McAleese Urges for Peace
Published: Thursday, September 19, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 19, 2013 02:09
Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland from 1997 to 2011, is this year’s visiting Burns Scholar of Irish Studies. This past Monday, McAleese gave a lecture on The Troubles of Northern Ireland in Gasson Hall entitled “Peace Comes Dropping Slow” to an audience from the University and the surrounding community.
Thomas Hachey, Executive Director of the Center for Irish Programs introduced McAleese to the audience. She is the first of nine children from a family that the sectarian Northern Irish government forced to leave the Ardoyne district of Belfast due to The Troubles.
After the introduction, McAleese thanked the audience for their welcome of a standing ovation. She opened by discussing Boston College’s modest beginnings and its central charter to educating the poor Irish so that their intelligence would not go to waste.
“There is an Irish thread that runs through here,” she said. “Care for Ireland is very present here and there is very probative research happening here. The range of resources is wonderful. I am privileged to work, study, and live here.”
The title of McAleese’s lecture comes from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and McAleese also made reference to another Irish poet, the recently deceased Seamus Heaney. She emphasized that the title of her lecture is indicative of not only the need for peace, but how achieving that peace takes time.
“I think that desire for peace exists in every generation and is central to the questions facing Ireland,” she said. “That deep yearning exists in most people. We want something that is about the business of raising human dignity.”
The Good Friday Agreement, enacted in 1999 by McAleese’s government and those of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, was one of the milestones of her time in office. The Agreement maintains that Northern Ireland is a part of the UK, but that this can change with a referendum.
“We have to be sure to neutralize the sources of sectarianism,” she said. “The possibility of a united Ireland must take place within a constitutional framework. These are our neighbors so we must be good neighbors.”
According to McAleese, the peace process was going well until dissidents from the Irish Republican Army killed two British soldiers. McAleese’s husband Martin spent the next 24 hours after the shootings on the phone with Loyalists trying to convince them not to retaliate.
“We were afraid of retaliation because that is what had happened in the past,” she said. “We had to do something to prevent Loyalists from retaliating.”
McAleese also discussed the roots of the hatred that leads to the political violence in Ireland. She explored the role of the home and the street in shaping hatred by one group for other groups. McAleese offered integration of Catholic and Protestant housing and schools as a possible remedy. To be sure, she also described the difficulty of integration given current home ownership patterns and abiding political tension.
McAleese believes the situation to be better today given the Irish people’s tools of law and checks and balances to ensure dignity of citizens. The Belfast City Council’s vote to no longer fly the UK’s flag in the Belfast City Hall led to heightened tension in Northern Ireland. The City Hall had previously flown the flag 365 days a year instead of the typical 17, a flying which McAleese perceived as rubbing area- Catholics’ nose in their situation.
“Belfast City Council did not ensure [dignity] in their rhetoric over the flags, but we have learned to be considerably more sensitive now,” she said. “One of Heaney’s last comments was why not just fly it the typical 17 days a year? The Alliance Party brokered this deal.”
During questions from the audience, one woman praised McAleese’s speech.
“[It was] an absolutely terrific summary of the process of unification,” she said. She then posed the question of how important Bill Clinton’s visits to Northern Ireland in 1995 and 1998 were to improving the peace process.
“The interest and practical application of these visits was great,” McAleese said. “Sometimes the last people who can help family members are other members of their family. Sometimes you have to look for help elsewhere. We got really good, sensible help.”
A female undergraduate also offered praise to McAleese.