McAleese finds peace and quiet from Aras campaign -- in Beirut
President Mary McAleese arrived in Beirut yesterday for the start of a three-day visit to Lebanon.
It is her final official overseas trip -- and it's a nostalgic end to her 14 years in Aras an Uachtarain, as the Middle Eastern country was also the location of her first official visit as president in 1997.
While most of the media attention has switched to the controversy-filled race to elect her successor, Mary McAleese and her husband Martin have removed themselves from the fray to the relative peace and quiet of Beirut.
However, this is a working visit with a packed schedule, which included travelling to meet the Irish Battalion with UNIFIL in the south of the country.
Yesterday evening, she and her husband attended a dinner hosted by President Michel Sleiman, a former Commander-in-Chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces who was elected in 2008, and his wife, Wafa'a.
In her speech at the Presidential Palace, Mrs McAleese recalled her first visit to the country 14 years ago.
"When I was last here in 1997, I witnessed the city of Beirut and its population, which had been ravaged by decades of war and occupation. Coming from Northern Ireland as I do, and therefore no stranger to conflict, it evoked a sadness in my heart as I witnessed the havoc that conflict had wreaked here," she said, adding that she now returns to find "a thriving, reconstructed, beautiful city." Mrs McAleese also made reference to the economic woes in Ireland, but struck an optimistic note.
"My own country has also experienced phenomenal change and, despite current economic setbacks, Ireland remains a strong and progressive country within Europe."
And she paid tribute to the 20,000 Irish troops who have played a peace-keeping role in the country for more than 30 years.
Today, she travels to the Irish army base, Camp Shamrock, in Tibnin in the south of Lebanon, where she will present medals to 60 members of the battalion.