A woman who would be president

October 24, 1997

THERE is one vote Mary McAleese cannot count on in next week's election for the president of Ireland: her own.

Though entitled to be a candidate, and even having a holiday home in the Republic, the Queen's University pro vice chancellor is not actually eligible to vote. As someone quipped, this is an Irish election after all.

Her switch from the halls of academe to a month-long tour of the length and breadth of the country has proved a bustling, often bitter, ordeal.

Despite previous experience of the hustings as a candidate for Fianna Fail in the mid-1980s, Professor McAleese was clearly stung by allegations in the closing stages of the presidential campaign that she is sympathetic to Sinn Fein. Late last week Gerry Adams, MP for West Belfast and Sinn Fein president gave her his personal endorsement.

Leaked memos of civil service briefings of discussions with Professor McAleese seemed to imply she had been pleased by Sinn Fein's election advances and quoted a senior SDLP official saying she was following a "Sinn Fein agenda". Professor McAleese's nationalist credentials are well known, but she argued that the memos were not a fair reflection of her views and forced independent candidate Derek Nally to withdraw his criticism of her.

As an "outsider", against the odds and the predictions of many leading commentators, she has remained ahead in opinion polls. She is a complex, driven individual, a staunch Catholic who is hugely critical of the church; deeply political but acknowledging that the post of president is above politics.

The 46-year-old mother of three was born Mary Leneghan near the fiercely nationalist Falls Road in west Belfast, the eldest of nine children: three sisters and five brothers. Her father Paddy, who moved to Belfast from County Roscommon in the Republic at the age of 14 to find work, was a publican in the Falls area.

She attended St Dominic's High School on the Falls Road, becoming chair of the school debating team and head girl in her final year as the province headed towards the outbreak of the Troubles. IRA activist Dolores Price was in the same class.

"I watched civil war break out on my doorstep at the age of 18," Professor McAleese once said. "My brother, who is deaf, was very badly beaten and they shot dead our neighbour, Gerry Kelly, in his shop. It was God's mercy none of us was killed."

The sight of neighbours and family being terrorised (the Leneghans were machine-gunned out of their home and later forced to move 40 miles from Belfast after an attack on the pub), as well as systematic harassment by British troops, proved traumatic.

"Though I was brought up in Northern Ireland I had a sense of not being fully welcomed," she said. "My parents were very deeply law-and-order orientated and yet I was very conscious by my late teens of how we were regarded as subversive because of the community we came from."

In articles during the 1980s she described Northern Ireland as an archetypal police state and confessed she had felt the "same desire for vengeance" that led some others to join the IRA. But her strong Christian principles and beliefs, which she has always insisted are private, prevented a radical becoming a revolutionary.

After A levels she studied law at Queen's and graduated with honours in 1973. She was called to the Northern Ireland bar a year later and was apprenticed to a leading Ulster Unionist who is now a QC. She dealt mainly with criminal and family law cases but her first major appointment in 1975, as Reid professor of criminal law at Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of 24, turned out to be a disappointment.

Her natural character, perceived as subversive in the north, was seen as cheeky and provocative in the south. "People just didn't have the passion I hoped for," she said in a newspaper series on nationalism. But her research while in the post, including child custody, computerisation of prison records, constitutional law and attitudes to crime, brought her to the attention of the media.

She roundly condemned the criminal justice system in the south, including the state's largest prison, Mountjoy, and in 1979 joined the Republic's main television station Radio Telefis Eireann as a journalist and co-presenter of its key current affairs programmes.

In the meantime, she had married Martin McAleese, an old school friend who had also moved to Dublin to work as an accountant. They soon moved to County Meath where their three children, Emma, who is now 15, and twins Justin and Sara-Mai, now nine, were born.

Again dissatisfied with journalism, Professor McAleese returned to a part-time professorship at Trinity in 1981 but ran into a row when the National Union of Journalists suspended her over her dual academic/media role. Professor McAleese angrily claimed the suspension was the direct result of her growing links with the hierarchy of the Catholic church.

In 1984 she acted as an adviser to the Catholic bishops' delegation to the New Ireland Forum and has kept up her religious role, being a member of the five-strong Catholic church delegation to the Parades Commission last year.

She has consistently held a strong line against abortion - "the foetus has rights, too" - and supported the Church in the 1982 abortion referendum in the Republic. Yet she maintains she is a feminist "and not just the sort of woman who says she is a feminist".

Certainly she is no church apologist: just over two years ago she called for the church to set up a complaints procedure.

"There seems to be a glaring absence of any forum by which a person mistreated by say, a Bishop acting on behalf of the church, can appeal to a third party for an adjudication. Is there a presumption perhaps that injustice never occurs, or that when it does it is something with which we have to put up, silently and humbly?" she said.

Her appointment in 1987 as director of the Institute of Legal Studies at Queen's, in which she defeated David Trimble, then a law lecturer and now leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, sent shock waves through the province's unionist establishment.

It was the start of a meteoric rise in the university. But there were questions in parliament from four MPs from the UUP. Mr Trimble himself attacked her, claiming that two promotions were "a response to political nationalism and pressure from Dublin and elsewhere".

Professor McAleese said: "There is a type of unionist who simply cannot bear the thought of any Catholic getting anywhere on their own merits." She was a leading figure in a root-and-branch affirmative action programme at the university, which did much to alter its image as a unionist bastion.

"There has been a growing realisation of the depth and scale of the problem and very serious determination to turn the university around to adopt a real culture change in which both women and Catholics are equally able to share in its future," she said on her appointment as pro vice chancellor in July 1994.

But her running for the presidency, and winning the nomination from Fianna Fail, defeating former taoiseach Albert Reynolds on a second ballot, came as something of a surprise. She has said: "I sense a mood among the people that they want a president who can speak to them from above politics - a presidency of embrace, of caring outreach."

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