Does Ireland's destiny lie with a woman from the north?

Mary McAleese
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The Independent Online
With Mary Robinson now in Geneva as UN Commissioner for human rights, the clear favourite to succeed her as president of the Irish Republic is a woman whose Belfast home was once machine-gunned by loyalists. The Republic may be on the point of choosing, for the first time ever, a woman from the north to be its president. The election of Mary McAleese would signify that the south is in the process of losing some of its aversion towards the violent north.

Her election would not be popular with northern Unionists, for it would represent the most visible sign yet of the northern Catholic minority's power, abilities and potential. But it would be a landmark in symbolising both how much Unionism has lost and how far nationalists have advanced.

Mrs McAleese is a highly complex woman. Once strongly supportive of the Catholic church, she has more recently been a trenchant critic. A child of the Troubles, who comes from the once politically impotent Belfast ghetto Catholicism, she has risen to become one of the city's most influential women.

The shooting attack came when she was a teenager in Ardoyne, one of Belfast's most violent districts. She once recalled: "My brother, who is deaf, was very badly beaten by a bunch of thugs at our front door. Then they shot dead our neighbour, Gerry Kelly, in his shop. We thought we might get petrol-bombed but in fact they emptied the contents of two machine- guns through the windows. It was just God's mercy none of us was killed."

The family fled the district. Mrs McAleese, now 47 and married with three children, studied law at Queen's University in Belfast, then at a young age became Reid professor of law at Trinity College in Dublin, succeeding Mary Robinson in the post. She went on to become a familiar face as a broadcaster with RTE in Dublin.

Her evident ability and articulacy held out the promise of a southern political career, but when she stood for Fianna Fil in 1987 she was defeated, and later that year she returned to academic life in the north. The job she took up, as director of the Institute of Legal Studies at Queen's University, was important for a number of reasons. The first was that Catholics, and Catholic women, were not normally appointed to such key posts; the second was that the candidate she defeated, the only other person on the short-list, was David Trimble, then a law lecturer, now leader of the Ulster Unionist party.

The fact that the job went to a nationalist woman rather than a Unionist man did not spark off huge publicity, but it sent shock waves through the Protestant establishment. A senior professor at Queen's later described the university's background: "Historically, Queen's has been perceived as a Protestant university and some people believe that Queen's should remain a bastion of Unionism." There were questions in the House, with four MPs from Mr Trimble's party questioning Mrs McAleese's suitability for the post in the Commons. Some years later Mr Trimble returned to the attack, alleging that two further promotions she won were perceived as "a response to political nationalism and to some extent to pressure from Dublin and elsewhere".

The McAleese response was brisk: "The distillation of those questions was really - why was this Roman Catholic getting this job? There is a type of Unionist who simply cannot bear the thought of any Catholic getting anywhere on their own merits. It is a frightening prospect for them."

When the university ran into deep trouble over religious imbalances in its workforce it turned to Mrs McAleese, among others, to supervise a wide-ranging affirmative action programme. Most of the inequities, and much of the old ethos, have now gone: "We've brought about seismic cultural change here," she later said.

Judging from her public utterances, seismic change was also the order of the day in her views on religious matters. Like so many Irish Catholics, she was outraged by the wave of scandals which swept through the church. Her personal attachment to her religion is as strong as ever, but in recent years she has been merciless in her criticism of her church's handling of child abuse cases. She denounced "a shabby, bleak procession of Pontius Pilate lookalikes, abusing priests, uninterested abbots, impotent cardinals and unempowered parents".

Yet another seismic change may be indicated by the fact that she is clear favourite, and is standing with the support of both parties in the south's governing coalition, Fianna Fil and the Progressive Democrats. Until now the southern electorate has been decidedly leery of northerners, with the conspicuous exception of John Hume. When Austin Currie, another northern nationalist, unsuccessfully ran for the presidency in 1990, his party's research identified his northern background as the strongest negative element being held against him.

Mr Currie recently wrote that he understood why this should be: "The Provo murder campaign, Unionist intransigence, the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings and the sense of continuing vulnerability, the cost in financial terms, the threat to jobs and tourism, northerners taking southern jobs, the fact that not all northerners are likeable people - is it surprising that some say to me they would like to see Northern Ireland towed to mid- Atlantic and sunk?"

So far at least Mrs McAleese's northern background is not being held against her, a sign perhaps that the ceasefires and the peace process have softened attitudes and made the south more welcoming towards northerners. Some observers predict that anti-northern feeling may yet well up, however, denying her victory.

If she wins, though, many Unionists may not be able to cope with the new breed of confident, articulate middle-class northern nationalists which she typifies. But southerners may finally be ready for a northerner, and one whose life has reflected so much of Ireland's recent eventful and often traumatic history.