The Catholic coup at St Andrews

Louise Richardson is neither male nor Protestant, making her an unlikely principal of the ancient university – and not everyone is happy , says Andy McSmith

It was John Knox, a graduate of St Andrews University in Scotland, who so memorably explained why no woman should ever be put in charge of anything. "For their sight in civile regiment is but blindness; their strength, weaknes; their counsel, foolishnes; and judgment, phrensie, if it be rightlie considered," he wrote.

Poor old Knox. His famous work, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, written from the safety of Geneva, was aimed at those Catholic monarchs, Bloody Mary and Mary, Queen of Scots. But in the year it appeared, Mary died, Elizabeth ascended the English throne, and Knox realised that his diatribe had offended a powerful champion of the Protestant cause.

If that were not bad enough, 450 years later there is a woman running Knox's old university. When Louise Richardson took office as the first female principal of St Andrews last March, she mentioned that "I have heard from several sources that there is a lot of speculation in St Andrews as to what was happening in Knox's grave at word of my appointment".

As if it were not monstrous enough to have a woman in charge of the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world, Dr Richardson is a Catholic, and the first principal in the university's 596-year history who is not British by birth.

She is a US citizen by adoption, born in Ireland, and the only academic at her level to have admitted that she was once tempted to join the IRA. To be fair, she was very young at the time, and has turned that childish ambition to good effect, by becoming one of the world's foremost authorities on terrorism.

And, already, she is ruffling feathers at St Andrews which has always been both a traditional university and a traditional town.

She upset a few traditionalists by disowning one of the university's more colourful pageants, on the grounds that it is sexist.

In 1926, some students formed a club to revive a pageant said to date back to Plantagenet times, which involves dressing as famous historical characters, including Kate Kennedy, the niece of the renowned 15th-century Bishop James Kennedy, and parading through the town, raising money for charity. The club is restricted to 60 members, all students of St Andrews, and all male.

It is the bar on women members that antagonised the university's new principal. Dr Richardson praised its charity work, in an email to all her students last week, but added: "The university will not be participating officially in the procession this year nor continuing its recognition of the Kate Kennedy Club. The official endorsement of any club or society which excludes people because of their gender or race would be completely at odds with the values of this university, and our commitment to foster an open and inclusive international community of scholars and students in St Andrews." Dr Richardson's arrival has also put pressure on the town's other famous institution, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, founded in 1754, which invited her two predecessors to be honorary members, but not her, because the club has not had a woman member in 255 years.

Later this month, Claire Baker, who speaks on higher education for the Labour Party in Scotland, is meeting golf's ruling body, the R & A, about the "ingrained chauvinism" of its most famous club which, she will warn, will not help their ambition to make golf an Olympic sport.

"I meet people who say to me that there is no bar on women joining St Andrews," she said. "So I say to them, 'why in 250 years has no woman ever been nominated or accepted as a member?' If it's not actually a bar, it is a sign of ingrained chauvinism."

But there is opposition to change, and not just from men. Dorothy McIvor, a member of the St Regulus Ladies Golf Club, which has a women-only membership, cannot see why Dr Richardson should be a member of St Andrews.

"If she wants to become a member of a golf club she can get the right people to propose her and join ours," she told the Associated Press. "I think the people who are making a fuss about it know nothing about golf and clearly aren't members. They should stay out of it."

But generally, Dr Richardson – who is not giving interviews at present – has indicated that she regards the issue of her gender as a distraction from the more important business of running a prestigious university.

Her arrival in the principal's office is a remarkable journey. In January 1972, she was 14-year-old Catholic girl, one of seven children, living in the small seaside town of Tramore in Co Waterford when she heard news that 27 civil rights marchers had been shot, and 13 of them killed, by the British Parachute Regiment.

She was already a republican, and the atrocity fired up her sense of injustice so much that her anxious parents locked her in her bedroom to prevent her setting off to take part in a protest in Newry, 300 miles from home. "I'd have joined the IRA in a heartbeat," she wrote in the introduction to her book, published in 2006, What Terrorists Want. Instead, she became the first in her family to go through university. She enrolled in the Protestant-dominated Trinity University, Dublin, working as a cocktail waitress at night to fund her studies. At university, she and her closest friend were invited to join the student branch of the IRA. Her friend joined but Louise Richardson had decided by then that killing was wrong, no matter for what cause it was done. She preferred to express her republicanism by using Gaelic as her preferred language.

Her life-changing moment came when she saw an advertisement for a year's fellowship at the University of California. She went, and resolved to return to the US as soon as she had completed her studies at Trinity. She finally left Ireland on the same day in September 1979 that Pope John Paul II arrived in Dublin. There were no flights out of Ireland, so she took a boat and train to Heathrow.

She earned a doctorate at Harvard University, where she took up teaching international relations, and was appointed executive dean of the former women's college, Radcliffe, which she helped transform into a respected institute for advanced study. She set up a course on terrorism, at her students' request, in 1996. She married an American doctor, by whom she has three children. When the youngest was 14, and about to enter high school, she decided that it was time to look around for other opportunities. Of all the offers that came in, St Andrews was the most attractive, though it involved the wrench of leaving the US.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks had pitched her into the public arena as one of the few academics able to talk knowledgeably about terrorism. She gave lectures, and testified before a Senate committee. She was constantly asked to recommend a single book on the subject of terrorism, but could not suggest one, so she put together her own thoughts on the USA's "catastrophic" reaction to the carnage in New York.

Directly contradicting what Americans had been told by George Bush, Dr Richardson asserted that the world had not changed on 11 September, but American foreign policy had. To declare "war on terror" was meaningless, she argued, because terror is an emotion and terrorism is a tactic. Terrorists cannot be defeated like a foreign army, but can be contained, she claimed – but first, it was necessary to understand what motivated them. She also pointed out that the 3,000 casualties inflicted on 11 September by al-Qa'ida were dwarfed by the number of Americans who are murdered by fellow citizens, or who commit suicide, die in car crashes, or drink themselves to death each year.

In writing this, she ran the risk familiar to Britons who tried to analyse the Irish conflict during the IRA bombing campaign, that any attempt to explain terrorist atrocities will be interpreted as excusing them. When Dr Richardson's publishers read her completed manuscript, they pleaded with her to remove the chapter that discussed 11 September. She said she would rather return her advance and cancel publication. They gave way ... as others may have to.

St Andrews Scotland's first university

*Founded in 1413, St Andrews is Scotland's first university and the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world.

*The university's distinctive red gowns, which are still in use today, were adopted in 1672.

*In 1862 Elizabeth Garrett (1836-1917) became the first woman to register as a student at St Andrews.

*In 1892 the university established the LLA (Lady Literate in Arts) scheme, which allowed women to gain access to a university education.

*Famous graduates include Alex Salmond, Prince William, Fay Weldon and Chris Hoy.

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