Thursday 15 November 2018

Her bridges built, McAleese reflects on a decade in office

Fiona Brady in Auckland

She will be back in "the house" next Sunday for lunch with her family.

It seems like only yesterday, but November 11 will mark 10 years as President of Ireland for Mary McAleese.

Aras an Uachtarain is where her now adult three children came of age, and it's where Mrs McAleese says she has spent the best years of her life.

Next Sunday will mark a decade of seismic changes for Ireland and quite a few milestones for the McAleese family.

Mrs McAleese became the eighth president of Ireland on November 11, 1997 and the first northerner to hold the post.

Seven years later, the Belfast woman was re-elected without contest for a second, and arguably more turbulent term in office.

Omagh, September 11, the Tsunami: these landmark events put Mrs McAleese very firmly to the test as Ireland's representative in the most difficult of times.

Speaking exclusively to the Irish Independent during her state visit to New Zealand this week, Mrs McAleese reflected on some of the highs and lows of her decade in the Aras.

'Building Bridges' was the theme the then 46-year-old McAleese chose for her presidency. But has she succeeded?

"I think it is for others to say whether I've succeeded or not," she said. "But I'll tell you what I tried to do."

She acknowledges that the Ireland as we knew it, and as it was even in 1997, has gone forever.

"It's just not the same country in many ways. A narrative that just changes so dramatically and every single change has been for the good. To be part of that has just been a privilege."

But Ireland, she believes, could not have changed without the millions of Irish emigrants who left. "It was their success and it was their encouragement that allowed us to create the platform that we now launch into the 21st century from."

One area where the McAleese family particularly wanted to build bridges was in Northern Ireland.

But it is an area where she has not always succeeded.

In 2005, she caused a storm of controversy after she said children in Northern Ireland were taught to hate Catholics in the same way that Nazis taught their children to hate Jews.

Her swift and heartfelt apology for her "clumsy" remarks placated most unionist politicians and church leaders but it was undoubtedly one of the most difficult moments of her presidency.

There have been others. "For me the two moments when you just feel your energy evaporate was Omagh and September 11," she said.

Omagh came barely six months into her presidency, on August 15, 1998. She admits that the death of 29 people, plus two unborn children almost made her lose hope.

"Omagh was just one of those awful moments of disbelief," she said. "A feeling that how can we ever again gather the fragments of the peace process. But we did and we had to do it because of all those fragmented and shattered lives."

September 11 was just as traumatic. "I knew that day when I saw the two planes, I just knew that there would be Irish deaths."

But there were also extraordinary highs and Mrs McAleese believes nothing will come close to the opening night of the World Special Olympics Summer Games held in Ireland in 2003.

She said: "It's the strongest memory that I'll ever have, that I don't think anything will ever cap. Standing in Croke Park on that day, I don't think that could be equalled because that was Ireland at its superb best.

"It was all done, it was done with such good humour, such goodwill, such a spontaneous gathering north and south that you could only be proud of the country."

She also treasures memories of the historic Ireland versus England rugby match when the GAA opened up Croke Park to other sports.


"It's memorable to me, not because we beat the English, though that helped, but the mood at the game on that day. It was like a docking moment of pure unadulterated reconciliation."

For the rest of the McAleese family, the 10-year anniversary must also give pause for thought. At the time of her inauguration, her three children Emma, SaraMai and Justin were all in their early teens.

They are now in their 20s but have largely escaped the media spotlight, something both McAleese parents are grateful for. "We've appreciated that enormously and we're very grateful to them (the Irish media)," she said.

"It allowed the children just to grow up in a very happy, normal household."

She refuses to be drawn on what the future holds for her when her second term of office ends in 2011. "I've never had a five or 10-year plan in my life," she said.

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