World

Building bridges

STEPHANIE NOLEN November 10 1997
World

Building bridges

STEPHANIE NOLEN November 10 1997

Building bridges

A nationalist wins a four-woman presidential race

IRELAND

The choice could hardly have been more clear-cut, or more unusual. All four major candidates for the largely ceremonial job of president of Ire-

land were women. One was a committed Irish nationalist from Belfast who was not eligible to vote in the election. Another was a liberal feminist and grandniece of republican hero Michael Collins. There was also an Alabama-based singer and Christian talkshow host, and a respected charity director. When the votes were counted, the clear winner was the committed nationalist, Mary McAleese, a conservative Belfast lawyer and academic whose supporters included Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. In choosing McAleese, Irish voters showed they were not afraid to inject polarized republican politics into a position similar to that of Canada’s governor general.

Until seven years ago, many Irish people would have had to pause and think before they could name their president. But in 1990, law professor Mary Robinson was elected, and in her seven-year term she took the job from patronage post to high-profile ambassador.

Robinson has gone on to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but the four women eager to replace her (joined late in the race by one man, who placed last) represented the spectrum of Irish politics. As the campaign opened, liberals led in the polls. Analysts saw them as progressive-minded candidates in tune with the new Ireland, the “Celtic Tiger” enjoying an economic boom from European Union investment, and basking in a new sense of sophistication. And then the ever-divisive issue of Northern Ireland reared its head.

Halfway through the campaign, Sinn Fein’s Adams said he thought McAleese would make a fine president. Two days later, secret documents leaked from the department of foreign affairs said McAleese, the candidate of the ruling Fianna Fail party, had met Adams and was “pushing a Sinn Fein agenda” well before the IRA declared

a new ceasefire in Northern Ireland last summer. Pro-British Unionist leaders in the north said they would consider ita “provocation” if she were elected. McAleese appeared to be in trouble, suddenly far too controversial to be a figurehead president. But then John Bruton, the often-bumbling leader of the opposition Fine Gael, attacked Adams, saying he should stay out of politics in the south, and

effectively labelling McAleese an outsider. Suddenly, voters who were put off by McAleese’s image as a radical swung back to her camp in sympathy. McAleese managed to get through the campaign without even commenting on the allegations.

A former law professor and journalist, McAleese, 46, comes to the presidency from Queen’s University in Belfast, where she was a vice-chancellor, the first woman to hold that title. She could not vote because she was not a resident of the republic, but under the Irish Constitution, residents of the six “partitioned” counties of Northern Ireland are considered citizens of the south. She is a conservative Catholic who opposes the legalization of abortion and divorce, hot issues in Ireland. Admirers describe her as brilliant and articulate, a woman with a firsthand understanding of the problems of Northern Ire-

land who can “build bridges” between its divided communities, and between the north and south. Her detractors say she is cold and arrogant, with a “Margaret Thatcher smile.” And most crucial, the critics say, McAleese, with her Catholic nationalist ties (she has a cousin serving a life prison term for an IRA sectarian murder), will only deepen the fissures that plague the island.

McAleese’s closest opponent was Mary Banotti, 58, her political antithesis. Banotti is also a nationalist, as befits the grandniece of Collins, who negotiated the 1921 treaty with England that won independence for the south. But she is known as a longtime peace activist and an advocate of a negotiated settlement. A European parliamentarian, she is pro-choice on abortion (although she played down that view during the campaign), and is herself divorced. Warm and chatty where McAleese is poised and cool, she had solid support among young people, particularly women. “It would be grand to have a single mother as president,” said Jane Kiernan, a 21-year-old chemistry student from Tipperary, watching the candidates on a televised debate before the election. “Mary Banotti is a real person who has had real problems. She lives like us.”

But there were indicators that many voters were not interested in a president as “modern” as Banotti. The surprise story in the election was Dana Rosemary Scallon, 46, who won 14 per cent of the initial votes in Ireland’s preferential system, even though most commentators were still dismissing her as a joke when the polls closed. Scallon, who came home from Alabama where she hosts an evangelical Christian talk show, was best-known in Ireland for winning the Eurovision Song Contest at 18 with the syrupy tune All Kinds of Everything. She ran on a sharply conservative “family values” platform. The initial leader in the polls was Adi Roche, 42, the left-leaning executive director of the Children of Chernobyl charity, but her standing plummeted due to a series of gaffes.

There were other factors behind the outcome, not least what historian Dermot Keogh calls the “tribal power” of the Fianna Fail political machine that backed McAleese. Her conservative stance on issues like abortion also played well in rural areas and with older voters. But the Northern Ireland rumpus was crucial. After beating Banotti in the final count by 59 to 41 per cent—the largest margin ever in an Irish presidential election—McAleese pledged to be “above politics, to be a president for all the people.” She said she would “seek to heal the hurt” of divided Ireland, and again pledged to build bridges. With the shadow of Sinn Fein hanging over her, McAleese may need some long bridges indeed.

STEPHANIE NOLEN