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Keeping her own Council

Mary McAleese convened the first meeting of her Council of State on Thursday evening to discuss her proposed Millennium address to the Oireachtas. Justine McCarthy reports

Charles Haughey sent his regrets.

And how a deep sigh of relief must have reverberated through the lofty halls of Aras an Uachtarain when the President read the former Taoiseach's letter. It was one of the earliest replies to the notice sent out to the 23 distinguished members of the Council of State notifying them of the President's decision to convene their first meeting. Mr Haughey, one of five past taoisigh, wrote that he would be unable to attend.

There was a time when Mary McAleese admired Charles Haughey, regarded him even as something of a hero. That was more than a decade ago, before their careers parted company like a pair of escalators. Hers rising all the way to the top. His plummeting to rock bottom. But this week, as his world continued to buckle and splinter, Charles Haughey spared his former admirer the embarrassment of his presence at the Aras on the same day he had appeared in the criminal courts.

The inaugural meeting of the Council on Thursday night had the potential to gather legs as a media event. The ritual photo-call in the State Reception Rooms would have proved irresistible to the country's picture editors, anticipating the first citizen rubbing shoulders with the most humiliated citizen. The image had the capacity to revive calls for Charles Haughey's resignation from the Council of State, detracting from the auspiciousness of the occasion. Instead, newspaper reports of the meeting were consigned to single-colmun-other-news status.

A second banana skin had been conveniently side-stepped when Haughey's successor, and the man Mary McAleese pipped for Fianna Fail's nomination in the presidential election, was otherwise engaged on Thursday. Albert Reynolds has never made secret his bitterness over his rejection by his own party in his quest for the job in the Park. He too sent his apologies and saved the President's blushes by being unavoidably absent, in London instead to hear the House of Lords' ruling in relation to his libel action against the Sunday Times.

While there was little in the substance of the Council of State's meeting to excite Friday morning's headlines, the mere fact of it could have proved sensational. In the newly-named Presidents' Room, the former diningroom hung with the official portraits of past incumbents, 20 Council members took their places at the 72-year-old cabinet table brought to Aras an Uachtarain by Eamon de Valera in 1961. The only item on the agenda was the National Millennium Committee's invitation to President McAleese to address the Oireachtas in December. The ghost of the third absent Council member, however, hung over the discussion.

It was in the footsteps and the shadow of Mary Robinson that Mary McAleese took up residence in Aras an Uachtarain. The challenge for the successor to prove that she was more than an imitation of her ground-breaking predecessor. Now the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson was in the US on Thursday and unable to make the meeting in the Phoenix Park but it cannot have been far from the Council's mind that Mary Mark 1 had twice addressed the Oireachtas as president. In fact, many of those present would have attended similar meetings to advise Mary Robinson on those two speeches.

The ritual for the Council is that members arrive at the Aras 15 minutes before the meeting is scheduled to begin. Tea and sandwiches are served in the Council of State Room before the photo-call in the State Reception Rooms. At the meeting proper, the members are seated according to their rank under the Constitution, placing the Taoiseach on the President's right, at the top of the table, and her seven nominees at the opposite end.

On Thursday night, after a minute's silence was observed for fellow Council member Jack Lynch, the seven new members were required to intone the constitutional declaration.

``In the presence of Almighty God,'' they pledged one after another, ``I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfil my duties as a member of the Council of State.''

Among those making the pledge was the multi-millionaire county Louth businessman, Martin Naughton, Mary McAleese's single biggest financial backer in the presidential election. The President first met the founder of Glen Dimplex and owner of the Merrion Hotel when she was a pro-vice chancellor of Queens University in Belfast. Among the clutch of honorary doctorates bestowed on Martin Naughton is one from Queens.

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A further Council connection with her alma mater is another new member, Noel Stewart, the honorary treasurer of Queens and a former managing partner at Coopers & Lybrand in Belfast. The President's other five nominees are the Fianna Fail MEP, Brian Crowley, sports student and former League of Ireland footballer Gordon Brett, chartered psychologist and University College Galway academic Ruth Curtis, IMPACT's assistant general secretary Christina Carney-Flynn, and Sr Stan, founder and life president of Focus Ireland, a charity Mary McAleese worked voluntarily for in the early 80s.

Apart from the President's chosen seven, the other 16 are all ex officio members, including two former presidents, five former taoisigh and two former chiefs justice. According to the constitutional hierarchy, the present Chief Justice, Liam Hamilton, who swore in the President at her inauguration two years ago, takes a seat close to her at the cabinet table. Though both lawyers, the relationship between Mary McAleese and Liam Hamilton hit a rocky patch in the early 80s when the then Reid Professor at Trinity College rubbished one of his judgments.

Another lawyer at Thursday night's meeting was the new Attorney General, Michael McDowell, a former electoral rival of Mary McAleese in the Dublin South East constituency.

Among the former taoisigh were Dr Garret FitzGerald, whose divorce referendum she opposed vocally, and John Bruton, who questioned her candidacy in the presidential election after Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he would give her his first preference if he had a vote in the Republic.

The Council of State is designed to represent the institutions of the State. Its function is to `aid and counsel the President' but it does not have a decision-making role. In effect, she listens to their advice and then makes up her own mind.

But the Council, arranged according to the constitutional pecking order for the official photograph on Thursday night, suffices too as a snapshot of history. As telling for the absent faces as for those smiling formally at the camera.

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