Respect is an understatement. Mary Robinson, the intelligent and direct President of Ireland, is idolised. According to an opinion poll in yesterday's Irish Independent, 93 per cent of the population rate her performance as good to excellent.
Her fellow leaders can only read the survey and weep. John Major is 72 points behind her. Only 21 per cent of voters questioned earlier this month were satisfied with his performance, making him the the most unpopular British prime minister since polling began in the 1930s. Bill Clinton's approval rating of 36 per cent is the lowest for a US president who has served only four months in office. Helmut Kohl of West Germany has 27 per cent this month; Kiichi Miyazawa, the outgoing Prime Minister of Japan, 19 per cent; Brian Mulroney, who left office in Canada last week with a rating of 15 per cent - admittedly 4 percentage points up on his February rating.
Ten years ago, Mrs Robinson would have been compared with the Queen. But the scandals which have engulfed the Windsors mean that the Irish President has a 23-point lead over the British monarch. Only 70 per cent of Britons want the nation to remain a monarchy, according to a MORI poll last month.
No, the only leader who can begin to compare is Kim Il Sung, whose official titles include the 'Ever Victorious Helmsman of the Korean People' and the 'Greatest Genius Humankind has Ever Had' and who has 50,000 statues placed on the streets of North Korea in his honour. However, because Kim is a dictator who holds 100,000 dissidents in concentration camps and propagates a cult of his personality through an utterly subservient media, comparisons with the democratically elected Mrs Robinson seem invidious.
Envious politicians may put Mrs Robinson's popularity down to the fact that the Irish President has largely ceremonial functions which keep her away from difficult but necessary decisions. But the Irish showed no great respect for their presidents in the 1980s and the poll findings came after Mrs Robinson's highly- publicised meeting with the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on her mission of reconciliation to West Belfast the previous week.
At first, right-wing Dublin politicians were highly critical. John Bruton, leader of the opposition Fine Gael, told her to be less political.
He was rewarded with a backlash in defence of the President. Irish tabloid headlines proclaimed 'Hands Off Our Mary' and Mr Bruton rated 16 per cent approval in yesterday's poll.
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