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The president who became an icon

IN JUST over two years in office, Mary Robinson has become an icon almost above criticism. She has fulfilled her election pledge to expand the presidential role, and has done so without treading on sensitive political toes.

She has reassured those who were afraid she would stray into politics in a way which might spark off a constitutional crisis. According to one of her friends: 'At the start some people were very nervous about her - they thought, 'God, if you let her out, what on earth might she do?' Now it's all very relaxed.'

Her combination of astuteness and a ferocious schedule - with more than 800 engagements in her first year - has meant that, far from becoming contEroversial, she has become a highly-regarded national asset. In THER write erroran opinion poll last month, 65 per cent of Irish women cited her as the woman they most admired. (Mother Teresa only got 24 per cent.)

The initial fears of constitutional clashes disappeared when the previous Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, left office, for he gave the impression of resenting her. Mr Haughey himself had a distinctly presidential style.

By contrast, the current Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, has tended to regard Mrs Robinson as an asset rather than a rival.

In her second year in office she undertook more foreign visits, in particular one to areas of Somalia suffering from famine.

The trip aroused extraordinary interest in Ireland. Newspapers carried colour pictures of her with starving children and television pictures showed her weeping. On her return to Dublin unsolicited donations amounting to pounds 150,000 arrived in her office.

On the domestic front, she has continued to make clear her identification with women and groups on the margins of society. In one unprecedented move, she brought more than 30 members of gay and lesbian groups to her official residence in Dublin.

In another, more private, gesture, she attended a small service for a homeless man who had died of cold on the streets of Dublin. This was not a publicity exercise: the media were not informed and reporters who turned up were asked to leave.

Although her predecessors rarely crossed the border, she has made four visits to Northern Ireland. Some northern nationalists worry that she is too sympathetic to Unionists but she has been at pains to make contact with both communities.

Reciprocal state visits between Britain and Ireland are a real possibility at some stage in her seven-year term. These have never happened before, and could symbolise a new departure in Anglo-Irish relations.

(Photograph omitted)