The Good Friday Agreement fifteen years on
- Lectures and events
- Publication Date
- Mary McAleese
Plateau or Platform for Consolidating Peace in the European Union?
MacCormick European Lecture 2013
The MacCormick European Lecture is named in honour of the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick FBA FRSE. This year’s lecture was delivered by Mary McAleese, who was Ireland’s second female President and the world’s first woman to succeed another as President. She was also Ireland’s first President from Northern Ireland.
The career of Mary McAleese has taken her from Belfast’s sectarian “ghettos” to the President’s office in Dublin, and wherever she has lived and worked, her hope has always been to build bridges between the divided communities of Ireland. During her informal lecture, she tells the “inside story” of the Good Friday Agreement, the Queen’s historic visit to Ireland in 2011 and talked about her own career and hopes for the future.
The Irish question – and the Irish answer
The career of Mary McAleese has taken her from Belfast’s sectarian “ghettos” to the President’s office in Dublin, and wherever she has lived and worked, her hope has always been to build bridges between the divided communities of Ireland. During her informal lecture, she told the “inside story” of the Good Friday Agreement, the Queen’s historic visit to Ireland in 2011 and talked about her own career and hopes for the future.
McAleese grew up in Belfast’s notorious Ardoyne area, a flashpoint for the Troubles which is still regarded as the “most contemporary manifestation of sectarian differences” in Northern Ireland today. In later years, her family had to leave their home after two men “emptied their machine guns through the windows,” but McAleese left all that behind her when she played a critical role as a go-between, helping to bring Nationalists and Unionists together to negotiate the difficult path to the historic Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which has helped to keep the peace in Northern Ireland for the last 15 years.
As a Catholic living on “the Protestant side of the road,” McAleese experienced both sides of the sectarian divide. One of her childhood friends joined the IRA and ended up in prison, but McAleese went down a different path. She also saw the violence close up when she witnessed the B Specials (an auxiliary police force “who saw themselves as a service designed to defend the constitutional status”) torch nearby Catholic homes. The people of the area may have been “ghettoised” and torn apart by the Troubles, but their “natural inclination” was to make friends and cross the divide. Children may have been discouraged from playing with children from different religions, and “Reformation and counter-Reformation politics were still not resolved,” but people could still be good neighbours, and this has been an influence on McAleese throughout her career.
The early 1960s, said McAleese, saw the start of “a new phase of the old problems,” when resentment and resistance to “colonisation” erupted again, after being relatively dormant through the 1950s and the 1960s. The Republican desire for a united Ireland combined with the growth of the civil rights movement and the rising tide of sectarianism to stoke up old tensions, despite improvements in education. In 1966, this was brought into sharp focus when one side commemorated the 50th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, while the other side commemorated the Easter Rising. “Both sides were dysfunctional,” said McAleese, “and this was played out in the streets.” The Unionist Government reacted poorly to the demand for civil rights, and paramilitarism started to gather momentum from 1969 onwards.
At this time, McAleese was a student at Queen’s University, Belfast, and her hero was Daniel O’Connell, the 19th-Century Irish political leader who was “a champion of people held in contempt by the elite.” Faced with increasing sectarian tensions, McAleese, like many of her peers, had to make a choice – “the paramilitary route or dialogue and the patient use of democracy,” as embodied by Daniel O’Connell. And she chose the latter, becoming a Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College in Dublin.
Dublin was “monumentally different,” she said. “Living as a Catholic in Belfast, it felt like a Protestant state for a Protestant people,” but she also realised that people in Dublin did not care about what happened in the north, forcing her to challenge her presumptions and “look afresh” at her historical inheritance.
McAleese became aware how people “ransacked” history to gather “ammunition to support their own world view, and evidence of the depravity and lack of faith and integrity” of their opponents – for example, the received wisdom that only Irish Protestants fought for the British during World War One; a myth which Catholics were happy to support because it also suited their historical perspective.
During WW1, she explained, 250,000 Irishmen volunteered to serve under the British, out of a total population of about three million people, and most of them were Catholics. When they returned at the end of the war, they were treated as pariahs and their memories were hidden away “in the attic” for the next 100 years until the true story emerged, and both communities were able to commemorate together the deaths of 50,000 fallen comrades. “The war was used to divide us,” said McAleese. “The toxic spores of history have a very long shelf life.”
In 1979, McAleese became a TV journalist, and used this opportunity to understand more about Ireland. “It was a shortcut to get under the skin of the place,” she explained. “I had been fed a view of history designed to put me in a box, in terms of my views and ambitions,” but travelling around the country opened her eyes to different attitudes and places, as well as to all the issues of the day. “I was able to wrestle out of the skin I’d been given and get my own skin,” she said.
In 1987, McAleese returned to Belfast to take up a post as Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen’s. During this time, she focused on equalities issues, addressing the university’s “abysmal record” when it came to the treatment of Catholics and women. “It is very telling that we made more headway with Catholics than with women,” she revealed. “There are still residual problems in the job market, housing and politics, but the historical legacy is being chipped away.”
In 1997, McAleese was elected President of the Republic of Ireland, succeeding Mary Robinson. She had stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for Fianna Fáil at the 1987 General Election, and had always been interested in politics as a vehicle for change, but she saw herself more as a campaign or issues person (e.g. gay rights, children’s rights and prisoners overseas) rather than a party political person. It was also ironic, she said, that she and her family were not entitled to vote, but with the theme of “building bridges” she won the election.
