Folk law

As she releases her memoirs, Mary McAleese says that while peace in Ireland has proven robust to human frailty, it has never faced a test like Brexit

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The lawyer in Mary McAleese recognises that Boris Johnson may be posturing with his threat to rip up the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

As the deadline nears in negotiations between the UK and the EU over a future deal, Johnson is pushing the Internal Market Bill through Parliament. Contained within it are provisions to over-ride the withdrawal agreement that only months ago he was proclaiming would get Brexit done.

She has been fiercely critical of the Catholic Church’s record. So critical, in fact, you wonder why she stays

The Internal Market Bill will not only break international law – as every former UK prime minister still alive has warned. By raising the prospect of border checks between north and south, it will also threaten the Good Friday Agreement that has brought peace to Northern Ireland, as McAleese, lawyer and former president of Ireland, clearly recognises.

“They’re now coming to the end of the negotiating process. It can be a time of bravado, bluster, braggadocio and shape throwing,” she says. “I’m hoping against hope that that’s what we are seeing.

“Otherwise they are putting the peace process in a very, very parlous situation and that would be immoral. It’s the sort of behaviour we have come to expect from Boris – playing with fire.”

McAleese was born in Belfast in 1951. Her father, from rural Roscommon over the border, was managing a bar in Ardoyne, Belfast, when he met her mother, the middle one of 11 siblings who had moved from the Dromara Hills in County Down to Belfast in 1945. McAleese is the eldest of five boys and four girls, “raised as a Catholic whose identity was Irish, not British”.

Money was tight but although Ardoyne would go on to become synonymous with the Troubles and record the highest per capita incidence of sectarian murders in the country, McAleese recalls happy times in her new memoir, in a house constantly coming and going with visitors. Her parents, not steeped in urban Belfast, fostered a spirit of tolerance and her friends were Protestant, mostly with a British identity. Even when her parents moved house and forgot to tell her, a network of neighbours, relatives, the local fireman and police officer located her new address. “I milked the trauma for all it was worth,” she writes. “Still do.”

It wasn’t to last. Sectarian suspicion had never gone away – not really, says McAleese, since the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, between the forces of James II, the recently deposed Catholic king of England and Scotland, and his son-in-law William III, who had acceded to the throne. On 14 August 1969, McAleese went out for dinner to celebrate winning a place to study law at Queen’s University – and came home to the outbreak of war.

After a summer of tension and riots, Protestant police auxiliaries – the feared B-Specials – and loyalist gangs burned properties near her house. When she ventured out next morning, McAleese found that 30 houses, shops and pubs had been destroyed and two local Catholic men murdered. Her father evacuated the family to Dublin and the British Army was deployed – initially welcomed as protectors by the Catholic community.

Barack Obama and Mary McAleese at her official Dublin residence in 2011. Photo: Getty

Looking back, McAleese believes the rapid educational progress of her generation of working-class Catholics – free secondary education had recently been brought in – threatened her unionist neighbours and was one spark for the B-Specials’ attack. “The way free education for Catholics was perceived as a threat showed the bonkers thinking among some Protestants,” she tells Big Issue North over the phone from her Roscommon home. “But I hope it’s breaking down with the parity of esteem that’s built into the Good Friday Agreement.”

At the time, Catholics suffered discrimination in accessing housing and employment, had their civil rights undermined by special powers legislation and were persecuted by an overwhelmingly Protestant police force. Soon though, after the family returned to Ardoyne, that turned to outright violence, experienced personally and often amid a rise in paramilitarism. Her sister was attacked in the street, her younger, profoundly deaf brother was left with a severed artery after four men attacked him with a bottle. Her father escaped a bomb attack on his pub, but was left catatonically depressed. She disdained the violence of the IRA too but was left grateful they saved the family’s lives by chasing off a loyalist gang that attacked their house with bricks. When no one was arrested for it, they later returned with even more terrifying machine guns.

McAleese remained a pacifist throughout, working for the non-violent Central Citizens’ Defence Committee, supported by her father and other men of peace. Surrounded by shooting and rioting one night in 1970, she became the “tea lady by default, being the only female present”, and kept them fed through the curfew, recalled drily in her book as “the night of the miserable beetroot sandwiches”.

It was through the law that McAleese chose to make her contribution, despite the shock of her first week as a barrister when she found herself defending a man charged with assault on a local Catholic family. He turned out to also be one of the men involved in the brick and machine gun attacks on her own family’s house. Aged only 24, McAleese was appointed a professor of law at Trinity College, Dublin, later returning to Queen’s – after a short unhappy stint as a journalist with RTE – to become director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies.

