Ireland's new president Mary McAleese: Northerner is no guarantor of Irish unity.

November 03, 1997

THE PRESIDENT-ELECT of the Irish Republic was born and raised in Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and lived there the past decade. Her election is evidence that the people of the republic are more ready than ever for inclusion. But it does not bring political unity of the island closer and, indeed, can be taken as provocative by the majority in Northern Ireland, who consider themselves British.

That is because clauses of the Irish Republic's constitution that made Mary McAleese eligible to be president -- while ineligible to vote -- claim jurisdiction over them, too. These clauses must be changed in referendum as part of any settlement for Northern Ireland, or there will be no settlement. They would undoubtedly be amended, however, in a way that maintained citizenship for anyone who wanted it. The legitimacy of both national traditions in Northern Ireland is a premise on which all dialogue depends.

Mary McAleese is no stranger to Dublin, where she lived and worked 12 years as a law professor and television journalist before returning to Belfast as a university administrator. A traditionalist in many respects, she has the articulate skills to succeed Mary Robinson, who won in 1990 as a radical in Irish terms and who is now United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The president is an elected constitutional monarch, above politics and issues, yet a figurehead in the Irish state.

It is incumbent upon Ms. McAleese and the government of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to insure that her presidency is not made symbolically threatening to the majority in Northern Ireland. A traditional nationalist there, she was a spokesman on public issues for the Catholic Church in Dublin in 1984.

President-elect McAleese now has an obligation to do everything possible within the constraints of her office to help make peace talks succeed. She might prove outstanding at it.

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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