The first shall be last
An Irishman’s Diary about egalitarianism and air travel
‘ “Scandalised” is a fair description of how Will felt about a scene that unfolded at Nice airport recently. It started when he was queuing for a flight with his girlfriend and they noticed that several places behind them was our former president, Mary Robinson, and her husband Nick.’ Photograph: Getty Images
It’s rather refreshing these days to hear of a scandal involving a public figure not abusing taxpayers’ money, but that’s the gist of an email we received from a Wexford reader named Will. Maybe “scandal” is overstating it. And yet “scandalised” is a fair description of how Will felt about a scene that unfolded at Nice airport recently.
It started when he was queuing for a flight with his girlfriend and they noticed that several places behind them was our former president, Mary Robinson, and her husband Nick.
The two were standing in line, like regular punters, a situation Will thought unfitting of their dignity. In fact, his first instinct was to suggest swapping places. But he feared this might embarrass them, or annoy others in the queue. So he didn’t, and the Robinsons had to wait their turn.
Over on “airside”, however, Will assumed they would disappear into a private lounge, before being spirited through priority boarding. Wrong again. The former president-turned-UN high commissioner and her husband waited in the departure lounge like everyone else before, like everyone else, joining the “interminable” boarding queue.
And there was still no sign of any minders at the baggage hall of Dublin airport, where they collected and lugged their own suitcases. They were at all times approachable – and indeed approached – by other passengers, with whom they chatted amicably. Nor did they seek any of the preferential treatment they weren’t getting.
It was Will, by contrast, who was outraged. “It stuck in my gut,” he admits, especially compared with the way other countries pampered their retired dignitaries, many of whom of “couldn’t hold a candle” to Mrs Robinson. “Are we afraid to flaunt our former leaders?” he asks, and invites the opinion of others.
I’ll leave that question to readers. But in the meantime, I checked with Bride Rosney of the Mary Robinson Foundation, who confirmed that the former president and her husband were travelling privately in France, and subject to no special status.
When on official assignment, as with the Council of State, Mrs Robinson can request a car and driver. Equally, on State business, she is entitled to VIP treatment at airports. But again she has to ask, says Bride. And it did not arise in Nice, where she and her husband were like any other citizens.
So there you are. I suppose that seeing a former president behind you in a queue is one of the lesser glories of republicanism. In which light, it’s apt that the scene happened in France, the country that gave us “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, while drastically cutting the – ahem – overheads associated with aristocracy.