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Behind a great woman in the Aras, there's a dynamic, hard-working man

WHO was the first to think seriously of Mary McAleese as President of Ireland? Many people claim this distinction, and more say the thought ran through their minds on March 12, 1997 when Mary Robinson announced her resignation from the presidency.

Dr Maria Moloney, a school friend of Mary's and sister of the influential Belfast solicitor Denis Moloney, rang her brother the following morning with the prophetic words: "I have no doubt that Mary McAleese will be the next President of Ireland."

Martin McAleese maintains he thought of her as a possible candidate when the Labour Party originally proposed Mary Robinson back in 1990. Harry Casey says he thought the same thing on the same day: "There's a president in Mary McAleese."

Harry Casey, one of ten children born and reared near Longford, worked as a teacher in St Patrick's Classical School, Navan. One evening he visited a family newly settled in the town, the Nethercotts. As he was talking to Elizabeth Nethercott a picture of Mary McAleese on a muted TV caught his eye.

"That's a woman I would love to meet," said Harry.

"She's a friend of ours, and if you would like to meet her, we'll introduce you to her. She lives just outside Dunshaughlin," replied Elizabeth.

Little did they realise, as they shook hands for the first time, the effect each would have on the life of the other. Harry was to become her close friend and one of the key people in securing her the Fianna Fail nomination for the presidency. On March 12, 1997, Mary had a headache and decided to go to bed early, just before the Nine O'Clock News. At 9.15pm, Martin answered the phone to an excited Harry Casey.

"Did you hear the news, Martin? Mary Robinson is not going for another term. I'm going to ask you to encourage Mary to stand as a candidate."

When Martin went in to check on Mary, he mentioned that Mary Robinson had announced her resignation. "Mary said nothing in response, but there was something in her eyes. I knew she was thinking the same thing."

"The idea, once it was articulated, hit me like a blow," Mary McAleese said later. "My breath was taken away. When I came to myself again after several seconds, I was convinced that the whole thing was pure nonsense."

Her deliberations were significantly influenced by Denis Moloney, senior partner in the legal firm, Donnelly & Wall. When he met Mary in Clonard shortly after St Patrick's Day, he told her she was the person best suited to be the next President of Ireland, and if she agreed to seek a Fianna Fail nomination he would back her totally.

Talking to Fr Alex Reid, Mary mentioned that she was coming under pressure to let her name be floated. He thought it was a good idea and Mary asked him if he would sound out Martin Mansergh, the Taoiseach's adviser. Mansergh was taken aback by the idea, saying it wouldn't be considered until after the pending general election.

Martin also contacted the former nationalist MP Frank McManus who put Martin in touch with Conal Gibbons, son of a close friend of Pat Farrell, General Secretary of Fianna Fail. He spent an evening with the McAleeses in their cottage in Roscommon advising them on tactics.

When Martin was training as a dentist, his partner in practical laboratory work was Sheena McEniff, niece of Brian McEniff of the McEniff hotels family. When Martin contacted him to seek support, he promised to use his influence.

But not all Northern contacts were so easy. The influential former GAA president Peter Quinn told him straight out that he was committed to Albert Reynolds. The first person in whom Martin confided Mary's presidential ambitions was a dentist friend from County Cork: Mike Cronin, from Midleton.

Other dentist friends of Martin's who promised to use their influence were Paul Sullivan, who had a practice in Castleknock, and Dr Eamonn Murphy from Rathfarnham, who numbered among his patients the Fianna Fail chief whip Seamus Brennan. Harry Casey also visited Martin Naughton, the millionaire from County Louth who had contributed so generously to Queen's University, and he also came on board without hesitation. On July 4, 1997, after attending a reception at which she talked with John Hume, Mary sat down and drafted a letter to Bertie Ahern saying she was available as a candidate for a Fianna Fail nomination.

Before speaking to any of the elected representatives Mary got an opportunity to speak to the party guru himself, Martin Mansergh.

At a interval during a concert in Dublin, Mary spotted him across the room. She had long since formed a deep respect for this Oxford-educated Protestant republican historian and special adviser on Northern Ireland to three administrations. "It must have been very clear to him that I, as a Fianna Fail presidential candidate, would solve a lot of Fianna Fail's problems. I could be the compromise between the realpolitik and the common good."

As the new Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats Government settled down, Albert Reynolds was the strongest candidate from within the party. But it was also clear that his candidacy would create problems of its own. Fianna Fail didn't want a by-election in Longford/Roscommon and Mary Harney had already told Bertie Ahern she couldn't support him because of his row with Dessie O'Malley during the beef tribunal.

