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First Lady Michelle Obama with the Taoiseach's wife, Fionnuala Kenny. Photocall Ireland/GIS

Column Why are Ireland’s first lady and family so invisible?

In comparison to the US, first spouses and first families are well outside the political fray here in Ireland – but why so, asks Larry Donnelly.

DURING THE RECENT second inauguration of President Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Sasha and Malia, were right by his side during both the private and public ceremonies.  It was very much a family affair. Indeed, many comments directed my way afterward weren’t about the technicalities of the inauguration or about the president’s second term. Instead, they were about how beautiful a woman Michelle is and the merits or demerits (mostly the former!) of her outfits. Other onlookers noted that Sasha and Malia are getting very grown up.

These comments prompted me to think about the relative omnipresence of the first lady and first family in the US versus the general invisibility of Ireland’s first lady and family. Actually, the only time Fionnuala Kenny has ever been truly “front and centre” since her husband became Taoiseach was in May 2011 when President and Mrs Obama came to visit Moneygall and Dublin. And that rare instance was doubtlessly dictated by US State Department custom and protocol.

Family Life

In the US, the first lady and family have always occupied a special place in the hearts of the American people. They want to know if the first family is one that their own family can relate to. Most Americans are extraordinarily curious about what the leader of the country is like when he’s not at work and what his family life is like. Their assessments of the president’s character often stem from their impression of his relationship with his family. For instance, many Americans still believe George W Bush was a poor president, but a good family man, based on their perceptions that he seemed like a loyal husband and a doting father.

Over the past twenty years, the nature and reach of the media has changed dramatically and grown exponentially. As a consequence, political advisors and spin doctors in the US spend a lot of time and are paid a lot of money to develop and portray the best possible image of the first lady and first family. In the media, President Obama unfailingly projects himself as a husband who is so in love with his wife as to be in awe of her, and as a father who is fiercely protective of his two daughters.

There is no doubt that the first is intended to dispel some of the unfortunate stereotypes that persist about African-American males in the US; the second is aimed at showing that he is a family man who worries a lot, just like any other “regular American” father about his daughters. This is an undeniably cynical analysis – the president might not have to act at all – yet it reflects the reality of American political theatre in 2013.

Public liability

Of course, the first lady and first family can become political liabilities, as well as assets, in the US.  It’s difficult to fathom now, but Hillary Clinton was a something of a political liability for her husband when he sought the presidency in 1992 following certain controversial remarks she made during the campaign. Most famously, Mrs Clinton said that she “could have stayed home and baked cookies”.

This damaged her standing with stay-at-home mothers and traditionalists who feared her brand of feminism and thought she would wield significant influence in the White House. The Clinton campaign spent a significant amount of time assuaging these widespread concerns about the putative first lady.

First spouses and first families are well outside the political fray here in Ireland.  To some extent, this is surprising because of how central a role the family still plays in the lives of most Irish people. On the other hand, it is perhaps because the family unit remains so sacred that it is regarded by many as beyond politics.

Avoiding the limelight

While Irish politicians now surrender most of their privacy when they are elected to public office, spouses, partners and families of politicians here continue to enjoy a far greater amount of privacy than their American counterparts.  That is due in no small part to the fact that, in Ireland, first spouses and families would never be expected to participate in the type of media interviews or answer the type of questions that they now virtually must in the US.

The one thing that cannot be discounted here, however, is how much of a role a first spouse or a first family might play behind the scenes. Fionnuala Kenny has substantial experience of politics (having worked for Fianna Fáil) and her wisdom likely serves the Taoiseach well.

Moreover, Sabina Higgins and Senator Martin McAleese are widely understood to be among the individuals the current and former Presidents of Ireland leaned on for advice and counsel. One can play an important role without necessarily always being in front of the television cameras or featuring regularly in the newspaper headlines.

I can’t say whether the place of first spouses and families is better in Irish or American politics.  But it is vastly different.  And I am sure that just about every American first lady and family would prefer things the way they are here.

Larry Donnelly, a Boston lawyer, is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with For more articles by Larry Donnelly for click here.

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