One woman shows southerners they have new friends in the north

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The south's ringing endorsement of its first northern president reflects the changing state of Irish nationalism and some new hope for the peace process, says David McKittrick.

Although the president of the Irish Republic is supposed to have few powers beyond the strictly ceremonial, the election of Mary McAleese contains great significance for north-south and Anglo-Irish relations.

It comes as representatives of the British and Irish governments and most of Northern Ireland's political parties are ensconced in Stormont working on a new dispensation which could be as far-reaching as the 1920s arrangement which created Northern Ireland.

The south's choice of Professor McAleese, by the biggest winning margin in the Republic's history, says much about what it wants to see emerging from the Stormont talks. The extraordinary campaign gave telling insights into southern opinion, and in particular the state of Irish nationalism.

She is the first British citizen to be elected president of the Republic. Her predecessor, Mary Robinson, has gone down in history as the first woman to hold the post: Professor McAleese will go down as the first northerner. This is in itself hugely significant, since being from the north has traditionally been a drawback in southern politics. Even before the troubles many in the south found many northerners rather too blunt, too hard, too harsh for comfort. Decades of violence and political deadlock sharpened that original distaste into real aversion.

Yet the belief is now widespread in the south that the troubles are almost certainly over, and this rapidly growing feeling seems to have brought with it a new fellow-feeling for northern nationalists. The presidential campaign provided firm evidence of this.

The dominant issue in the campaign was that of the nature of Mary McAleese's nationalism, which assumed centre-stage when leaked documents were produced which were used to allege that she was secretly sympathetic to Sinn Fein. Up to that point the campaign, with its five well-mannered candidates, had been gracious and genteel; the leaks issue ignited it.

Someone had gone through sensitive Irish foreign ministry documents, copied anything which looked damaging to Professor McAleese, and posted them to newspapers. When questioned about them, she explained that she had been part of a behind-the-scenes peace initiative under the auspices of the Redemptorist Order. Redemptorist priest Father Alex Reid, who helped bring about the first IRA cessation of violence, was trying to bring about a second ceasefire and she was helping him.

Around this time she also received what looked like the endorsement from hell, when Gerry Adams announced that if he had a vote he would cast if for her. John Bruton, leader of the largest opposition party, Fine Gael, seized on this and attacked the Adams endorsement. At that point Professor McAleese was slightly ahead in the polls. Whoever leaked the documents clearly hoped to wreck her campaign, while her political opponents hoped to tap into what they assumed was a latent vein of anti-northern sentiment. The opinion polls which followed, however, told an astonishing story: both the leaks and the criticisms had backfired and been counter-productive.

She sailed even further ahead in the polls, while the approval rating for John Bruton dropped like a stone from 60 to 43 per cent. After that Professor McAleese never looked back, as waves of sympathy brought more and more support from those who believed she was victim of dirty tricks.

The psychiatrist Professor Anthony Clare, for example, wrote of "a smear of McCarthy-ite proportions hatched, fanned and daubed all over the McAleese campaign - the classic smear of guilt by association, used with a gusto reminiscent of J Edgar Hoover at his most malign".

The episode cast light on the overall peace process. There is a strain of opinion in the south, particularly well-represented in the media, which has deep concerns and reservations about the course of the process which has led to the IRA's present ceasefire and Sinn Fein's subsequent entry into talks.

This worry, presented in its most aggressive form, has been used to argue that those attempting to bring Sinn Fein into mainstream politics are naive and foolish, or, alternatively, crypto-republicans. They believe Sinn Fein will not be tamed by the political system but will instead pollute it.

The McAleese leaks provided the most acute test of support for this proposition. The result appears to have been an emphatic endorsement of the McAleese approach and the peace process as a whole, as the allegation that she was a "sneaking regarder" of republicanism was briskly rejected.

The election may also have shown that southern voters, in this contest at least, did not show themselves overly concerned with the effect of the result on those other important northerners, the Unionists. This point is, however, highly arguable, since Unionists sent very mixed messages during the campaign.

Some contradicted Professor McAleese's assertion that she had the private goodwill and support of many Unionists, though later a number of Protestant clergy spoke publicly of her as both a peacemaker and a committed ecumenist. The clincher, for those southerners worried about Unionist opinion, probably came when John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist party, said that while she was "an out-and-out nationalist" she was by no means a republican sympathiser and "a most able person, quite easy to work with".

Nonetheless, the McAleese success will give many Protestants cause to reflect on the steady rise in northern nationalist power and what they view as its unfortunate corollary, the steady decline in Unionist influence.

The new Irish president is a product of Belfast ghetto Catholicism: her family fled the city after their house was shot up by loyalists in the early 1970s. After that unpromising start she has emerged from the trauma of the troubles a remarkably self-confident and assertive person; and there are plenty more where she came from.

Quite a few of them are present inside the Stormont talks, while many more today play a leading part in Northern Ireland's public life. Unionists will be all too aware that these are people who regard themselves as being on the way up. They clearly will not endorse any settlement emerging from Stormont which does not give full recognition to their Irishness, as the south's electorate has just endorsed the Irishness of the first northern president, Mary McAleese.

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