A magical affinity with the times


THERE'S a moment in every election campaign that becomes a mental freeze fame. This then symbolises the point at which the contest is over. For many people, that freezeframe of the 1990 presidential election shows the woman who became President, Mary Robinson on one knee, tying her son's shoelaces. It could be Mary Robinson on one long escalator, leaning out, face alive with smiles, to touch the hands of people travelling in the other direction. It could be a black and white poster of Mary Robinson listening to two older people.

For me, the quintessential picture from that campaign doesn't show Mary Robinson at all. It shows the late Brian Lenihan, looking tired and sick, in a closeup TV picture. The programme was the evening news, presented by Sean Duignan and the moment was when Brian turned to the camera to emphasise the points he was making. I wondered, looking at it, who could possibly have advised him to look into the camera. It left Fianna Fail shell shocked.

Immediately afterwards, Charles Haughey fired Brian Lenihan as Minister for Defence. There was always an inherent contradiction in asking the Irish people to vote for a man to become Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces when you had decided he was not fit to be the Minister responsible for them.

Padraig Flynn added to Fianna Fail's misery by making his contentious statement in a radio studio, where he could not see the reaction on other people's faces and mitigate what would be heard as a personal attack on Mary Robinson.

IN THE beginning, after the election results, there was great dismay in Fianna Fail. It was the first time the party had lost a presidential election. There was great sadness for Lenihan and a sense that "if we weren't stuck with PR, our Brian would have won, hands down."

But once Mary Robinson was inaugurated, there was a speedy awareness that this was someone who had a magical affinity with the times and a growing appreciation that this was the President who would redefine the role for good.

As President, Mary Robinson galvanised women in a way no woman politician has been able to do before or since. Her impact has been incalculable. Her election and her performance as President have created a radically new sense of possibility for women in all areas of Irish life.

That sense of possibility, it should be said, has not translated in practical terms to other women in local or general elections. It may well be that her appeal is unique and individual.

What of Mary Robinson the woman? Most people get more like themselves as they age. Mary Robinson became less like herself as President. She blossomed in the role. Meeting her in her days as a senator in Leinster House, I found her shy, lawyerly and serious minded.

As President, she became an outgoing, warm, accessible yet dignified woman who had visibly found her niche. Socially assured, she spoke confidently and authoritatively on international platforms, articulating a view of the world informed by an intellectual compassion. But she was also profoundly important to small communities around the country, making herself available to events in small rural parishes, particularly those run by women's associations, travellers, and people with disabilities.

I would also see it as important that she has been a wonderful role model for people who have difficulty with the Irish language. Before she was elected, she made a public commitment to it. As President, she delivered on that promise, spending time in the Gaeltacht, listening to native speakers, learning from them and using the language frequently in public.

NO incoming President has ever before faced a challenge on the scale of the challenge facing the next incumbent: the terrible possibility that no matter what they do or how hard they work, their period in office may be seen as an anti climax after Mary Robinson.

Mary Robinson was probably a one off. She worked at a daunting pace both at home and internationally, but she has also a large store of personal credibility.

On the international stage she was not just another do gooder. The vision she articulated in Rwanda, Somalia and other places was validated by a track record of commitment to human rights going back several decades.

She also managed to expand the role of president and now no government can attempt to row back. In the process, she generated a level of what has been called a "constructive tension" between the Presidency and the Government.

When it comes to her successor the President herself has indicated that there should be a contest. She is right. The public should have the opportunity to decide who succeeds hem The political parties would probably prefer to have an agreed candidate, thereby avoiding two elections within months.

Whatever way our next President is chosen, he or she has a very hard act to follow.