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Mary McAleese: I was a refugee on my own island

Published 05/09/2015

Mary McAleese said people in Ireland, Britain and across Europe are eager to help those in need
Mary McAleese said people in Ireland, Britain and across Europe are eager to help those in need

Refugees from Syria are hoping against hope for a helping hand from other countries, former president Mary McAleese said, as she recalled her own experience fleeing conflict at the beginning of the Troubles.

Mrs McAleese, who said she had been "literally a refugee on my own island", noted that the public is keen to talk about people, not numbers, when it comes to dealing with the crisis.

The image of a young Syrian boy washed ashore in Turkey earlier this week sparked outrage and calls for governments throughout Europe to do more to help the tens of thousands of people running from war.

Mrs McAleese who, with her family, had leave their home in Ardoyne, Belfast in 1969, said people in Ireland, Britain and across Europe are eager to help those in need.

"The ordinary men, women and children on the street have said 'actually, do you know what? We have to do something. We cannot just respond by talking about numbers or bureaucracies or structures. We have to talk about this human being to human being,'" she told an audience at St Mary's University in London.

Ireland has said it will take at least 1,800 refugees, three times as many as original plans announced in July, while Britain is to take "thousands more" refugees from the camps in countries around Syria.

Describing the fear felt by people trying to escape danger for want of a better life, Mrs McAleese said she remembers vividly the moment her father packed up her family and drove to Dublin in the middle of the night as violence broke out in Northern Ireland.

She said: "One of the things I learned from that experience is you are on your own, and that is how these people, who are refugees in, not a migrant crisis but a refugee crisis, that is how they are in reality."

She said people who had left their homes "petrified", will be hoping for a sense of common humanity and a helping hand.

Mrs McAleese was speaking at an event as part of a conference entitled Ireland: Agents of Social Transformation, organised by the British Association of Irish Studies (BAIS).

