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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Peacebuilding and Reconciliation: Lessons from an Irish Context


Former Irish President Mary McAleese spoke to a packed room at the Boisi Center on October 29 about her decades of peace and reconciliation work as well as her historic fourteen-year presidency, which ended in 2011. Irish presidents are heads of state, not government, a fact that allowed McAleese to embrace the pastoral dimension of the position. She used her office to promote respect for the claims, and wounds, of Irish Protestants and Catholics alike. The office gave her the prominence to provide important moral leadership, as well as the institutional support required for the difficult work of political reconciliation. She told the audience that she was consistently motivated by the gospel of love she imbibed as a child, and by the Irish hero Daniel O’Connell’s reminder that “rights are not something government gives, but something government protects.”

“Building Bridges” was the theme of McAleese’s presidency. She and her husband Martin—who also played an instrumental role in the peace process—sought to foster genuine dialogue between Catholics and Protestants in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, often in secret. They established a new language of respectful engagement, resulting in the concept of “parity of esteem” featured in the Good Friday Agreement that signaled the end of “the Troubles.” McAleese’s efforts culminated in a poignant visit by Queen Elizabeth in 2011, the first ever by a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland. Over four days, the Queen’s visit helped to healed a painful past, and proved a powerful example of McAleese’s use of collective memory as a tool to unite a divided populace.

The first Northern Irish native to be president of the Republic of Ireland, McAleese drew from her experiences growing up in a highly sectarian society to inform her peacemaking policy. She spoke of the norm of violence that had consumed her society, taking the lives of many of her friends and prompting others to join paramilitaries as a means to fight for their political objectives. McAleese herself found strength and solace from the violence in the Gospel of love proclaimed every Sunday in her Catholic parish. These teachings, coupled with her family’s disapproval of violence, prompted her to find alternative means of conflict resolution. Rather than adding to “the toxin of violence” that begets more violence, she tried to put herself in Protestant shoes: to understand what Protestants held as their fiercest objections to Irish rule, and to work through their resentment to find ways to compromise and forge peace.

Part of Northern Ireland’s first generation to receive free secondary education, McAleese came to see education as the key to breaking cycles of violence. She recounted how biased education can perpetuate discrimination, as when textbooks repeat old prejudices, and how an educated minority can still be locked out of the job market. Ultimately, though, education and truth proved to be tools for great healing. McAleese recounted one instance of biased history about the First World War that had been widely promulgated in Ireland: Protestants and Catholics alike were taught that only Protestants volunteered for the British cause during the war, a story that suited the Protestant narrative of allegiance to the Crown and the Irish narrative of resistance. The truth, however, was that the vast majority of those who volunteered and died for the British cause were Irish Catholics. When this truth came out, a divisive memory was transformed into a common cause, illustrating the power of memory-building in conflict resolution.