For all the publicity people like Mary Robinson and Bertie Ahern may garner, the majority of movers and shakers in Ireland are relatively unknown.
Mary Robinson was the sole Irish person included in Time magazine's most influential 100 persons worldwide. Writing about her, Time said: "She has a judge's rectitude, a campaigner's zeal, the warmth of an old friend and an acute sense of how to focus the global spotlight on a cause."
Quite an accolade for someone with no public office. But would Mary Robinson be regarded as one of Ireland's most influential people? Hardly.
Bertie Ahern remains the most influential, not just because he is Taoiseach, but because he has been Taoiseach for so long and looks like being Taoiseach for a long time yet. He has said he would want to retire from politics aged 60, which will be on 12 September 2011, a little over four years from the expected date of the next general election. But Bertie has a renowned capacity for getting off hooks and were he to consider the country still needs him, he might stay on.
He decides who in the main coalition party will be in the Cabinet, who gets the plum public service appointments, what the Government's priorities are, where the vast wealth flowing into the exchequer will be allocated. Although not omnipotent (remember the Bertie Bowl?), he is by far the most influential person in the country, all the more so since Charlie McCreevy departed for the European Commission.
Ed Mulhall is largely unknown outside the corporation for which he works. Yet he controls the public agenda as no one else does, even within Government. For Ed Mulhall is RTÉ's Director of News, and as such, has the capacity to decide what leads the television and radio news bulletins, what the agenda for Morning Ireland is to be, the content of The News At One and the programme content of Prime Time. He chooses to delegate most of this decision-making, but it is he who decides to whom to delegate and how much.
RTÉ news and its news feature programmes fix the national agenda. It influences whether crime (people's criminality) shall dominate public debate (always does), whether tax reductions are the major issue (again), indeed how we perceive taxation (RTÉ repeatedly refers to exchequer monies as "taxpayer's money", thereby giving a twist to public understanding of taxation – the alternative way of looking at this is to regard public finances as properly belonging to the public at large).
Geraldine Kennedy and Maeve Donovan are the two most influential women in Ireland. They are respectively the editor and chief executive of The Irish Times. Next to RTÉ, The Irish Times is the most influential media organ in Ireland. It is the "opinion former". A tribute to its clout was the public furore over the infamous Kevin Myers "bastard" column. Had that appeared in any other newspaper, it would have provoked, at most, mild public protest. As it was it became a national issue, dominating airtime coverage and the news and opinion columns of other newspapers. The shift of The Irish Times to the right, politically, has weakened the left-leaning causes for which The Irish Times was once the major champion.
Diarmuid Martin will not be at the Sistine Chapel balloting for the next Pope, the only Irish person present will be Cardinal Desmond Connell. But there is no doubt now who is now the dominant personality within the Irish Catholic hierarchy. He is able, very bright, organised, impatient, clear-headed and ambitious. Had he become a cardinal some years ago he might be in contention now for the papacy, given his abilities, his diplomatic/political skills and his recognition within the Catholic Church worldwide. He might be a contender next time there is a vacancy, especially if the vacancy arises within the next five to seven years. Meanwhile, he is likely to drive the Catholic Church here back to the position of influence and status it has lost over the past decade because of inept leadership and the clerical sex abuse scandals.
Mary Laffoy was the judge who resigned in protest from the Commission to inquire into Child Abuse, after Noel Dempsey had contrived to impede its work. She was tipped for promotion to the Supreme Court, but that did not happen and the expectation was she would retire to the relative obscurity of the High Court bench. But her selection as the judge to preside over the Fyffes v DCC case, which has been running since early December and is expected to go on into June, has changed that.
Already that case has caused alarm over the shortcomings of the regulatory mechanisms, notably the Stock Exchange here. Its outcome may do to the reputation of corporate Ireland what the sex abuse scandals did to the Church and what the Morris Tribunal may yet do to the reputation of the Garda Síochána. One thing is certain, her judgment will be meticulous, careful and fair, with little prospect of a successful appeal from whatever judgment she makes.
Catherine McCartney, one of the sisters of Robert McCartney who was murdered in Belfast in late January, will continue to be an influence, at least until or unless her brother's killers are brought to justice. While the McCartney sisters' campaign is unlikely to hurt Sinn Féin significantly, in the Westminster elections on 5 May, it will continue to discomfort Sinn Féin even in the wake of an announcement of IRA disbandment. Catherine McCartney, a lecturer in politics at a third level institute in Belfast, is regarded as the political strategist in this campaign.
Brian O'Driscoll will be a force in Irish sport both because of his extraordinary prowess and now his appointment as captain of the British and Irish Lions. Along with Roy Keane, he is the most accomplished sports person in Ireland and obviously, given his Irish and Lions captaincy, (and unlike Roy Keane) he possesses formidable political skills as well. He is likely to be a major figure in Irish corporate and public life in Ireland long after his retirement as a player.
Kathleen Lynch is hardly known outside of academia but her influence, as Ireland's major champion and ideologue of equality and as one of the directors of UCD's Equality Studies Department, is considerable.
As throughout history, it is ideas that prove the most powerful in the long run and the insinuation into a strata of Irish public life of a strong egalitarian ethos is likely to have considerable effect. Along with others in the Equality Studies Department (John Baker, Sara Cantillon and Judy Walsh) she published a seminal work on equality last year, Equality: From Theory to Action. Her main focus has been on equality and education and already her work has had a significant impact in that area.
Tony O'Reilly, as the effective editor-in-chief of eight of the country's leading newspapers (Irish Independent, The Star, Sunday Independent, Sunday World, Sunday Tribune, Evening Herald, Star on Sunday, Belfast Telegraph), remains a significant influence.
He does not usually interfere directly in areas of editorial policy or content, but the newspapers certainly do not conflict with his pro-business, anti-republican sentiment. And it is he who appoints the editors.
As a significant player in the corporate world here through his interests in Eircom, Waterford Wedgewood, Fitzwilton and other companies, he is a major corporate player whose corporate interests are protected by the newspapers he controls.