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There's something about Mary

I HOPE the presidential candidates were watching The Constant President, a documentary that followed Mary McAleese during her final year in the Aras and broadly reflected on her 15 years in the job.

They will have had a lesson in the functions, sensitivities and limitations of the role -- something which, judging from some of the inept performances in the presidential debates, quite a few could clearly do with.

"There is no step-in role for the President, the role is very circumscribed," said President McAleese at the end of a year that saw her greet the Queen and President Obama, but also summon a meeting of the Council of State to consider referring the Credit Institutions Act to the Supreme Court.

It's a job "full of potential landmines," offered RTE's historian-in-chief, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, the only mildly dissenting voice in the film. Ferriter doesn't believe Presidents of Ireland have any business heading up overseas trade missions -- which became something of a speciality during the McAleese years -- because "it's not their job". Yet even he admitted that his respect and admiration for her had grown substantially, particularly during her second, unopposed seven-year term.

There was an inevitably soft-focus feel about much of the film, as politicians of all stripes, north and south of the border, queued up to sing Mary McAleese's praises. Yet the plaudits were hard-earned over those 15 years, a period in office that, as Fianna Fail's Mary O'Rourke noted with characteristic plainness, "is an awful wallop out of someone's life".

"She is an absolute treasure to her country," said former UVF man Paul Hoey, expressing a sentiment that would once have been unthinkable from such a source.

The Constant President provided a rare glimpse inside the day to day workings of the Aras, which involves quite a bit of tedium amid all the pomp and circumstance.

The President spends a lot of time sitting at her computer, tracking the progress of various pieces of legislation, a job which, she said, requires "almost a vacant mind" -- although not in the sense we usually think of vacant minds.

Without her husband Martin by her side, it's debatable the McAleese presidency would have been the success it was, and the documentary paid due tribute to his role, particularly in building bridges between the republican and loyalist communities in Northern Ireland.

Martin was "an unsung hero", said Bertie Ahern, working quietly behind the scenes, doing things the President herself wouldn't have been able to do, and venturing north of the border off his own bat -- and without any security protection. "If he'd checked, he knew the answer would have been 'No'," said Ahern. "So he didn't check!"

Even after 15 years, Martin McAleese still seems refreshingly wide-eyed about his experiences. Before meeting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, he said, he'd often wondered what the royals talk about during those meet-and-greet sessions.

As it turns out, it's the same stuff we all talk about: "family, parents, work -- the things that define the ordinariness of life".

The documentary left you feeling two things: the McAleeses have, to use an overworked quote from Shakespeare's Othello, "done the state some service", and whoever is elected next has a hard act to follow.

Just when the Catholic Church's abuse of power and privilege -- and of humans -- couldn't get any more sickening, along comes Spain's Stolen Babies.

This extraordinarily harrowing documentary detailed how, between the 1950s and the 1980s, Spanish priests and nuns, with the collusion of doctors, stole the healthy babies of hundreds of thousands of parents and told them they'd died, when in fact they'd been given to devoutly Catholic parents who were trying to adopt.

To complete the cruel and horrible deception, a grieving couple would be presented with the body of a different baby, who had died and been kept in deep-freeze storage. A waking nightmare.

the constant president HHHII spain's stolen babies HHHHI