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Wednesday 21 February 2018

Michael D as President: Building on the legacies of the two Marys

Lyndsey Telford

MICHAEL D Higgins' appointment as Irish president signals the end of more than 20 years with a Mary in the Aras.

Given the strong legacies left by his predecessors, the Labour Party veteran, 70, will have big shoes to fill when he steps into the role on November 11.

While Mr Higgins will no doubt put his own stamp on the Aras during his seven-year term, comparisons between him and Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese are inevitable.

His role in international affairs will held in contrast to that of Mary Robinson (1990-1997).

In 1992 she drew worldwide attention to the famine in Somalia and was credited as a major contributor to the country's recovery.

Any attempts he makes as a bridge-builder will always be compared to President McAleese (1997-2011), who famously made history this year when she welcomed the Queen to Ireland for the first time in 100 years.

Mr Higgins' first opportunity to make his mark as President will come in his first job - organising his inauguration and writing his first official speech.

The significant day carries much weight by falling on the auspicious November 11 - Armistice Day, Remembrance Day.

With the pressure placed on the composition and delivery of such a significant speech, the country will be in no doubt that in electing a poet and natural orator they have the right man for the job.

During his campaign, Mr Higgins has promised to promote the arts in the country, improve inclusion for minorities, help develop a "real republic" and strengthen what it means to be Irish.

Mary McAleese stepped outside the presidential remit to head up trade missions abroad to attract business to Ireland - Mr Higgins hopes to do the same.

Although it is not the role of the president to bring jobs to the country, he has pledged that his promotion of the arts and creative industries will attract business and open up positions - in the film and production industries, software development, game design and craft sectors.

Mr Higgins is the only candidate among the seven who ran for the Aras who is fluent in Irish. In his pledge to promote Irish identity, here at home and across the global diaspora, he is firmly placed as an ideal ambassador.

In addition to the goals he identified during his campaign, the new president will also be responsible for carrying out the usual duties.

The role may be largely ceremonial and call for his attendance at numerous events as the head of state, but he will have some powers.

The most significant role he may carry out is the referral of Bills passed in the Oireachtas to the Supreme Court - although the power is rarely used.

He will also have the power to refuse the dissolution of parliament.

While this might be more of a theoretical power, his duty will be to serve as a mediator, intervening with Government as seldom as possible.

He will also have to represent Ireland on a global scale at times of historic significance. His job is to reflect the public's mood, while also caring for its citizens' emotional needs.

Mrs McAleese and Mrs Robinson are believed to have excelled in these roles - President McAleese in particular during the collapse of the economy and on a global scale, articulating the country's sadness when the world was rocked by the September 11 attacks, the Thailand tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, for example.

But, arguably, as the presidential candidate with the most experience, the nation will be satisfied that it has chosen wisely.

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