Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Few queuing up to replace bridge-building McAleese

Ed Curran

In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and the welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me."

Hands up who wants to become the next Irish president? Not many, it seems, which is surprising given the standing of the current incumbent, Mary McAleese.

The post comes with excellent terms and conditions as well as a package of perks. The salary is close on £300,000. The successful candidate has a free seven-year lease on a 92-room mansion in Phoenix Park and this can be extended to 14 years, as was the case with Mrs McAleese.

A love of travel is essential, as are good people-skills and a desire to entertain guests to lunches, dinners and receptions on a weekly basis.

Servants and admin staff are standard extras, as is a Mercedes S-Class and a 1947 Rolls-Royce, complete with chauffeur and garda outriders on special occasions, plus round-the-clock security guards on home and person.

Potential candidates are queuing up to say 'no thanks' to all this largesse. RTE's legendary broadcaster, Gay Byrne (right), is the latest and most notable cry-off.

He has made a wise decision. Somehow, 'His Excellency the President of Ireland Gay Byrne,' doesn't seem quite appropriate.

If anyone out there is interested in the presidency, they should beware. Having the endorsement of the ailing Fianna Fail party is likely to destroy any chance of winning.

Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney could have proved a shoo-in for the role. Regrettably, but understandably, he would only allow his name to go forward as an all-party candidate and no agreement proved possible on this basis.

Currently, the most likely winner appears to be Michael D O'Higgins, highly respected as a Labour Party politician, poet, author and broadcaster. However, he appears more passionate about the Irish artistic and cultural scene than about the matters to which Mary McAleese devoted so much of her time.

Some unionists may say they couldn't care less who gets the post, but they should. Whether they like it or not, whoever is selected in October will have a bearing on events and attitudes in Northern Ireland and on relationships between Britain and the Republic.

Both Mary McAleese and her predecessor Mary Robinson have made the presidency into something much more special than it ever was before.

Until Mrs Robinson came along in 1990, the residence in Phoenix Park was a retirement home for ageing males - most of whom were discarded Fianna Fail leaders.

Past presidents, other than Eamon de Valera who held the post from 1959 until 1973, had little or no standing internationally. The Republic's constitutional claim over Northern Ireland haunted unionists.

No unionist would have anything to do with an Irish president so long as the offending Articles Two and Three remained in the Republic's constitution - as they did until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 afforded the people of Northern Ireland the right to determine their own destiny.

As a consequence, relations with the Republic of Ireland and with the presidential office have changed utterly for the better. The fact that Mary McAleese is so often in Northern Ireland bears testimony to her very different interpretation of her presidential responsibilities compared to any of her seven predecessors.

The initial unionist resistance to her visits has given way to a guarded welcome. The president is now coming and going very much as she pleases and hardly a hair is raised.

The second distinctive point about Mrs McAleese's 14 years in office is that no previous Irish president was ever as outspoken as she has been on so many contentious issues - not least the relationships between the Republic, Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Unlike her predecessors, she deserves more than a footnote in Irish history for copper-fastening a historic new entente, as illustrated by the astonishing success of the Queen's recent visit to Dublin and Cork.

That is why it is all the more surprising for people in the Republic to be so apathetic about selecting her successor and why so few candidates of calibre are in the running to replace her.

The next Irish president must not retreat from the challenge of preserving good neighbourliness across these islands. He or she must understand that nurturing unionists and comforting nationalists in Northern Ireland is what Mary McAleese's time in office was all about.

In doing so, the Belfast woman has proved that the office of Irish president can be much more than a sinecure for retiring politicians.

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