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Mary McAleese: A hard act to follow

Aine Lawlor of Morning Ireland on what she learned about Mary McAleese while making a documentary about the president for RTE television

A hard act to follow. That's how most of the people we spoke to for our documentary about President Mary McAleese described her. She has been President for 14 years and across the political spectrum there was a genuine appreciation of the job she has done both in public and in private in serving this country.

And she didn't do it alone. Two for the price of one was the other phrase that cropped up again and again. Mrs McAleese campaigned on the slogan of building bridges.

Few were to know 14 years ago how much she meant to make that a reality in office. And the means to do that was her husband Martin, who put his people skills and intelligence into making sure that the bridge was built for the President to walk across.

From early on there was the reaching out to the Orange tradition, with the July 12 garden party at Aras an Uachtarain. But there was also Martin's contacts with loyalism, particularly the UDA, contacts that involved dangerous trips into loyalist areas at a time of no ceasefire and internal feuds. Trips that involved all those taking part laying their lives on the line. But he could go where the President could not, he could develop relationships that could later become official, as the peace process developed.

What's remarkable is not just that these contacts happened but that they were nurtured into genuinely warm friendships between the most unlikely of allies.

We saw the warmth of the reaction to the President and Martin in loyalist and republican areas of Belfast in engagements that took place on the same day.

We heard former UDA man Jackie McDonald or Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams talk about them with an honest affection. And we heard the tributes of former Taoisigh with whom they worked closely in all this behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

We filmed a lunch with Ian Paisley on St Columba's Day, he and the President side by side in great good humour on what was ironically the 25th anniversary of a huge protest Dr Paisley led against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Andy Tyrie came up to me afterwards to sing the President's praises. It was one of those moments when you pinch yourself to remember that so much has changed in one lifetime.

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Producer Angela Ryan, cameraman Kieran Slyne and I began working on our programme 'The Constant President' a year ago. It turned out to be some year. In the snow of last December (as the EU/IMF bailout removed our financial sovereignty), political crisis gripped the country.

The President is above the political fray, but the tension as the Council of State met in the Aras last December was palpable. As historian Diarmaid Ferriter pointed out, in the chaos of those weeks the possibility of a constitutional crisis was there in the background.

Brian Cowen says he never discussed it with her. Mrs McAleese says she had no wish to intervene. But she was watching. She's a woman who does her homework. The government fell into political if not constitutional disarray throughout January and the election restored some sense of political normality.

Now it was Enda Kenny who came to visit Mrs McAleese for the private monthly chats between the head of state and the Taoiseach, conversations all three Taoisigh she worked with described as frank and useful.

There was no snow but much sunshine on the state visit to Spain in March. You're stepping into the bubble, said one insider. And on one level there is the fun of the fast-moving motorcade, the flashing blue lights, the pomp and ceremony of the royal palace in Madrid.

Then you look at a woman hosting a receiving line at 10 o'clock at night in the Irish embassy with hundreds of people queuing up to shake her hand. They don't know she's been working non-stop on official engagements since a business breakfast early that morning. They don't know that she has given speech after speech, conversing fluently in Spanish with the Spanish Royal family at one engagement, or with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in another.

Despite the busy day and what must have been sore hands at that stage, the smile and the warmth and the personal touch were still there. It takes energy to be a president.

Throughout all the State formalities, the schedule is busy with events promoting a message about Irish economic recovery, an Enterprise Ireland pharma conference, and a Bord Bia promotion of Irish food in Spain.

Some people are still critical of her decision to lead trade missions, arguing the office should be above such considerations, and there's a potential conflict of interest. Others say a president can open doors that no other ambassador or envoy can.

And there's more to the presidency, says Michael McDowell, than cutting ribbons. Mrs McAleese herself is adamant that her decision was the right one, and that her mission is to promote Irish trade links in general and not individual companies.

But the highlight of the year and of the McAleese presidency was the state visit of Queen Elizabeth in May. It was one of the ambitions of her presidency, and it had been a long time coming. We saw the meticulous preparation for the visit that followed the years of peacemaking and painstaking diplomacy that went into making that visit such a success. The preparation of the menus, the tables, the walk-throughs.

And through all the history and ceremony, we saw how much this all meant to two women whose relationship dated back to Mrs McAleese's time at Queen's University. Martin McAleese says it's still too soon for them to be able to assess its significance, but talk to him or the President and you can see still how important that state visit was to them.

So we filmed her with kings and with queens, but the sequences I'll remember most are those we filmed with her on what you might call the bread-and-butter engagements of the presidency. Knitting away with the members of a knitting club while revealing that she never watches television without her knitting because it's a waste of time -- and that Martin has banned her from knitting in the car for fear of being stabbed by her needles.

At a GAA club in west Dublin, being mobbed like a rock star at the Ploughing Championships, with the families at the Christmas tree lighting party, at a reception for Defence Forces women -- these have been some of the most striking moments of the past year.

There are a lot of things Mrs McAleese can't do, but what she can do, and did, was show the hospitality and acknowledgement of the first citizen to men, women and children the length and breadth of Ireland.

It's easy to take for granted the skills and commitment that made the 14 years of Mary McAleese's presidency so widely praised.

But watching our closing sequence as her car drove out the gates of Aras an Uachtarain, you could only conclude that for whoever succeeds her she will indeed be a hard act to follow.

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