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Former Irish president talks gender, religion

| Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Addressing the topics of gender and religion in the present and future trajectory of Ireland, former president of Ireland Mary McAleese joined the Saint Mary’s community on Tuesday evening in Carroll Auditorium of Madeleva Hall.

College president Carol Ann Mooney introduced McAleese, who is the second women to serve as the president of Ireland and the first to come from the Ulster region.

McAleese was elected in 1997 and served for two terms until 2011, using her time in office to address issues concerning “social justice, social equality, social inclusion, anti-sectarianism and reconciliation,” Mooney said.

Former president of Ireland Mary McAleese  speaks in Carroll Auditorium of Madeleva Hall at Saint Mary’s College.Monica Villagomez Mendez | The Observer
Former president of Ireland Mary McAleese speaks in Carroll Auditorium of Madeleva Hall at Saint Mary’s College.

According to Mooney, McAleese described the theme of her presidency as “building bridges,” as she hoped to resolve the tensions of the conflict that afflicted Ireland during the Troubles, which occurred between the late 1960s and 1990. After years of relieving frictions, the Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal, was struck in 1998 during McAleese’s presidency, which established a power-sharing agreement in Belfast and included political forces on both sides of the conflict, Mooney said.

Now, McAleese is a member of the United Nations’ Council of Women World Leaders, and she is ranked the 64th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine, Mooney said.

In conversation with Saint Mary’s professor Karen Chambers, who is the director of the Ireland study abroad program and an associate professor of sociology, McAleese addressed her view of the Irish presidency, her main goal during her terms and the historic visit by Queen Elizabeth II of England in 2011.

McAleese first explained the three main roles of the Irish presidency, compared to that of the American presidency.

“Here, your president has very strong executive functions, and the president in Ireland doesn’t, I suppose. The equivalent in Ireland would be the prime minister; he is the head of government,” she said. “[Ireland’s] president, on the other hand, operates in a moral or pastoral space, and although there are some executive powers, they are very limited.”

The three roles of the Irish president, then, are to sign and pass legislation, to oversee the details of other elections and to be commander-in-chief of the army.

However, according to McAleese, the other major duty that she assumed is to operate within the moral/pastoral space, as she defines it. It is within this space where the gateways to reconciliation between the north and south and between Britain and the Republic of Ireland could form and strengthen.

With this goal in mind, McAleese set her agenda for her presidency: to build bridges of friendship.

“The problems we have are essential problems with neighbors,” she said. “The truth is that nobody is going anywhere, so it’d be well to get on with one another. … We needed to know how much resistance there was … because we weren’t doing this for photo opportunities.”

Instead, McAleese inspired attitudes of reconciliation amongst opposing forces, desiring for all to be decent to each other and to find platforms of shared and joint benefits.

“And over a period of 14 years, that worked,” she confirmed. “[It worked because] we weren’t trying to turn anyone into Irish nationalists or Catholics. … What we were trying to do was turn them into people who could think of us as good neighbors, as people that they could have huge political differences with, but that those differences not be dealt with by violence.

“My husband started work with the Protestant paramilitaries … and we began to realize the fact that we were from their areas … actually meant a lot to them — that somewhere inside of them, they were actually quite proud of us, that we belonged to them in some way or other,” she said.

Then, the “miracle of friendships growing” occurred, and this culminated into a new infrastructure for government in Northern Ireland to build upon with good, positive compromises and an eventual referendum, she said.

“It was a compromise that went hard on everybody … but everybody signed up to it. It’s still in operation … it’s not pretty, [but] no government is,” she said. “They argue, and they fight … but point me to a government anywhere that doesn’t have the same old, same old. And I’m really happy with that because I call that normal. That’s what we hoped for.

“They’re less ugly than the politics of the past, and they don’t use the same contemptuous language anymore because they have to work with each other now.”

According to McAleese, the education of religion has been drastically different amongst the current generation and the previous one, though she wishes more of the church’s focus would be on the gospel of loving one another.

“I grew up in the church in Belfast and only began to notice in my early teens that the church maybe had an attitude towards women,” she said. “There’s a subtext in the church, a historic subtext, of thinking about women in ways that are deeply unhealthy. One of the things that’s worth looking at … is the 1917 code of canon law. … Women are actually referred to as objects of suspicion.”

Director of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL) Dr. Elaine Meyer-Lee said McAleese’s lessons that she shared are easily transferable to what it takes to lead effectively in today’s complex and interdependent world.

“As a Catholic woman who has pioneered and made a significant difference in addressing one of the more complex challenges of the contemporary world, I’d say Professor McAleese has lived our [Saint Mary’s] mission pretty much to a T,” Meyer-Lee said. “Of course, one could also say she is a model of intellectual vigor, religious sensibility and social responsibility.”

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About Kelly Konya

Kelly Konya is an English major bred on Catcher in the Rye and Roman cornettos.

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