Mary McAleese: Irish president's journey from Belfast’s Ardoyne to the Aras
Published 20/05/2011 | 02:25
From humble beginnings in Belfast’s Ardoyne to bestriding the world stage as the President of Ireland, it has been a long and not always smooth journey for Mary McAleese.
Living in the troubled north Belfast area she saw first-hand the effects of the Troubles — her family fled after a machine-gun attack on their Crumlin Road home in 1972.
After that they stayed with relatives in the city, and only occasionally on the Crumlin Road.
After grammar school she went on to Queen’s University where she studied law, where one of her lecturers was David Trimble.
She finished with an honours degree in law and in 1975 was appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin. At 24 she was the youngest person to hold the post.
In March 1979 she secured a job in RTE as a presenter/reporter in television current affairs. It was not a happy time.
“Without a doubt, it was the most traumatic period of my life — bar none,” she has said.
She would write later: “I was a Catholic, a Northerner, a Nationalist and a woman — a quadruple deviant in the eyes of many influential people in RTE.”
She returned to Trinity in 1981, became involved with Fianna Fail and stood for the party in the Dublin South East constituency in 1987 where she secured 2,243 first preference votes.
That year she returned to Northern Ireland and was invited by Professor Des Greer of the Law Department at Queen’s to apply for the position of director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies there. Mary McAleese was the first Catholic and the first woman to be appointed to the post.
It caused a furore and led to a question being put down in the House of Commons by Unionist MPs. It was not debated.
Then vice-chancellor of Queen’s, Professor Gordon Beveridge, was not pleased. He sent off a letter saying that Mary McAleese got the job as she was the best candidate.
She would continue at Queen’s until her election as President and taking up residence in Aras an Uachtarain in the Phoenix Park.
This week’s events represent the greatest of her many ‘building bridges’ achievements as President.
On her way to securing the groundbreaking visit of the Queen, Mrs McAleese has also had her fair share of controversy.
She became embroiled in a furore after ill-judged comments made at an Auschwitz commemoration, where she alleged unionists were brought up to despise Catholics. She later apologised for the remarks.
She has also been both praised and criticised for her relationship with leading loyalist paramilitaries, most notably south Belfast UDA figure Jackie McDonald.
Events in the Republic this week are the culmination of years of work by many in these islands, but few would disagree that it would not be happening now but for the uniquely warm relationship which exists between President McAleese and the Queen.
Both women were anxious it should take place while Mary McAleese was still in office.
Her second term as President ends in November and she cannot stand again under the Republic’s Constitution.Patsy McGarry is author of 'First Citizen: Mary McAleese and the Irish Presidency’ published in 2008