Farewell to a right royal president

As Ireland's Mary Robinson leaves office, Alan Murdoch reflects on the virtues of electing a head of state
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow,on her last full day in office, a United Nations-bound Mary Robinson will bid farewell to her staff knowing she has transformed the once-moribund office of Irish President into a potent instrument at home and abroad. At a moment when Britain is having second thoughts about the wisdom of continuing with a hereditary monarchy, her example lays bare many of the standard objections to elected heads of state.

Hamstrung by restrictive protocol, there had, until her arrival, seemed little purpose in the role of Ireland's head of state. The 1937 Constitution, framed by then-Taoiseach and future president Eamon de Valera, left the role largely focused on overseeing legislation into law and counting in and out ministerial seals of office.

Thus defined, the job left plenty of time for golf, dining out, and the comforting Victorian warmth of "Bongo" Ryan's pub in Parkgate Street near the presidential home in Phoenix Park. One past incumbent so enjoyed the privacy ensured by the bolted doors on its "snugs" that barmen there named a special sandwich after him.

By the Seventies the office was peripheral. In those days an elderly man in a suit would put his head round the door of "The Plough" pub opposite the Abbey Theatre after performances ended, signalling to a seated customer with a driver's hat beside him reading the evening paper to follow him out. Seeing this ritual intermittently, a bemused regular asked who it was, to be told, uninterestedly, "Oh him, that's yer man the President. Anyway, as I was saying ..."

All that changed when, in 1990, the former human rights lawyer, and heritage, contraception and divorce reform campaigner Mary Robinson, hair newly tidied into a coiffured perm, took the helm. At first reluctant to run, she was urged on by the Labour leader Dick Spring, who believed there was a role for a President in shaking up an antiquated straitjacket of politics dominated by the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, legacies of the Irish Civil War schism over the treaty that delivered partition of Northern Ireland from the emerging Irish Free State.

It was clear from the earliest days of her energetic canvass, one of the first to cover every corner of the state, that Mrs Robinson had become convinced a different, more vital presidency was possible. Promoting herself as "A President with a Purpose", she spoke persuasively of opening up Aras an Uachtarain (the presidential residence) to the people, of reaching out to the marginalised, be they long-term unemployed, the homeless, handicapped, travellers (gypsies) or emigrants across the globe, and extending a hand of friendship to Unionists, in particular women, from a state previously perceived as threatening.

From cross-community detente in visits to women's centres on Belfast's Shankill Road to Somali feeding stations to fetid overcrowded dungeons in Rwanda, she also helped engineer a new outward-looking foreign policy for a neutral country with an established tradition in peace-keeping and third-world relief.

The contrast with staid, stuffy predecessors and their Edwardian top- hats could hardly have marked a clearer breach with the way things used to be. It may seem superficial, but her attention to appearance, with colourful yet dignified Irish designer clothes, gave a new brightness to the position that was uplifting, especially for Mna na hEireann, the women of Ireland. They found themselves with a stylish example in how decades of women's striking absence from Irish executive roles could be challenged. Surrounded at her inauguration by elderly men in dark suits, she pointedly credited women with electing her. Irish women who before "had rocked the cradle, had rocked the system".

That modernity, breaking away from the sense of an antiquated society wedded to narrow Catholic conformity, mattered when she became an international face, visiting countries from Chile to Australia, France, Spain and Russia, and of course Britain. Her 15 British visits included trips to Warrington to express condolences to those bereaved by IRA bombs, countering the violent sense of Irish nationalism presented by the Provos. The 1993 Buckingham Palace images of her alongside the Queen gave vent to another Irish identity as a thoroughly independent nation, confident in its separate culture, but pleased to be a friendly neighbour.

For British citizens, the idea of an elected presidency replacing the pomp and circumstance of monarchism has only very recently, opinion polls say, become thinkable. A living, ruling royal family, it was long held, was vital to London's economy, repaying many times the cost of the Civil List. Regal mystique magnetises camera-clicking throngs of American and Japanese tourists, intrigued by a social order synonymous with Beefeaters and corgis. But is a royal theme park, whatever the financial spin-offs from the Changing of the Guard and the theatrical spectacle of coronets and horse-drawn gilded carriages, really the ideal fulcrum for a modern European state?

Ardent supporters of the monarchy have long proclaimed it as a democratic safeguard (though conveniently amnesiac on the Mad King George problem) implying that it was respected precisely because of the awe inspired by its ermine-clad grandeur. But the conviction that Britain needs its royals, because the alternative would be some drab time-server in a grey suit elevated on the strength of decades of loyally voting the party line at Westminster, looks shaky against a Mary Robinson-type figure. Her warm style contrasts with the noblesse oblige overtones of English royalty, allowing an easier humorous dialogue with, for example, young single mothers in bleak inner-city Dublin community groups than any Windsor could manage.

After she signs off the job at 1pm tomorrow, Mrs Robinson's functions under constitutional provision will be carried out until her successor takes office in early November by a presidential commission of three officials, the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) of the Dail, his counterpart, the Cathaoirleach of the Senate, and the President of the High Court, advised when necessary by a Council of State. That this troika can oversee the operation of law, government and international relations without a murmur of public alarm begs the question do we really need a head of state at all.

The answer was delivered powerfully by the departing head of state herself. Mrs Robinson, essentially a shy woman, acquired great authority from the fact that she was directly elected. In a 1990 campaign interview she said, in a much-quoted tenet, that "I'll be able to look Charlie Haughey (then Taoiseach) in the eye and tell him to back off because I've been directly elected, and he hasn't." With Haughey today in political disgrace, and the Dail yesterday moving to put his finances and murkier executive decisions under new scrutiny, her argument in the seven years since that statement has become irrefutable.