Skip to content

‘Politics Are About Getting Through the Things You Need to Get Through’

Q&A with Mary McAleese, two-term president of Ireland

(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Belfast-born Mary McAleese served two terms as president of Ireland during 1997-2011, the first native of Northern Ireland to hold that office. McAleese’s presidency was marked by her advocacy for peace and reconciliation through regular trips to Northern Ireland and by hosting visitors from the North at her official residence. This fall, McAleese is serving as the Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies, accompanied by her husband Martin. She recently spoke with Sean Smith of the Boston College Chronicle.
Q: I understand you have quite a lot on your plate this fall, in addition to being Burns Scholar.

Well, I’m also studying for my doctoral degree in canon law at Gregorian University in Rome, and doing some work for the European Commission on modernization of the European Union's higher education sector. So I’ve spent these past several months going from Dublin to Rome to Brussels and now to Boston. This is called “retirement.”
Q: So, what with the studies at Gregorian and the work for the European Commission, why take the appointment at Boston College?

Boston College has a phenomenal reputation in Ireland as a university that has made, and is making, important contributions to Irish life. BC also is a remarkable story of success, going through tough times but then managing to become one of the best universities in the United States.

And I thought the leitmotif of that is where I see the Catholic Church. And maybe there’s something in the air here that I could breathe, perhaps that eternal American optimism.

I have so much respect for BC’s Irish programs, because they have helped Ireland to understand itself better; not just its literature and arts, but its politics, the whole panoply. The faculty members are deeply versed in Ireland. You think you know every nook and cranny, but then you talk with someone like Tom Hachey, Bob O'Neill, Bob Mauro or Robert Savage, and they’ll tell you things you never knew.

And this is what’s missing in our Church: discourse. Listening to people who are doing the work, doing the research, who are seeing other aspects of the situation.

(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Q: Talk a little about your studies in Rome – what prompted you to pursue the doctoral degree in canon law?

I’m a civil lawyer by training, and that’s been a major part of my life. I grew up Catholic in Belfast with a civil war right outside the door, in a household with parents who believed that, rather than resort to violence, we should try to use the law, try to do things democratically, by discussion, by persuasion, by discourse. So that’s where I pitched my tent, and trained to be a lawyer and use not only democratic discourse but Christian discourse, and the great commandment to love one another.

I’ve been studying canon law privately for a number of years, and have a master’s degree and licentiate in it. My interest grew because of my concern about what has been happening in my church — the sexual abuse scandal, but other things, too. When I looked at the scandal, I was struck by what investigators said about canon law and canon lawyers. It was a scathing indictment: In not one single incidence of sexual abuse had canon law been able to do anything on the victim’s side, nothing useful or helpful.

So I decided to make it my business to study canon law, something very few laypeople have done. And what I’m most interested in is, how is it that we’ve arrived at a situation in the Church where the increasingly educated laity feels more and more excluded from the discourse that is necessary to run an organization this big and this advanced? And how can we now trust the judgment of the people we’ve learned, to our cost, cannot be trusted in matters of children and abusive priests? Why should they continue to make decisions for the 1.2 billion of us on the same terms as before?

I think that we are entitled to that critical faculty, which is given to us by the Holy Spirit, in the light of what we now know; the false deference, the unadulterated trust – these things were and still are phenomenally dangerous. We need accountability, we need openness, we need rigor, we need to address the people who have decision-making power over us, to show us those decisions are made in our best interests, and crucially, in the light of the best information available.

I hoped that by studying canon law at Gregorian — where priests and in particular canon lawyers are formed — would give me some helpful insight into how this unhappy situation came about.

I can’t walk away from the Church, my spiritual home, just like I couldn’t walk away from Northern Ireland, my birthplace. I had to hang in there and see if I could make some sort of contribution. I don’t flatter myself that I’ll be able to do anything in my lifetime, but I also believe that if I don’t help plant the seed, then nothing new will grow.
Q: It seems fair to say that “peace and reconciliation” has been a continual theme for your career, political or otherwise. In a world that often seems jaded, cynical and dubious about good intentions, how do you make these words real and substantive?

I can understand the cynicism, because too many things that have looked like peace and reconciliation wind up being photo opportunities. The words sound twee if you’ve never been put in a situation where they are the difference between life and death. I don’t regard peace and reconciliation as nice, soft, soapy words – to me, they are damned hard disciplines.

(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

My husband and I both lost our homes and friends in The Troubles, and knew many others who had similar experiences of suffering. Out of that, you have to decide, “How do I react?” Do I get angry? And if I do, do I just become another conduit for history’s toxic spores of hatred? Or do I, someway or another, try to stop this?

My view was, God put me here for a purpose: to stand my ground and make genuine peace with those from whom we were estranged. You have to invest in building, and maintaining, friendships because we are all neighbors — Loyalist, Republican, Protestant, Catholic — and we aren’t going anywhere. The Good Friday Agreement gave us the political framework for peace and reconciliation, but on a day-to-day basis there is still much work to be done in building up that trust. We build to fill the centuries’ arrears, as the poet John Hewitt said.

