireland after two years working in Ethiopia. Higgins’s youngest son Daniel is studying for a PhD in economics at NUI Galway and will be staying on in the family home in Rahoon.

Entrepreneur Adrian Devane, who runs the toy company Bábogbaby.com, says the family are popular in the area and will leave a gap in the community. “They’re one of the nicest families I’ve come across in Galway and one of the most genuine group of kids,” says the 35-year-old, who grew up beside them in Fairlands and now lives beside them in Rahoon.

“They’re very like their parents. They have their own mind and they do what they believe in. They are, and always have been, very independent and it’s just a trait of their parents really. They’re four very talented individuals and you can see where they get it from.”

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