Tuesday 25 June 2019

Will it be Park life for Miriam?

The idea of a celebrity in the Áras has sparked new interest in the presidency

Worthy candidate: Miriam O'Callaghan
Worthy candidate: Miriam O'Callaghan
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Halfway through the term of office of an Irish President, speculation arises as to who might be the next candidate as head of State. And thus has the name of the broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan been suggested as a possible successor to President Higgins. Miriam herself will neither confirm nor deny, but it's been a topic of discussion on social media - not always approvingly.

I will try to approach this matter objectively, and not allow any personal feelings to intervene. When it comes to personal feelings, it is very difficult to resist Miriam's charm.

I recently did a programme with her, and I don't think I have ever witnessed such courtesy and mindfulness in a media personality. She is aware of everyone around her and shows due acknowledgement of their presence.

This is a valuable gift in anyone holding public office: to be a people person, and to be sensitive to the aura of others. Miriam is also intelligent, experienced in political life (without being herself prescriptive about it) and is a beautiful woman.

In a world where image and presentation matter, it would be daft to ignore that dimension. Being a mother-of-eight has probably given her insight into the psychology of human nature.

I think that's a fairly objective analysis!

Those who are critical of the idea say that candidacy for the position of Uachtarán na hÉireann should not be selected on grounds of celebrity. So she's an accomplished broadcaster - so what? Why not advance Daniel O'Donnell, then - and didn't they try to push Gay Byrne into the job?

Celebrity is not enough, indeed, though again, in today's society, "brand recognition" is a significant factor in any role. And it is an advantage for the head of State to enjoy such "brand recognition". It's one of the British Monarchy's strongest cards: globally, more or less everyone recognises the Queen of England, as she is still popularly known. Could any other figure have brought out the Germans in their millions waving little Union Jacks during Elizabeth's state visit last month?

Which brings me to another issue related to our presidency. Since President Mary Robinson refashioned the office in 1990, it has gained immense traction as often best embodied by a woman: a matriarchal symbol which has deep roots in Celtic culture, resonating both with the Brehon laws, in which tribal queens were esteemed, and with the long traditions of Marian devotion, in which the Blessed Virgin was described as "Mary, Queen of Ireland".

Michael D Higgins has been a fine and dignified president - his status echoes, perhaps, the Bard in Celtic tradition - but when his term ends, I would foresee a return to a woman as head of State. It worked well with the two Marys, and so it is hardly surprising that Miriam O'Callaghan has been punted as the next successor. (And, nice touch: Miriam is Mary in Hebrew.)

What, these days, does an Irish president do? She, or he, must be politically literate and understand the workings of the Irish Constitution, while remaining above politics. They must maintain the dignity of the office: to console in sad times and to inspire at appropriate moments. They should be a healing presence and a fine Irish speaker. They don't have to be perfect - who is? - but it is better if there aren't too many skeletons in the closet. They may also need quite a high boredom threshold for those rituals and procedures which can be tedious.

And in our intensely visual culture, it's an advantage if the president can bring a note of style, glamour or distinction to "brand Ireland". You want an Irish President visiting abroad to be noticed and admired.

On many counts, Miriam O'Callaghan seems a worthy candidate. And I think it is a strength that she is not, as yet, associated with any political party. The Presidency of Ireland was at its least impressive during those decades when political parties used the office as a retirement home for veteran politicians: I am not saying the individuals weren't honourable, but the office itself was without distinction.

Miriam may need the backing of a political party, but her celebrity means that she need not its creature. A possible drawback is that even in 2018, she will still be only 58. A relatively young president is likely to cost the Irish taxpayer rather more by way of pension emoluments. Tight-fisted, but true.

She may not run. And a lot can change in three years. But the suggestion is an opportunity to have a mid-term conversation about the presidency. Just perhaps not on Prime Time.


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