Monday 23 April 2018

A unifying figure who kept the Aras door open

President Higgins could do worse than study his predecessor for guidance in the role, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

As Mary McAleese noted in her farewell message to the nation last week, the past is a foreign country, we did things differently there. Back then, "peace and prosperity seemed elusive". The Belfast Agreement had still not been signed. The IRA remained active, and the ultimate motives of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were unclear. (Some might argue they still are). The nationalist SDLP was not alone in being concerned at the possible election of a woman who it suspected, as one of its senior members was quoted as saying in a Department of Foreign Affairs memo, of "pushing the Sinn Fein agenda".

On Questions and Answers, McAleese was even pressured by her former boss, Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy, to admit whether she had ever voted for the Provos' political wing. McAleese insisted she had not.

Eoghan Harris captured those concerns in a single devastating image when wondering whether the Republic was in danger of electing a "tribal time bomb". It's the only bit of the whole debate which seems to be remembered now. Well, that's the downside of being a great phrasemaker. You tend to get the blame for putting what other people are thinking into better words than they could think of themselves.

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