Her public persona was charming, but behind the scenes she radiated a cold determination to win, writes Fergus Finlay

I’VE decided. If there is a next life, I’m coming back as a rugby pundit. You might have been too busy tidying up after Christmas to notice, but on Stephen’s Day I wrote a column here about Shannon, Munster, and Irish Rugby. Shannon for the League and Munster for the European Cup. That’s my dream.

And I ended that column by writing: “And then, first week in February, the Six Nations starts. This is the tough year for Ireland. Although we have three home games we start away against France and we finish away against England. But hey, we’ve never won a Grand Slam in Twickenham. Last year, we stopped England from winning the Grand Slam when they came to Dublin. Wouldn’t you give your eye teeth to see them trying to prevent us from winning a Grand Slam in Twickenham?”

Well, at the end of the month, Munster play Toulon in Thomond Park in the European Cup quarter final. Shannon are lying a close third in their division of the league, with a game in hand over the leaders and three or four games to go.

And then there’s next Saturday. Whatever about my punditry skills, I’m not sure my heart is going to be able to take it. I’m tense already, with nearly a week to go.

The one thing I can be pretty sure of is that whoever wins that match on Saturday, they’re going to deserve it. I can’t remember the last time when, to coin that old cliché, Ireland failed to turn up for an important fixture. We know already that they are not going to let us down on Saturday.

It may seem a laboured comparison, but someone else who has never let her country down is Mary McAleese. I’m not saying that as someone who was always a fan of hers, but of all the public figures I’ve known over the years, there are few who have come so far, or learned so much.

I can remember Mary McAleese speaking at the New Ireland Forum in 1984. She was seen then as the acceptable face of the Catholic Bishops Conference, and her purpose was to present a pretty entrenched view of Catholic education in Northern Ireland. She was charming and articulate, but what I remember most was her implacability.

I encountered her next as a candidate for the presidency of Ireland. She was perhaps the toughest candidate I’ve come across, and I was involved in every presidential election, one way or another, since the late 1980s.

She came from nowhere to win the Fianna Fáil nomination, and left more than a few scars behind in the process. And in the election itself, she took scalp after scalp. Her public persona was charming, but behind the scenes she radiated a cold determination to win.

You’ll remember that campaign, I have no doubt. It started with Albert Reynolds and Michael O’Kennedy, two very senior Fianna Fáilers, being left bruised and bloodied. She herself was attacked as a “tribal time bomb” by Eoghan Harris, who went on to call her an arrogant and unreconstructed northern nationalist. She won the election after a tempestuous campaign.

I was on the losing side of that campaign, and watched it with awe. I never believed the wilder Harris claims about her, but I really wondered how she could possibly be a unifying figure in the Áras.

And in her first year, some of the silly things she did indicated someone who was quite out of touch with modern Ireland. There was almost a sense that she was there, in part, to roll back some of the gains of the Robinson presidency.

Her early decision for example to miss the Dublin Horse Show, and the inference that she saw it as some relic of British ascendancy, seemed at the time like a real throwback.

But as time went by, the impression began to emerge of someone visibly growing in office. She threw the Áras open to loyalists and unionists. Along with her husband Martin — surely the most useful “First Man” the country has ever had — she initiated dialogues that helped to cement the steady progress being made in community and political relations on both sides of the boarder.

And little by little she became a champion of reform and change. She was attacked as a “sham” by the unfortunate Cardinal Desmond Connell for taking communion in an Anglican Church, and later by Cardinal Law of Boston, who told her she wasn’t Catholic enough to be President of Ireland.

Law, of course, subsequently resigned when it was revealed he had covered up massive child sexual abuse, and Connell was found by the Murphy Commission to have been slow in coming to terms with the reality and scale of child abuse under his stewardship.

It’s funny how sometimes you can measure how influential a person is by the nature of the attacks on them. Mary McAleese started her political journey by being characterised as a “tribal time bomb”.

She proved that wrong. On Sunday she was accused on radio of demeaning her former office by her criticism of the Catholic Church’s attitude to women.

The attack was made by a priest, Vincent Twomey, who clearly demonstrated how accurate McAleese was when she described the theological arguments against the advancement of women as nothing more than codology.

His decision to attack her personally, rather than taking on her arguments, were all of a piece with the earlier attacks on her by Catholic prelates.

As she has grown in office, Mary McAleese has become, more and more, a champion for greater equality. That may be surprising in itself, given the earlier impression she created. But it’s a sign, surely, that people can grow and develop.

Her presidency looked at the start as if it was going to be hidebound and traditional. But throughout her time in office, the people most welcome in the Áras were people with an intellectual disability — never patronised, but always respected for who they were. And her last official act as president was to visit homeless men, in a hostel next door to our offices in Barnardos.

THERE’S nothing in the Constitution that deprives a president of the right to hold and express opinions once they leave office. Sure, there wasn’t much of a tradition here, but that’s because the great majority of previous presidents were very elderly men when they retired.

In the equal marriage referendum, Mary McAleese played a seminal role, simply by allowing her humanity to shine through in everything she said on the subject. It had much the same impact as the emotion showed by Mary Robinson when she visited famine-torn Somalia as president in the early 1990s.

We’ve been lucky in our presidents, haven’t we? And luckier still in the fact that two of our former presidents, each in their own way, have chosen to use their time after holding elective office to make a contribution to the world around them.

There’ll always be those who believe that people like McAleese and Robinson should just shut up and go away. I hope they don’t, because the world would be a poorer place without them.

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