Reynolds as Taoiseach had also fired eight Government ministers and nine ministers of State. A campaign, which later became better known by the acronym ABBA - Anybody but Albert - was gaining momentum. A few days after a visit to Knock, Mary phoned Patricia Casey, with whom she had become friendly after their appearance on The Late Late Show.

Casey was prepared to - use her considerable influence on Mary's behalf. The Cork-born psychiatrist was well-placed to exert some influence on the Fianna Fail organisation. Patricia Casey contacted the Wicklow TD, Dick Roche, for whom she had canvassed in the previous election. He promised that he would mention Mary's name and qualifications to his fellow TDs and also to the party leader, which he did. The network of friends of Mary McAleese was by now working efficiently.

Ciaran Taaffe, vice-president of the Dublin Institute of Technology, lived in Blackrock, outside Dundalk, where he was particularly friendly with one of his neighbours, Government Minister Dermot Ahern.

It was Ciaran Taaffe who organised Mary's first meeting with a government minister. She and Martin visited Dermot Ahern in his ministerial office in July. Martin says that he was becoming irritated by Ahern's wariness and the circumspect way he responded to what Mary had to say. They found out afterwards, however, that when the minister's private secretary returned to the office, having left Mary and Martin to the door, he greeted Ahern with the words, "You know who you've just met, Minister? You've just met the next president."

Mary Hanafin, a friend of Harry Casey's since they had been in college together in NUI Maynooth, was the first Fianna Fail TD to be approached directly. She explained that she could not give unconditional support to McAleese because Michael O'Kennedy, the former European Commissioner, was going to seek a nomination. In the meantime, she was prepared to help Harry Casey, and by extension Mary McAleese, in any way she could.

She advised Harry to visit Dail Eireann and to get to know some of the backbenchers. When he went there for the first time, she introduced him to Brian Lenihan, who proclaimed himself a former pupil and colleague of Mary McAleese, from the School of Law in Trinity College. The network was working far better than expected. Mary Hanafin's thoughts were relayed to the McAleeses.

Harry then asked Mary Hanafin what she would think of an approach to Mary O'Rourke. She said, "Try her!" Harry knew Mary O'Rourke from his home place. Mary O'Rourke said she would love to meet Mary McAleese again and invited her to call to her house in Athlone. "We chatted for a couple of hours, and Martin and I found the insights we got that night, both from Mary and from Enda, very useful 'The McAleeses knew they must be breaking some sort of rule as they walked around Leinster House knocking on TDs' doors'

later on. Mary O'Rourke made no promises, but by the time we were leaving, I knew in my heart and soul that I had a friend in court," says Mary McAleese.

The next member of Fianna Fail to be approached was Rory O'Hanlon, a relation of hers. He, along with Gerry Collins, Noel Davern, Vincent Brady and Ray Burke, was among the ministers fired by Reynolds. Mary and Martin met Rory O'Hanlon in the Fairways Hotel, outside Dundalk, and he was as noncommittal as the others. Dick Roche was the only TD who told her, unequivocally, that he would support her. At the end of July, Martin phoned Pat Farrell to find out if Mary was being considered as a serious contender. The General Secretary of Fianna Fail gave no indication of how anyone else felt about Mary. When Martin asked straight out if they could rely on his support, he said he was on his way to the Galway Races.

A few weeks later, at a different sporting venue, Farrell's espousal of the McAleese cause would be unambiguous.

On Monday, August 8, the Irish News carried a story on its front page under the headline "Professor Mary McAleese Now Set to Seek Nomination". Later that day, John Hume confirmed he would not be a candidate and, later again, Mary McAleese got a call asking her to present herself at the Taoiseach's office at 2pm the next day.

Bertie Ahern and the Fianna Fail chief whip were in the Taoiseach's office. Bertie Ahern invited her to make her case. "Throughout the meeting he remained inscrutable. He neither encouraged me nor disheartened me. He explained at the outset that there were good people within the ranks of the party who wanted the nomination, but he saw no reason why my status as a former member of Fianna Fail should be a hindrance to me in my efforts."

On Wednesday, September 10, Mary and Martin McAleese were brought into the Dail by Mary Hanafin, who handed them over to Dick Roche. The Dail had been recalled to discuss the McCracken Tribunal Report and the couple saw it as an opportunity to visit TDs in their offices.

