President wins her way into heart of Canada


There were nine internal flights, one international and two intercontinental; 37 speeches; nine private meetings; a dozen media interviews; changing time zones; hundreds of conversations and thousands of handshakes.

It started on October 1st and ended in Canada on Wednesday. There were three extra days in Boston and she arrives home tomorrow morning. And throughout it all, the President, Mrs McAleese, kept smiling.

Speaking in Newfoundland at the end, she described the first State visit to Canada by an Irish president as "magnificently successful". And indeed it was. All went smoothly.

The fear that the beleaguered Solicitor General for Canada, Andy Scott, might be forced out of office because of overheard remarks about the Vancouver inquiry into the use of force by the Mounties before he received her in his home province of New Brunswick, did not materialise.

He is still hanging in there. The minefield that is politics in Quebec, where a keenly fought election is due next month and where the sensibilities of the feuding separatists and federalists are easily offended, was successfully negotiated.

But then, State visits are not political. Mrs McAleese came to Canada on foot of an invitation to her predecessor which was hurriedly cancelled when a general election was called. While she was flying the flag to promote international relations and Ireland's image abroad, it was the Irish Canadians she mostly met. In a welcome speech at the start of the visit, one woman announced: "We have been waiting 250 years for this."

Canada is vast, the biggest country in the world, they say, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. But given that so much of it is Arctic wasteland, the population is only about 30 million. There are several million of Irish descent. The trickle that emigrated in the 17th century turned into thousands during the Famine years and there has been a steady stream since. They are a more low-key group than the Irish in the other fields of emigration, like the US and Australia.

She visited them in central and eastern Canada - in the federal capital Ottawa, the business centre Toronto, French Canada's Montreal and its capital, the world heritage city of Quebec, near where thousands of emigrants from the Famine are buried on the former quarantine island of Grosse Ile, and in the maritime provinces of Atlantic Canada - Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

Everywhere, the President was upbeat about Ireland's economic, political and cultural renaissance. She heartily thanked the Canadians for their help and support for the peace process, for their financial contributions and for lending Ireland Gen John de Chastelain.

She spoke of Ireland as one country of five million people totally determined that the peace would hold, of her firm belief that it would and of the horror of Omagh. She told them of her home in Rostrevor, of her grandfather cutting turf in Roscommon and of her relatives in Canada's east coast provinces.

She paid tribute to the compassion of the Canadians, particularly evident in the way they cared for the sick and dying off the Famine boats, and to their tolerance in that Orange and Green could bury their differences in the new land. Everywhere, she found connections. The Irish Canadians loved it.

That was all in formal speeches and the President is an able speaker. Although scripted she constantly expanded and, judging her audience, veered off in other directions, to the despair of her timekeepers but the admiration of even the Canadian professionals listening. On the endless receiving lines the President and her husband Martin were even more relaxed. There was so much to say to everyone, it was as if, as the President herself said on more than one occasion, they were still at home in Ireland. Yet her informal chatty friendliness comes with a supreme sense of confidence. One gets the impression that there are never any doubts - about anything.

While there have been a few hiccups since she took over a year ago, Mrs McAleese has grown in the job - she might have been doing it for a lifetime. This was only her second State visit yet she could have been born to the Presidential role, not in a formal, distant, stuffy sense but in her confidence with what she is doing.

The President set out at the beginning of her term to lessen the formality surrounding the office of Ireland's head of State. She has done so. One example: on a rare free night during the visit she hosted a last-minute Thanksgiving dinner in her hotel in Quebec for her travelling delegation, Irish and Canadian.

It included the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Liz O'Donnell, the Irish Ambassador to Canada, Paul Dempsey and his wife, the Canadian ambassador to Ireland, Ron Irwin and his wife, civil servants of both nationalities from Dublin and Ottawa, her personal staff, both states' security personnel and even this correspondent.

For someone without a political background, she has been doing very well indeed.