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Book Review: Reconciled Being: Love in Chaos by Mary McAleese

Wednesday's book
When Mary McAleese made her first official visit to Belfast as President of Ireland, someone asked her when she was going to visit a Unionist area. The Builder of Bridges replied that she loved "the two communities" in Northern Ireland "with a passion not everybody understands or accepts".

This book, based on a presentation at the 1997 John Main Seminar in Dublin, tries to explain that passion. John Main was an English legal academic, a predecessor of McAleese at Trinity College Dublin, who became a Benedictine monk. He espoused a meditative Christianity, drawing influences from eastern thought, particularly Buddhism. That McAleese should be attracted to this esoteric form of Catholicism may seem strange in the light of her conservative pronouncements on abortion and divorce. But in the context of her political life, it chimes with her perceived aloofness from the raw edges of Northern Irish politics. McAleese never associated herself with the SDLP, although as a high-profile representative of the first generation of northern Catholics to benefit from the civil rights agitations of the 1960s, the party would seem as a natural outlet for her energies.

From the evidence of this book, the new president has more in common with Tony Blair, who shares her penchant for extrapolating wee homilies from cute things her kids say. This book is full of such lessons. We learn from the Little Ones, basically, that sectarianism is bad, reconciliation is good, and the best of all possible Northern Irelands would be united spiritually, as much as politically. "God loves all sides equally", she tells us.

The solution McAleese offers is "the concept of God as family". The individual churches (Catholic, Methodist, Free Presbyterian) are siblings. She advocates a family reunion around the time of the "Great Jubilee of Christendom", the year 2000. "But time is running out," she warns. "This precious moment of opportunity for a major act of reconciliation will not be repeated."

Unfortunately, the general Protestant mistrust of McAleese means that this birthday party will not be oversubscribed. Why? Many northern Protestants object to more than the morally superior tone of McAleese's pronouncements, such as her appropriation of Mother Theresa's "giving until it hurts" line. Despite her complaints about the misogyny of the Catholic church, her role as spear-carrier for the bishops in the New Ireland Forum in 1984 and her public opposition to divorce and abortion raise questions about her commitment to pluralism.

If she felt then, and, presumably now, that Catholic teaching on social issues should be reflected in Irish state law, where do the minorities who lobby for (or need) abortion or divorce fit in? If she can oppose a minority of liberal pluralists in the South, what about the minority on the island who make up a majority in the North: the Protestant Unionists? Mary McAleese may feel "reconciled to God", but more concrete pronouncements than this book provides will be required to reconcile southern liberals - and northern Protestants - to her.

(Medio Media/Arthur James, pounds 5.99)