People: President McAleese plays a populist tune

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The Independent Online
To the gentle strains of Handel the avowedly nationalist Mary McAleese, who hails from the Ardoyne in Belfast, took office as Ireland's eighth president on Armistice Day, pledging to burying hatchets of the past and make a virtue of her country's diversity.

Her inauguration was both regal and populist. On a bright, crisp autumn day beneath a cloudless sky she was swept in the elegant 1948 presidential Rolls Royce led by 36 army motorcyclists into a Dublin Castle courtyard crammed with 1,000 children from around the island.

They cheered every arrival, from the SDLP leader, John Hume, author Brian Keenan and poet Seamus Heaney, to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein President, and Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. They cheered the disgraced Prime Minister, Charles Haughey, weeks after he was booed here after lying to a judicial tribunal. They even cheered an empty car.

After fanfares and drum rolls in the gilded grandeur of St Patrick's Hall, hung with flags of Ireland's great families, Ms McAleese launched an equally grand holy quest for peace through partnership "as a wonderful millennium gift for the child of Bethlehem".

A new dynamic Ireland was now "tantalisingly close to a golden age of affluence, self-assurance, and tolerance ... our forbears dreamed of; prospering, accomplished, educated, at the heart of the European Union," she claimed. Conceding "distrust goes deep and the challenge is awesome," she invited Unionists on Armistice Day to look to Europe "where once bitter enemies work conscientiously for each other as friends and partners".

Her presidency's theme would be "building bridges", she said. But her words were missed by invited Unionist leaders such as John Taylor, who, though supportive during her election, evidently saw attendance in person as a bridge too far.