Odd man out, 4 women seek Irish presidency Ex-cop is challenging four other candidates for 'woman's' post

October 06, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUBLIN, IRELAND — An article Monday on four women seeking the Irish presidency misstated the post now held by former Irish President Mary Robinson. She is now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Sun regrets the errors.

An article yesterday incorrectly identified Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, as a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

The Sun regrets the error.

DUBLIN, Ireland -- A gray-haired, red-faced, 60-year-old former cop named Derek Nally stands out among the five candidates seeking to become the president of Ireland.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

He's the only man in the field.

"I don't want gender to be an issue," he says. "But it sure is a factor. I'm not the prettiest of the five. They're bound to call me the man in the gray suit."

In what is shaping up as the most unusual race in Irish political history, four women and one man are running hard for the largely ceremonial office as head of state.

The candidates are trying to succeed Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president, who declined to run for a second seven-year term as president and became the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

It was Robinson who transformed the Irish presidency from a retirement home for elderly male politicians into a dynamic platform.

She became the image of a caring Ireland, presiding at official functions, comforting refugees in Somalia, even offering a symbolic handshake to Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing.

Robinson's deft political skills and charisma set the stage for this year's election free-for-all.

"Finally, Irish women have come out of the kitchen. Our voices are being heard," says Adi Roche, 42, an environmental campaigner who is running as the Labor Party's candidate.

"Before Mary Robinson, most of us wouldn't have even considered that we could set our sights on the presidency," Roche says. "Mary Robinson stretched the boundaries. She opened the door."

And through that door have rushed a host of candidates representing the changing face of Ireland.

Mary McAleese, 45, a lawyer and educator from Northern Ireland, was nominated by Fianna Fail, the country's largest party.

Residents from both sides of the Irish border are eligible to run for the presidency of the southern republic.

Mary Banotti, 58, a member of the European Parliament since 1984, was named by the main opposition party, Fine Gael.

Rosemary Scallon, 46, a singer who goes by the name of Dana and lives in Alabama, came back to Ireland and barnstormed the country to earn a ballot place in an unprecedented fashion. She became the first candidate nominated by local county councils.

Miriam Lord of the Irish Independent wrote: "Circle the wagons! The four Marys are on the warpath. Their mission is to care, care, care, care, care. Whether we like it or not, it's huggy-wuggy all the way now until Oct. 30. Care is their core."

In the Irish parliamentary system, the most powerful figure is the prime minister.

Although the president has few powers other than the ability to refer pending legislation to the Supreme Court, the race is far from being a beauty contest. The race symbolizes a fast-changing country, where the old order, even the old borders, are eroding.

The Ireland of the past -- poor, agricultural, socially conservative -- has been swept away.

The new Ireland is a European success story. Its economy is growing at a rate of 6 percent a year. Its cities are being made over, with construction cranes dominating the skylines of Dublin, Cork and Galway. Its culture is being spread through the music of groups like U2 and the Cranberries, and the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Seamus Heaney.

There's even a thriving Irish movie industry, boosted by tax breaks and lush scenery.

Economic change has been followed by social change. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church has waned in recent years, amid several high-profile sexual scandals and changing public attitudes. Contraception is no longer a topic for debate. In November 1995, the voters legalized divorce in a referendum.

And women, once looked upon as second-class citizens, have made great strides toward equality. Women comprise 42 percent of the work force, up nearly 10 percent in a decade. In the early 1970s, before Ireland became a member of the European Community, married women were ineligible for many civil service jobs.

Politics remain a mainly male profession, though women hold only 20 of the 166 seats in Ireland's lower house of Parliament, and 11 of 60 in the upper house.

"We were very much a patriarchal society," McAleese says. "Women, if they worked, had predetermined occupations that were service driven -- teaching or nursing. The first time I suggested I wanted to be a lawyer, I was told it was impossible, that I was a woman."

And who told her that?

"My parish priest," she says.

The tension between the old and new Ireland is on display in the race for the presidency.

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