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

‘ “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

Thu, Sep 12, 2013, 01:00

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.

Although the circumstances were somewhat different, I’m reminded of a story a relative told me a few years ago. He was returning from a Manchester United match in Old Trafford and, while queuing for the Ryanair flight, noticed intending passengers included Brian Cowen, then minister for finance.

Not only was Mr Cowen travelling as an ordinary citizen, he was also having trouble boarding. The problem, apparently, was that somebody in Dublin Airport had accidentally torn the bottom off both his outbound and inbound tickets. So now he was being told to wait at the back of the queue. He would be allowed to board only if there was still a seat available when everybody else was on.

This, to his credit, Mr Cowen was happy to do. But, as with the Robinsons, it was others who took offence on his behalf. I suspect their annoyance was exacerbated by a realisation that nobody in Manchester Airport knew who Mr Cowen was. So the pride of Ireland, as much as of any individual, was at stake.

In any case, despite the minister’s protestations, my relative made a point of waiting at the back with him; and had it proven necessary (which it didn’t), was ready to pay the ultimate price and lay down his seat for the Republic.

Mind you, that was back in the good old days: late 2007, probably, or early 2008. It was certainly before Mr Cowen became taoiseach and therefore before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, exactly five years ago, with all the consequences that followed.

Mention of the French revolution earlier prompted me to check today’s date, according to the short-lived but still fascinating revolutionary calendar. Introduced in the 1790s, this abolished Sundays, holy days, and seven-day weeks, in favour of a utilitarian system of 10-day units, in which every fifth day was named for an animal, every 10th for an implement, and the rest for plants or minerals.

According to the calendar, revolutionary year 221 ends next Monday. In the meantime, today’s date is 26 Fructidor (“month of fruits”). And, perhaps aptly, the plant honoured is bigarade, also known as Seville orange, a fruit famous for its bitter aftertaste.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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