One of her key concerns before and after becoming President was to counter sectarianism, including how parents transmit sectarian values to their children and how we all should take responsibility for this. Her parents may have been forced from their home, but she and her husband decided to open their doors to everyone, including an official reception for the Orange Order. She believed that it was important to talk to everyone on both sides of the divide, including the people who were causing the problems, even though this wasn’t easy for governments.
McAleese’s Presidency started the year before the GFA was signed and ended with the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011. But the talks started long before then. From 1988 onwards, McAleese and Irish News publisher Jim Fitzpatrick supported Father Alec Reid in his efforts to bring the two sides together for talks, with John Hume representing the Unionists and Gerry Adams representing the Nationalists. Reid had intuited that the IRA leaders were ageing and tired of the fight. “They’d arrived at the point where the war could not be won, and also could not be lost,” she explained. And because this was equally true for the British, Reid devised what was called the Alternative Strategy, leading to the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, followed by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. McAleese praised UK Prime Minister John Major and the Irish PM Albert Reynolds for their contribution to the talks which eventually led to the ceasefire, as well as Father Reid for keeping up the momentum. “Wherever there were pockets of resistance, we talked,” she explained.
The GFA was not easy to implement, said McAleese, after centuries of conflict. At first, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) did not sign up for it, but gradually its leaders saw the benefits, and as a mainstream party its support was important. During the talks which led to the St Andrews Agreement in 2007 and resulted in the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly the following year, two British soldiers were killed by the Real IRA (a breakaway group which has accused the IRA of selling out to the British) and there were fears of reprisals by Unionist paramilitaries. But thanks to work behind the scenes, violence was averted and the Agreement was signed. In McAleese’s view, this success underlined the “robustness of public solidarity” among people in Northern Ireland. “Something had synthesised,” she added, “and the people were talking as one community.” The Agreement also led to the devolution of policing and prepared the way for the Queen’s visit four years later.
McAleese now celebrates the fact that people are learning to accept each other and live with “otherness.” Instead of trying to evangelise, both communities are simply trying to be good neighbours. And as President, she wanted to “make people welcome on their own island, on their own terms.” It is also a great “source of joy” to her that Derry now celebrates the 12th of July as if it is a shared event, no longer “scary.”
In 2011, the Queen made her historic trip to Ireland. McAleese revealed that she had first met the Queen in 1995, and sensed the “heartache” of Her Majesty about the situation in Ireland, and her inability to go there. The Queen wrote to McAleese soon after she became President in 1997, expressing her desire to make the visit a reality, and the two of them worked towards it over the next few years. McAleese did not want a visit for its own sake, but a visit that would “fill in the arrears of centuries” and also build bridges between the two nations.
The visit was “four extraordinary days,” said McAleese, and the Queen won over the people of Ireland from the very first moment by visiting the National Garden of Remembrance to pay her respects to the Nationalists who lost their lives during the conflict. History had taken a “different trajectory” from that moment on, and the Queen next visited Croke Park, the scene of “Bloody Sunday” in 1920, when the Royal Irish Constabulary opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match, killing fourteen spectators. Croke Park was “hallowed turf” in Republican circles, but the Queen once again won respect for her sensitivity to everyone’s feelings. At a State Dinner later, the Queen then won more hearts and minds when she started her speech with five words in Gaelic. These gestures were an “iconic way of dealing with things, and in those five words, all sense of injustice and anger melted away,” said McAleese.
On the third day of the visit, the Sinn Fein Mayor of Cashel welcomed the Queen, breaking ranks with his party, and this paved the way for the famous handshake between the Queen and Martin McGuiness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a former leader of the Provisional IRA.
After the visit, McAleese received a letter from a 90-year-old woman, who told her she had “no time for monarchs” but sat glued to her TV throughout the whole visit and “cried herself sore” as she reflected on events. The visit must have been “choreographed by the angels,” the woman wrote, and McAleese left office soon after feeling that her time in office had worked and that “yesness” had won in the end.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “we are always going to be neighbours, so we may as well be good neighbours.”
McAleese then concluded by describing what she’s done since her “retirement,” writing a book and studying Canon Law in Rome. As a Catholic, she was concerned about the suggestion that the Church has been “subject to criminal investigation just like the Mafia,” so she decided it was time to have a look at its structure, in the belief that it should be more collegiate and decentralised. She is also concerned about children’s and women’s rights, but warned that women priests and cardinals are not on the agenda, even though the Church is now more willing to involve women in decision making. She also referred to the “glacial pace of ecumenical relations,” at the same time as praising Pope Francis for opening up a “new landscape of debate” about important topics such as the family. “When he arrived in Rome, Francis had a very large spoon in his suitcase, and now he is stirring things up,” she said.
Q & A
There was only time for one question from the audience, suggesting that sectarian conflict had revived in the 1960s partly because of economic decline in the shipyards of Belfast and Glasgow. McAleese agreed that this had been a major factor, saying the community had lost hope when the shipyards closed down, making many people “fodder for paramilitarism.” Today, we face a similar challenge, and have a serious crime culture which appeals to “macho” young men who feel rejected by society but are easily seduced by the offer of a life of guns and violence because “they thirst for power, influence and respect.” In Ireland, economic health is achievable and the “Celtic Tiger” can regain its “surging confidence,” but more value should be placed on education.