Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Thinking Ireland has a natural candidate in Mary

The presidential election has thrown up more doubt and confusion than ever before. Questions of relevance and purpose have produced demands about the potential holder of the office as well as the office itself. Some hysteria has been expended searching for a description of the job. This has fuelled a dismissive attitude to the early candidates, those coming from political parties disparaged most.

Others who have worked towards public acceptance as candidates on their record of public service, such as Mary Davis, have had to struggle against guilt by association and dismissal because they are not exciting enough or not 'celebrities'.

Opinion polls redefined the job and came up with three failed choices based on popularity, two of them bizarrely at odds with the role, which, of course, no one has tried to understand. All three have sensibly withdrawn.

The job description is not hard to find. The Constitution defines the role to my satisfaction in the declaration made by each president on assuming office.

One phrase stands out as a guiding principle. It is this: 'I will dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland'. There is a range of tasks there that would keep an able-bodied person active and of value to the country for seven years, though until the coming of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese this did not happen. One wonders why. It raises the question: How should it be done?

The job specification does not suit well the political party candidate, reflected in the opinion polls which judge them negatively, even more so in the case of Fianna Fail, persuading that party to withdraw.

The negative view is only reflecting history. If the men who held the office since the Constitution came into force in 1937 are examined, their performance does not radiate any positive interpretation of the oath. They were old -- two died in office, one died shortly after his controversial resignation -- and the others sat out their term.

Women did significantly better, by word of mouth and by deeds.

All incumbents have faced this problem of what to do.

The two women presidents introduced programmes and itineraries that deliberately embraced the people and this should be recognised as clearly the way to go.

Today the positive approach is best exemplified in another woman candidate, Mary Davis. She will be on the ballot this week. She fulfils admirably the detail in the phrase I refer to because that is what she has been doing during her working life up to now. It is also the basis for her early presidential campaigning.

Her working life is a model for the role of president. She developed and ran Special Olympics Ireland, becoming famous in 2003 organising the Special Olympics World Summer Games, the largest sporting event in the world that year.

This led to her responsibilities being extended internationally to cover sport for the intellectually disabled in 58 countries across Europe and Central Asia. Mary McAleese appointed her to the Council of State in 2004, one of the few appointees ever on professional merit combined with service.

Nothing comes closer to the presidential remit as does the work she has been doing, for much of her life, a role widely recognised and admired.

NO other candidate has such a starting point. No president before has had it, either. For other candidates, declared or to come, the mantle of service, and of attending to the welfare of the people of Ireland, has to be assumed by them as a new role.

Such a role is not automatically comfortable, nor does it fit with political and business experience. Their careers are either less involved in direct service and welfare or not involved.

More importantly, they have had careers rather than vocations. Mary Davis's life has been a vocational one, still is, and this is the substance of her early presidential campaigning as it has been the substance of her expanded activities since the Special Olympics of 2003.

These have included, since April 2006, chairing the Taskforce on Active Citizenship and overseeing the implementation of the recommendations for that body. She combines with this her chairing of the North South Consultative Conference for the Irish Government.

She has carefully set her sights on comparable areas of need in her campaign strategy. I give three examples.

Firstly, involvement with Suicide or Survive, which has, in Caroline McGuigan, another vocational figure. Its objective is to remove the stigma associated with mental health and suicide prevention. More than 700 a year die here from suicide, two deaths per day. Countless friends and families of suicides are affected. To this work Mary Davis adds Paul Kelly's running of Console, supporting people in suicidal crisis and those bereaved by suicide.

Secondly, Age Action Ireland, which promotes positive ageing and better policies and services for older people. Mary Davis believes that the organisation's concerns, which include rural transport, isolation, the cost of fuel (old people die during winter months due to fuel poverty) and loneliness should register within the president's 'duty of care'.

Thirdly, the Irish Countrywomen's Association with its 11,000 members and its commitment to extend the upper age limit for breast screening and cervical screening as well as its support for the 'Turn Off the Red Light' campaign, aimed at criminalising the purchase of sex, thereby helping to rescue women and children in prostitution bondage.

These encounters, with more to come, have focused Mary Davis's campaign in a wholesomely predictable and worthwhile way, reinforcing all that she has lived for.

She is an accomplished public speaker; yet it should be noted that public speaking, at which our two women presidents excelled, is not necessarily part of the presidential declaration. Just doing the service and providing encouragement of welfare is required. Mary Davis has the credentials, the professional and practical experience and the commitment. The faculty, the gift, is already there.

The presidency will expand to meet the wants and needs of the people. These have grown and have filtered into every walk of life, the result of the present economic and social stresses in Irish society. 'Service and welfare' are sadly demanded to confront debt and poverty, the loss of employment, many health hazards, such as Alzheimer's disease, many of the social problems of isolation, rural and urban and of neglect of the young and old. Mary Davis's life has been a natural prelude to this.

The hidden, serious, thinking Ireland, which I love and respect, is not governed by celebrity hysteria, opinion polls or political allegiance. That same serious Ireland should align itself with the third Mary. Without making people feel they are dispossessed when they are not, she would still engage the sympathy and support of one of the most charitable societies in the world.