Mary McAleese: 'I worry the hate we tried to douse will be fanned into flames again'

The former Irish President talks about growing up during the Troubles and how politics should not sacrifice the peace in Ireland

Mary McAleese in her home town of Carrick-On-Shannon
Mary McAleese in her home town of Carrick-On-Shannon Credit: Paul Faith

Between reading Mary McAleese’s riveting new memoir and speaking to the former Irish President, our native Northern Ireland is back in the news again.

And, as per, the province is finding itself at the epicentre of deeply dispiriting politicking.

The Government’s anodyne-sounding yet explosive UK Internal Market Bill, which last week passed its first parliamentary hurdle, ostensibly seeks to clarify – and in parts override – the Withdrawal Agreement in relation to Northern Ireland.

But not only would it break international law, there are fears it will undermine the peace process by breaching the Good Friday Agreement. The EU has predictably reacted with fury.

“The lawyer in me says this is just what happens in the closing phase of any negotiations, when both sides muscle up and try to see who blinks first,” says McAleese. “At that stage you just have to put your faith in common sense and hope that a decent settlement will be the outcome.

“But if it isn’t just braggadocio and bluster then it begs the question: how can the British government be trusted to keep their word on anything else?

“The peace process is a dynamic thing that needs to be nurtured and nourished. The embers of hateful sectarianism that we strove so hard to douse have not disappeared; I worry they will be fanned into flames again and that could lead to an unravelling of what we have created.”

McAleese is 69 and although she and I are a generation apart, the parallels are inescapable. We were both educated by the Sisters of Mercy, who were fixated on hell. We were Catholics living in largely Protestant neighbourhoods. And our families were resolutely – defiantly – non-sectarian.

But while I grew up during The Troubles, McAleese grew up in the Troubles. That distinction is decisive. Dramatic. Devastating.

My small town teenage years resembled Derry Girls, where incendiary devices and army patrols caused inconvenience and exasperation. McAleese’s lived experience in Ardoyne, Belfast, was the shocking stuff of we-interrupt-this-programme news bulletins.

“We lived in a place where the horrifying became routine, the unthinkable was now the abnormal norm,” she writes in her book, Here’s the Story. “Street riots, CS gas choking our throats and stinging our eyes, drive-by shootings, checkpoints, evacuations, the rat-a-tat of gunfire by night and tit-for-tat murders by day.”

Targets of violence

Her father’s first pub was blown up by loyalists, his second by republicans. The family home was once targeted by such a barrage of twin machine gunfire that her little sister’s bed was “riddled like a colander”. By the grace of God, nobody was home.

He wasn’t politically active, but by virtue of living in the wrong place at the wrong time, and serving the “wrong” clientele, McAleese’s father was beaten up, placed on a liquidation list and narrowly missed being executed by a loyalist rooftop sniper.

Her mother was shot and injured with half-inch steel staples by rogue republicans. So was the family dog. Her deaf brother was tortured by paramilitaries. Her youngest brother was sexually abused at his Catholic school.

“Our familiar streets grew ever more frightening and nightmarish as the makeshift, unplanned defence of the Catholic neighbourhoods morphed into the organised paramilitarism of the reborn Irish Republican Army, which sought, improbably, to bring about a united Ireland by bombs and bullets,” McAleese recalls.

It beggars belief that anyone could emerge emotionally unscathed from this wreckage – much less become a key player in the peace process, rise to the rank of President of Ireland and host the Republic’s first historic visit by the Queen.

Mary McAleese talks to the Queen during her historic four-day visit to Ireland in 2011 Credit: Peter Muhly/AFP

McAleese was born in 1951, and was 17 when tensions over civil rights issues led to the outbreak of the euphemistically named Troubles.

The eldest of nine children, by her teens McAleese could discern that the days of passive “pay, pray and obey” submission to the Catholic church were drawing to a close.

“The laity were slowly but surely getting up off their knees and asserting their natural human rights to freedom of religion, conscience, opinion and belief,” she says. Not before time.

When her mother underwent a life-saving emergency hysterectomy after the birth of her ninth baby, the incandescent local priest came to the house and furiously berated her and her husband for not seeking his permission first because she was “still of child-bearing age, was she not?”