Along the way, she became deeply involved in civil rights and legal issues, including gay rights and penal reform, making one unsuccessful attempt at politics as a Fianna Fail candidate in the 1987 general election. Through her membership of the Catholic Church’s delegation to the New Ireland Forum, she was also working towards cross-community engagement and reconciliation, and against sectarianism. She became close to the SDLP leader John Hume, one of the architects of the peace process – who died in August – and played a behind-the-scenes role in supporting his controversial peace talks with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Peace and reconciliation became the main theme of her presidency, which she won with immense support from her husband Martin and despite her opponents’ attempts to smear her as a closet Sinn Fein supporter. She was elected in 1997, a year before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and then again, unopposed, in 2004, before stepping down in 2011.

The Irish president, says McAleese, has a “soft yet powerful quasi-pastoral role”. A high-profile success was securing a state visit by the Queen in 2011, complete with the nod-and-a-wink diplomacy that got her to say a few short but highly significant words in the Irish language. Her Majesty began her four-day trip by arriving at Casement Aerodrome, named after Sir Roger Casement, a British Colonial Service diplomat who had supported the 1916 Rising and had his good name tarnished by the British establishment as a result.

McAleese says few British people are aware of the “appalling story of empire and story of England in Ireland”, praising the Queen for her intent. “All the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place for the visit and she came on a mission of reconciliation. She arrived at a significant airport and from minute one we are in very contested territory.”

Also important though were all the people from both sides of the border she invited to the presidential residence, the Áras an Uachtaráin.

“The presidency is for all people, regardless of colour or gender or political beliefs. We have to find ways of expressing that and outreaching – the presidency can go beyond the realm of politics and reach into people’s lives.

“We gave a welcome to hard-to-reach communities. Then you see the capacity of people to change – fear evaporates. The key was to emphasise the importance of being good neighbours, not trying to prove a political point. That helps tackle the arrears of distrust. The success was the huge numbers of people who came from the north and became friends but left with the same politics.”

McAleese’s presidency overlapped with the Celtic Tiger years of economic growth, of opening up to migrants and returning diaspora, and of welcoming overseas investment. It ended when the bubble burst in spectacular fashion and brought a severe downturn, but she insists that by being a “place of welcome” Ireland’s highly educated and growing population could recover from the pandemic in the same way. Ireland’s unprecedented coalition government between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is dealing well with coronavirus, she adds. “The return of people has been wonderful, a cathartic change for Ireland.”

McAleese is less glowing about the Catholic Church. Apart from a brief flirtation with atheism – she was talked out of it by the kindly and influential Father Justin – her faith has been important to her. When she stepped down as president she donned a hoodie and rucksack to go and study canon law – the Catholic legal system – in Italy, persuading her fellow students to preserve her anonymity. But she has been fiercely critical of the Catholic Church’s record and “gargantuan stupidity of its mistakes” on child sexual abuse, gay rights, contraception and misogyny. So critical, in fact, you wonder why she stays.

“Five out of seven people in the world identify as religious. The media is often hostile to religion and I can understand why but if we do not acknowledge that it’s hugely, hugely important in their lived lives we miss something very important.”

It’s the largest Christian denomination and the biggest NGO in the world, she adds.

“It’s unbelievably powerful and I want to see that power used responsibly and compatible with a loving God, principles of equality and the UN declarations on human rights and the child.

“I want to see the church turn the spotlight of its power on itself so we don’t have the hypocritical situation of it saying, for example, homosexuality is fine but then teaching that it’s disordered. That’s a good use of my voice.”

As for the threat to the Good Friday Agreement, McAleese calls it a “magnificent achievement”, showing an appetite for compromise to bring the end of paramilitarism and parity of esteem between Catholic and Protestant as well as recognising the validity of an ambition for a united Ireland if support for it is there.

“It’s a really generous compromise but also realistic.”

She acknowledges that since the 1998 Omagh bombing “fragments who regard themselves as keepers of the flame of violent republicanism have tried to test the agreement but every time they’ve got the resounding message from all quarters – you are losers.

“The Good Friday Agreement is robust under these tests and helped us get past human frailties. But one thing they weren’t expecting – it was never tested against Brexit. Membership of the EU has been critical to the energy and solidarity of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Here’s the Story: A Memoir is published by Penguin

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