Our own Sarah Palin puts on her lipstick and breezes through US
Donal Lynch joins Mary Coughlan on a tough mission -- selling Ireland as our reputation plummets
The Drury Plaza Hotel under the Arch in St Louis, Missouri. How grand it sounds.
How dismal it is. And yet it's grim functionality is perhaps becoming for it is here that Mary Coughlan's mission to promote our colleges in America begins its final day. After all the fuss about the pairs and whether she was wasting time and money it might be unbecoming if we were standing by a waterfall with flutes of taxpayer-funded champagne.
The Tanaiste arrives in a cavalcade of black cars, that blonde bouffant -- Myra Hindley goes to mart -- instantly recognisable in the back. She's accompanied by a group of hardworking Enterprise Ireland suits and an individual who turns out to be our Consul General in Chicago, Martin Rouine (I learn this after he first refuses to be identified, then sourly jabs his card at me and barks at me to "get the spelling right").
And it's not as if Mary isn't up against it already. She comes to America with our country's reputation at its lowest ebb in a generation. For a couple of years there the idea that we were still in the midst of a boom dominated. But gradually the reality has trickled out from the pages of the serious broadsheets to the public consciousness. A piece appeared in The New York Times saying Ireland deserved "sympathy". The Economist newspaper now offers us "pity". The vicious mocking of Brian Cowen by Jay Leno was worse by far. The bad old days when we were a joke on the world's stage don't seem too distant.
And there are those who say that restoring the polish to our tarnished image is beyond the likes of Mary Coughlan. A veritable gaffe-machine, her media image (fair or not) is that of a particularly phoney county councillor, breezily in over her head and too stupid to even know it. What was surprising (but not really, when you think about it) was that Americans -- at least the ones I saw her interact with -- have an entirely different take on this persona. They love breezy and they adore the sight of someone with an accent "doing her best".
Asked if she reminds them of Sarah Palin (Unfair? Let's see. Professed loyalty to hinterland over the nation -- check. Gaffe-machine -- we've covered that), one of the delegates at this lunch enthusiastically responds "yes, yes, I've never met Sarah Palin but Mary seems just as charming. More so, actually".
At a lunch she makes a bland little speech and gives Claes Nobel -- founder of the National Society of High School Scholars and the grandson of Alfred Nobel -- a present. Mortifyingly he opens it in front of her and she mock-chides an aide; "if it's wrong you're fired". We hold our breath while he undoes the packaging. It looks like a collection of Seamus Heaney's poems on CD. As if to let her know that we approve of this Kris-Kindle-office-party-level of expense we all applaud. We'll save the Waterford Crystal for Michelle Obama.
Her Special Adviser, Michael Shovlin, rolls his eyes when I mention her reputation. There's no truth to it, of course, he says. And yet the Tanaiste is handled as carefully as a Faberge egg. What's intriguing is that like a certain Alaskan mom I won't mention again it seems every effort is being made to keep her more or less in view but out of earshot of the media. And the mistrust is palpable. She visibly withers when we're introduced (we'd never met before).
Note-taking during her speech is strictly verboten. Anytime I suggest tagging along behind the Tanaiste to see how she's doing on this mission Michael shakes his head vigorously, no. I can't sit near her at lunch -- it is apparently a major concession to even allow me there since it's "private". I can't sit in on any of her meetings with local representatives. I can't attend a dinner in the evening at which she will speak. I can't even travel with her in their car from one engagement to the next. Her blonde hair floats out of reach like sheep's wool caught in barbed wire.
To be fair all of this was a bit short notice and I am allowed a brief chat with her while her advisers sit around us. She says she has not been aware of any problems with the country's image in America and addresses the pairs controversy upfront.
"My office had been in touch to obtain a pair a considerable number of weeks ago ... It would be nonsense to say that I was going to be away to avoid any questions," she says.
"I think there was an appreciation by Ruairi Quinn who had been involved in trade missions himself that this was going to be necessary. It was important that I travel. I, the office, not I, Mary Coughlan. There's criticism, fine, and there's questioning of policies etc, etc but when it comes to going out and selling Ireland as a minister of State, it's very important (to do that). You have to be there to support people on the ground. Every single country in the world has either political people or people of royal ilk travelling the world in support of their trade. We do that as we have always done."
What about her image? It's been suggested that in discussions with Michael Dell -- CEO of Dell -- she called him 'Mike' a pet name, which seemed to make light of the seriousness of the situation at Dell and also cause some offence to Mr Dell. She's been known for using coarse language, even when operating in her official capacity. Does she have a credibility gap in the way she presents herself, especially when operating at a high diplomatic level? She's heard this one before and she mouths the answer with the sad-voiced weariness of a hostage with a gun in the small of her back.
"I have said this before, I have never let my country down. I have come out here to work hard on behalf of Ireland. Those are unfounded criticisms. I have to say I have always put my work and my capacity as what I might say as someone who can interact very well with people and using that as an opportunity to be genuine about what we're doing here and being upfront about what we want to achieve on behalf of Ireland."
I got lost somewhere in the middle of that, but that's what the lady said, verbatim.
Given that there are already caps on the numbers of people going to third level why would we want to lure more outsiders to our universities? "There is some reality to that (objection). But Irish students who are entitled to attend the colleges are in no way displaced by students coming in from outside. There is a view that international students of a high calibre raise competition in the classroom and actually push standards up. Ireland has a good student experience (for visiting students)," she tells me. "We have 7,000 students from the US at the moment in Ireland, mainly on a year-out programme. What we want to do is target people to come to Ireland for their undergraduate degree."
What about the fact that the whole third-level system is very much used as a cover for students who simply want to get into the country by hook or by crook and a student visa is the easiest route?
"Dermot Ahern and myself have set down new standards with relation to visas, so unless a school has achieved the quality mark they won't be involved in the visa process. This will be streamlining the process between Enterprise Ireland, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice."
Very well, but at a certain level isn't this all investing in the very distant future? Given the absolute dire straits the country is in isn't it slightly hard for us to get excited right now about the prospect of a few more Yanks frolicking over the cobblestones at Trinity? "It's a €900m investment as it stands and we want to get €1.2bn. I remember going on trade missions to the Middle East years ago and we were able to use connections made while people were studying in Ireland, particularly at the College of Surgeons. We can continue the relationships and it's a sort of new diaspora. We must do it well and we will be debriefing from the experience we've had now."
I ask her if given how long she's been in government she ever feels guilty for sky-high unemployment and the general mess the country's in.
Instead of answering that directly she chooses to talk about where she's come from. "I am a product of the Eighties. Of my class the majority left the country, although a lot came back. I didn't have a problem with whether I stayed in Ireland or not ... we now at least have the benefit of a considerable amount of investment that was done in the Nineties. I have a life and a family and like anyone I'm concerned for my kids and will there be a job for them."
After we finish speaking, she decamps to the National Association for College Admission Counselling Conference (NACAC) and we are greeted by ushers and event organisers, each eager to tell Mary about an Irish ancestor or a visit they once had to the old country.
She smiles politely, murmuring the type of platitudes that come so easily to one who has lived her entire adult life in the political bubble.
We traipse the length of the building where there is another private meeting. So private that at first the Tanaiste's aides try to bar the entry of one of the NACAC official photographers. After negotiations he is allowed in.
"We never asked for coverage of this trip," her chief adviser reminds me later. Well, we never asked for permission. It's a free country. And for a woman still haunted by words like 'lightweight' and 'ill-briefed', a woman recently handed what could have been a PR boon by the Opposition, perhaps it's not exactly a helpful approach.