A migrant holds a crying boy out of a local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border, that has been stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. AFP/Getty Images
A migrant holds a crying boy out of a local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border, that has been stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS A migrant family is arrested by local police after their local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border has been stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. The train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station after authorities re-opened the station to migrants as the EU is grappling with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years. AFP PHOTO / ISTVAN BIELIKISTVAN BIELIK/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS Migrants board into a local train heading to the Hungarian-Austrian border at the main train station in Budapest on September 3, 2015, after authorities re-opened the station to refugees. On the day before Hungarian authorities stopped migrants taking trains to Austria and Germany. AFP PHOTO / PETER KOHALMIPETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS Migrants of several countries enter a local train with direction to the Hungarian-Austrian border at Keleti (East) railway station in Budapest on September 3, 2015. A train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station and headed toward the Austrian border, after authorities re-opened the station to migrants. AFP PHOTO / PETER KOHALMIPETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOTS Migrant boy holds a sign reading 'SOS help me' as he sits with other migrants in front of the Keleti (East) railway station in Budapest on September 2, 2015. Hungarian authorities face mounting anger from thousands of migrants who are unable to board trains to western European countries after the main Budapest station was closed. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEKATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
The feet of a young boy are bandaged as he waits at the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A young migrant boy plays a harmonica to police officers in front of the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Migrants gather and shout slogans outside the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Migrants help an elderly man to cross tracks at the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A migrant is detained after the train they were traveling in from Budapest arrived in Bicske, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia. Many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
People sit on a train as hundreds of migrants left the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia. Many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
A boy looks out of a window as a train with hundreds of migrants leaves the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia. Many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
A young boy holds a German flag in front of the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Migrants try to board a train at the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A young child cries as hundreds of migrants try to board a train at the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia. Many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
A child cries as nigrants try to board a train at the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A young migrant boy flashes a victory sign with his fingers painted in the colours of the German national flag outside the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Migrants show placards outside of the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A migrant shows his hands with the countries Syria and Germany written on them in front of the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Migrants push and shout as they gather in front of the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. Over 150,000 migrants have reached Hungary this year, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A migrant family is arrested by local police after their local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border has been stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. The train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station after authorities re-opened the station to migrants as the EU is grappling with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years. AFP PHOTO / ISTVAN BIELIKISTVAN BIELIK/AFP/Getty Images
Migrant is arrested by local police after his local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border has been stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. The train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station after authorities re-opened the station to migrants as the EU is grappling with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years. AFP PHOTO / ISTVAN BIELIKISTVAN BIELIK/AFP/Getty Images
A migrant takes care of a crying boy outside a local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border, that has been stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. The train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station after authorities re-opened the station to migrants as the EU is grappling with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEKATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
A migrant holds a crying boy out of a local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border, that has been stopped in Bicske, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. The train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station after authorities re-opened the station to migrants as the EU is grappling with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEKATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
A rescuer helps a migrant lying on the platform outside a local train coming from Budapest and heading to the Austrian border, that has been stopped in Bicske by authorities, west of the Hungarian capital on September 3, 2015. The train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station after authorities re-opened the station to migrants as the EU is grappling with an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years. AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEKATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
Migrants board into a local train heading to the Hungarian-Austrian border at the main train station in Budapest on September 3, 2015, after authorities re-opened the station to refugees. On the day before Hungarian authorities stopped migrants taking trains to Austria and Germany. AFP PHOTO / PETER KOHALMIPETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images
Migrants of several countries enter a local train with direction to the Hungarian-Austrian border at Keleti (East) railway station in Budapest on September 3, 2015. A train carrying between 200 and 300 migrants left Budapest's main international train station and headed toward the Austrian border, after authorities re-opened the station to migrants. AFP PHOTO / PETER KOHALMIPETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: A migrant looks from a window of a train that he is refusing to leave as he protests against being taken to a refugee camp from a train that has been held at Bicske station on September 3, 2015 in Bicske, near Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants protest against being taken to a refugee camp from a train that has been held at Bicske station on September 3, 2015 in Bicske, near Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants protest against being taken to a refugee camp from a train that has been held at Bicske station on September 3, 2015 in Bicske, near Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: A migrant receives medical attention as people protest against being taken to a refugee camp from a train that has been held at Bicske station on September 3, 2015 in Bicske, near Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: A migrant receives medical attention as people protest against being taken to a refugee camp from a train that has been held at Bicske station on September 3, 2015 in Bicske, near Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants protest against being taken to a refugee camp from a train that has been held at Bicske station on September 3, 2015 in Bicske, near Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Police stand guard as migrants sit on the platform of Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants gathered on the platform of Keleti station watch a train to Sopron leave, after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Police stand guard as migrants sit on the platform of Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board a train in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have bee cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board trains in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board trains in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - SEPTEMBER 03: Migrants board trains in Keleti station after it was reopened this morning in central Budapest on September 3, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Although the station has reopened all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled. According to the Hungarian authorities a record number of migrants from many parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are crossing the border from Serbia. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called Balkans route has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The massive increase, said to be the largest migration of people since World War II, led Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to order Hungary's army to build a steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers from a variety of countries and war zones entered the country so far this year. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

She will take up a new role as Distinguished Professor of Irish Studies at the university in Twickenham in January.

Professor Lance Pettitt, Director of the Centre for Irish Studies at the university, said: "I am delighted to welcome Dr McAleese to St Mary's. The BAIS conference is an important forum to discuss major issues facing Ireland in the 21st century and I look forward to Mary's contribution to this debate."

Mrs McAleese, who alongside her husband Martin built many friendships with loyalists during her tenure as president, told the audience she is confident Northern Ireland's politicians can overcome the latest "pothole in the road", referring to the political crisis over the existence of the IRA.

"In my view that's hopefully all that it is - a pothole rather than a major obstacle," she said.

"These are people who have overcome enormous obstacles, so this one should not be beyond the wit of politicians. They should be able to fill in this pothole I think with good will."

The breakdown in relations at Stormont reached a new low after the killing of a former IRA father-of-nine Kevin McGuigan, allegedly by former terror associates, earlier this summer.

Following the killing Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton said the IRA - which was supposed to have dissolved a decade ago - still exists for peaceful purposes and the shooting was carried out by individual Provisional IRA members but not sanctioned at a senior level.

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