As president, I couldn’t be involved in the political part — that’s the prime minister’s job — but I felt I could take on a pastoral mission. So we worked our way through all the onion layers, and talked with those who had been our enemies, who tried to turn us out of our homes, to really listen to them so we could learn what makes them tick. We made it something personal, rather than just a photo opportunity, and built up a connectedness between the office of the President of Ireland and a constituency that never thought it would have any connection at all with that office.
Q: What was an example of how you sought to accomplish this?

We focused on two very important historical dates. One was July 12, on which Protestants celebrate William of Orange’s victory in 1690 over King James. We decided we would show respect for that day, even though it was a battle in which Catholics got clobbered. Each year we held a formal, official event to commemorate both the Williamite/Protestant and the Jacobite/Catholic traditions, because we saw it as an opportunity to help people living cheek by jowl see that we are all successors to those traditions, and as neighbors must build a discourse that allows us to live today in a humanly decent and mutually respectful, peaceful way.

The other was 11/11 — Nov. 11 — which is the date the armistice was signed to end World War I. Now, there is a myth that only Unionists and Protestants fought in the Great War, and that the Catholics and Nationalists did not.

I grew up hearing how heroic the Protestant 36th Ulster was, and they were, but I did not hear about the Dubliners who fought alongside them. In all, some 250,000 volunteers from Ireland — mostly Nationalist and Catholic — served in the war, and 50,000 of them never came home. It suited the Irish Nationalist narrative to suppress the idea that Irish were fighting on the side of the British, so their contribution was marginalized or forgotten, and that allowed the Loyalist/Protestant narrative — which said no Catholics or Nationalists were involved – to take root.

So we joined forces with those who had been seeking to change these narratives, to get the truth out there. And we were able to create a space whereby Northern Loyalist paramilitaries could stand at the World War I memorial at Islandbridge in Dublin or at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Belgium in memory of their relatives who had served, or been killed during the Great War.

These things took effort, and they took consistency, and sometimes courage, because people might not understand why you were doing them. Being from Belfast helped and having grown up as Catholics in Protestant communities helped. We had many Protestant friends who were willing to work with us to effect the reconciliation that had eluded past generations.

(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Q: Your appointment at BC has coincided with a particularly bitter period of partisanship in US politics, culminating in the federal government shutdown. Do you see any parallels or lessons in comparing the discord you saw in Northern Ireland with what’s going on in the US?

To be perfectly frank, although it was horrendous for the people who lived through it — the people who didn’t get paid, and others who were worried about America’s place in the global economy — I may have been one of the few in the country who took some meager crumb of comfort from this whole episode because it showed us in Ireland that fraught politics are not peculiar to Northern Ireland. There was a lot of tension in Northern Ireland this past summer, and the temper of discussion was generally crabby and contemptuous. So quite a lot of people got very fraught about the situation: “Things are terrible. Maybe the Good Friday Agreement isn’t working?”

My response was, “This is nothing abnormal – look what’s happening in America! And next week, next year, the Americans will find a way through it. Why? Because they have to.” Politics can get ugly and mean, but in the end politics are about getting through the things you need to get through. So please don’t jump up and down every time people have a spat — look at what’s been happening in Germany, when Angela Merkel was trying to form a government, or in Italy.

This is the normalization of political discourse. Yes, we would wish politicians were able to cope with disagreements; yes, we would wish that they wouldn’t fall out over tawdry and stupid things; and yes, we would wish they could handle things differently, and better. But this happens everywhere. It’s a very human phenomenon.
Q: Granted, you may not have spent all that much time at BC, but what aspects about your visit here do you think will stick out in your mind?

I’d say the whole culture of hospitality; there’s never been a friendlier place. We’ll walk by the reservoir and around campus, and we’re struck by how many people say “Hello” to us even though they have no idea who we are. It’s like being in a little old Irish village several thousand miles away from Ireland, and that culture of hospitality makes you think you’re in a place where people care for one another. We feel surrounded by a cacophony of love.

I relish every hour I’ve spent in Burns or Bapst Library, and the opportunities I’ve had to speak with faculty members and others in the BC community.
Q: I understand that not only did you and Martin drop in on the Gaelic Roots Irish ceili in Gasson Hall the other week, but you didn’t exactly just sit there and watch.

Yes, well, I’ve been doing Irish dancing since I was four, and I love it, especially the set dancing [a popular traditional social dance form in Ireland]. The thing about Martin is, I love him, but he’s not a dancer. He’s like a lot of Belfast men — he’s saving his feet for something more important, and he’ll abscond when the word “dancing” is mentioned. But I was able to get him up on the floor this time, so that’s a miracle. Maybe it’s because we’re in America, where anything’s possible.