The first TD they called on was John Ellis. When there was no answer at the outer door or the inner door, Martin went into his office and found Ellis sitting, working at his desk. "Excuse me. I'm Martin McAleese and this is my wife Mary. She is . . . "

"Hold on there," said Ellis. "I wouldn't like you to be wasting your time with me. I'm voting for Albert Reynolds."

They knew they must be breaking a rule of some sort as they walked around the corridors of Leinster House knocking on TDs' doors. They were in Rory O'Hanlon's office when a call came from the superintendent of the Dail, Eamon O'Donohoe, who said he had received complaints about a couple walking around the corridors without permission. He wanted to see them in his office immediately. Off they went down the stairs, feeling like a couple of bold children on their way to the principal's office.

After explaining the rules, he told them: "I hope you get this nomination."

By Friday afternoon they had met everyone they wanted to meet. Martin later learned that Pat Farrell had spent another weekend canvassing for her. Some of those phone calls were made on his mobile phone from Old Trafford where Farrell spent a Saturday in the company of Seamus Brennan.

On the night of Tuesday, September 16, Mary McAleese was working on the speech she would give to the Fianna Fail parliamentary party. By 3.30am, she had spent three hours preparing a three-minute speech.

But when Mary and Martin McAleese arrived in Leinster House for the nomination process they felt totally shut out. They felt isolated, vulnerable and let down. Fifteen minutes left and still no proposer. Martin was not prepared to wait any longer. As Dick Roche emerged from the lift, Martin grabbed him by the arm.

"Dick! Aren't you proposing Mary?"

"No. I thought Mary O'Rourke was proposing her," said Roche. The meeting room was almost full at this stage, but Mary O'Rourke had still not arrived. Martin had been talking to O'Rourke the previous night and she had not mentioned even the possibility of proposing her.

It was after 11.25am when O'Hanlon came out of the room and approached Mary.

"Who's proposing you?" he asked.

"I don't know," she replied. "At this point I don't know if anyone is proposing me."

O'Hanlon disappeared into the meeting room. Within two minutes he was back out. "There'll be no proposers and no seconders. The other candidates and their proposers have agreed to that. Each candidate will be invited to speak for three minutes," he said.

"Either of the other candidates could have got rid of me, there and then. They would have been perfectly within their rights to insist that we follow the rules. That would have been the end of me. I was very grateful for their generosity," Mary says.

At 11.30am the door of the meeting room was closed and Rory O'Hanlon started the meeting, leaving Mary and Martin standing in the corridor outside. Eventually, Pat Farrell came out and invited Mary to step inside.

She says that as she spoke she saw smiles appear on several of those faces, saw people looking at each other and nodding their heads. It was obvious to all that not only was the speech itself very well-crafted but that she was telling the Fianna Fail faithful exactly what they wanted to hear.

The "shafting of Albert" filled many column inches in newspapers. It is said that the Taoiseach showed his ballot paper to the former Taoiseach just before he cast his vote, so that Reynolds could see his name clearly written on it. Reynolds read this gesture as a kiss of death: that Bertie Ahern was so certain of Albert's defeat that he could afford to waste his own vote. When the result of the first vote was announced there was no winner. Albert Reynolds had 49 votes, Mary McAleese 42 and Michael O'Kennedy 21.

A ten-minute break was called and the smokers headed for the corridor. That was when Martin heard the news. "As soon as I heard the result of the first ballot, I knew Mary would win the second vote. My confidence was strengthened a lot when several of the new TDs came over to me to check the spelling of 'McAleese'."

As the delegates began to file back into the room for the second vote, those people who had been so reluctant to show their hands previously were now losing their shyness.

Whispers were distinctly audible and conversations noisy. People were slapping each other on the back and laughing aloud before the result was even announced. Eventually, Rory O'Hanlon declared the final tally: Reynolds 48 votes; McAleese 62 votes - a clear victory on the second count.

There was pandemonium. Bertie Ahern's behaviour before and during the election was beyond reproach. However, many deputies said afterwards that they could not help remembering Charles Haughey's description of their party leader: "the most devious, the most cunning, the most ruthless of them all".

But it was Mary's day, and it was Albert Reynolds who reminded everyone of that fact: "This is her day. I'll be with her all the way."

At 1pm that day, September 17, 1997, and without any inkling of it on her part, Mary McAleese's private life ended. It was as if she had stepped through the looking glass.

'The Road From Ardoyne, The Making of a President' by Ray Mac Manais is published by Brandon Press