‘Walls of misogyny’

Small wonder that McAleese has always been a vocal and courageous critic of what she calls the “walls of misogyny” guarded by the Catholic church, along with its views on homosexuality and “the betrayal and cover-ups” of its child sexual abuse scandals.

She could have left the church – as I did for many years – but chose not to. Just as she could have fled and joined the ‘brain drain’ of young Northern Irish people, as I did.

Instead she stayed and studied law at Queen’s University in Belfast. Her focus was on effecting change by legal means and so followed a glittering career as a barrister and academic.

“Catholics in Northern Ireland were neither regarded nor treated as equals,” she says. “I knew that to achieve lasting change and peace there would need to be structures in place, an architecture that would withstand the gravitational pull of sectarianism – for me that was the law.”

It was in Belfast that she met her future husband Martin, a physicist-turned-dentist, later a politician, and they went on to marry in 1976. Their big day was blighted.

On the morning of their wedding two of their best friends were murdered by loyalists; first shot then set alight. Guests kept the news from the happy couple for as long as they could.

“When I found out what had happened, I spent the first night of my honeymoon curled up in a foetal ball, sobbing, sobbing, sobbing,” she says.

McAleese became a lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin and also worked for the national broadcaster RTÉ on its main current affairs programme, Frontline. In 1987, by then a mother of three young children, she was headhunted by Queens University to head up its Institute of Professional Legal Studies.

A cog in the peace process

Thereafter she became quietly, deeply immersed in the peace process, alongside the late John Hume. Yet her name is scarcely mentioned.

“You have to be prepared to line up the shot and let someone else score the goal,” she smiles. “You contribute what you can, then walk away and let the next person take it forward.”

It was in her role as pro-vice chancellor of Queens, which she took up in 1994, that she first met the Queen. Before the official event McAleese had contacted Her Majesty’s head of household and made a blunt announcement.

“I told him that I meant no disrespect but I would not curtsy,” she says. “Nor would I genuflect before a Pope or kiss his ring. It’s a matter of principle; I will not exhibit false deference.”

The Palace was relaxed, telling her that “curtsying is going out of fashion anyway”. But a week later she received an invitation to a private lunch with the Queen.

“I was hugely impressed by her comprehensive knowledge of Irish history and contemporary politics,” says McAleese. “I’m no monarchist but I respect and admire her steadfast sense of duty and dignity.

“She told me that the greatest sadness of her life was never having visited the Republic of Ireland, and we agreed that together we would try and make it happen.”

‘Building bridges’ ticket

In 1997, McAleese was elected the 8th President of Ireland, succeeding Mary Robinson and becoming the first president to hail from Northern Ireland. 

She was voted into the ceremonial head of state position on a “building bridges” ticket. Once in office, she strove to bring key players from south and north together, far below the radar.

“I had a special pastoral role above politics, so we invited people from all sides of all communities to meet behind closed doors, enjoy music and poetry, drink tea and form friendships,” she explains, vastly underplaying the extent of her highly potent soft diplomacy. “I was adamant there would be no photo opportunities so people from all sides would feel able to come.

“This wasn’t about showing what a great facilitator I was, but about building genuine trust and a sense of neighbourliness.”

In April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. McAleese left office in November 2011; in May of that year the Queen finally set foot for the first time on Irish soil.

“Her visit was a long time in the planning but it was genuinely cathartic,” says McAleese. “With great subtlety and symbolism she healed old wounds and brought about reconciliation.”

As for McAleese, she is now a grandmother of two, living with her husband in Co Roscommon close by the river Shannon. But retirement has never been in her sights. After stepping down, she set about tackling the iniquities of the Catholic church with characteristic rigour and vigour.

She took a crash course in Italian and a lengthy canon law degree in Rome, where she gained a doctorate in 2018 – and has written books on the subject. But for now, it is her own story that’s in the spotlight and with it, that of Northern Ireland. 

McAleese’s book is a fiercely urgent reminder to the world – and the Government – that peace must never be sacrificed for politics.

Here’s the Story by Mary McAleese. Buy the eBook now for £9.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514