MATT COOPER: Our superb President with the common touch has raised the bar

WHO would ever have imagined at the time of her election that Mary McAleese would have turned out to be such a superb president?

Or that the candidates lining up this year to replace her, after two seven-year terms in the job, would have such a high benchmark to attempt to reach?

The President’s performances during the visit of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth will go down as one of the highlights of her time in office, and a memorable point on which to bow out. She handled all of the events with great dignity, especially at the Garden of Remembrance and the War Memorial at Islandbridge, and the State dinner at which she spoke so wonderfully herself before the Queen made the speech that captured the headlines. She was warm and welcoming and clearly had the ability to put the Queen at ease as she chatted without falter. With President McAleese you never have to worry that she’ll make a fool of herself or, by extension, us.

Admittedly, there had been concerns up until this year that her second term had not been the success of the first. To some, she did not seem as active or engaged, as if it all had gone on too long. Well, even if that was true she has made up for it in the last few weeks, doing the country proud.

So how did the former television reporter turned law lecturer become such a success? Many thought she wouldn’t and indeed fought against her, thinking that she was unsuitable to replace Mary Robinson, who had been a reforming, modernising presence. Two things were held against McAleese by her critics: one was her apparently conservative, strongly Catholic views, the other her perceived strongly nationalistic background.

As it has happened she has never made her strong religious beliefs or affiliation to a particular religion an issue. She has not forced them upon anyone else and has been entirely comfortable in dealing with those with different ethnic or religious backgrounds, or those with no religious beliefs.

Her Northern heritage has proven to be a boon, not the burden some thought it would be when she sought election. Her background as a strong defender of nationalist rights in Northern Ireland led some to campaign vigorously, and at times viciously, against her in the presidential election campaign of 1997. Far from being a “tribal time-bomb” (a phrase which was withdrawn graciously at a later stage by its author Eoghan Harris, who admitted that she had proven him entirely wrong) she has lived up to her campaign slogan of “building bridges”. The Good Friday Agreement was signed less than six months after her inauguration but much work had to be done in its aftermath to secure the peace. She and her husband Martin very often quietly and behind the scenes, but with no wish to receive beneficial publicity, worked hard with extremists, particularly of the loyalist persuasion, to get them engaged with the process. She paid visits to Britain, where she developed a relationship with the British royal family, and visited the Somme, to honour the Irish who had lost their lives fighting for Britain in the First World War. She has been a tremendous ambassador abroad, able to deliver speeches, either scripted or impromptu, with style and grace. She speaks with a distinct voice, without having to borrow from others and when she quotes, particularly favourite poets such as Seamus Heaney, it is with appropriate attribution. I have seen her hold audiences with ease, as she delivers her speech without shouting.

It was no surprise that nobody considered running against her for election in 2004 when she decided to seek the Presidency again. Her popularity rating at the time was near to 90%, an incredible figure, especially as she had taken over from someone so popular herself. She has shown herself to be a woman with the common touch. She was not remote or detached from the people she represents, a genuine first among equals.

I saw this at first hand nine years ago, when I had personal experience of her generosity and genuineness, offered spontaneously. In January 2002, she presented the Corkman of the Year awards for 2001 at which I was a guest. I had brought my mother Kathleen, since deceased, to the event with me. My mother had suffered a serious stroke in the summer of 1998 and a series of further debilitating episodes had left her wheelchair bound for increasingly rare visits outside of the home as her health deteriorated.

Her speech had been badly impaired although she was aware of everything going on around her and of what people are saying to her. My mother, like the president, happened to be from the Ardoyne in north Belfast, and also moved to the republic as an adult, albeit in an earlier generation. As the presentation to the winner ended, and as the President moved to leave the stage, I took my opportunity to do something that in retrospect probably broke protocol. I asked the president if she could do me a small favour before she returned to her seat for the lunch. I explained that my mother was from Belfast and in poor health and asked if she could spare just a moment to say hello to her before she left the function. Without a second’s hesitation, she asked me to bring her to my mother’s table, which happened to be at the back of the large hall in the old Jury’s Hotel.

To the amazement and delight of my mother, the president not only appeared at her table but dropped into my vacant seat and proceeded to talk about Belfast, Ardoyne and other related matters for about five minutes. It more than made my mother’s day. The photograph of her with the President was on her wall at home until her death, and it still has pride of place in my own home.

It may seem like a relatively small thing, and easy enough to do, but it was spontaneous and unforced on the president’s part and illustrative of her genuine openness with people and interest in them. Though this might be unfair to them I cannot imagine that I would have asked any of her predecessors to have done the same; something about President McAleese told me that it was all right to ask.

Most certainly no British monarch would ever have been asked to do something like this by one of his or her subjects. And while we may have enjoyed the visit of Queen Elizabeth, because we enjoyed offering friendship to the representative of our nearest neighbours, it is so much better that we are offered the opportunity every seven years to pick a candidate who suits us, to represent us, one among equals, elected because of suitability not put into the position because of the privilege of birth.

What do we want of the next President? There is talk that the government might like an economic ambassador. In a recent visit to Holland President McAleese, who has been a regular on trade and cultural missions, and who again has performed appropriately on all such occasions, laid down a firm marker as to the government’s determination to maintain sovereignty over our decision to set corporation tax rates as we see appropriate. It worked well and the Dutch backed us. It may have set down a role for her successor. She will be able to enjoy her retirement, or take on another role, secure in the knowledge that she has served us well.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30 pm to 7pm.


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