Mary McAleese’s latest comments and the inevitable reaction interested me. I have done a number of blogs on McAleese (clearly from one side of the debate) and they frequently generate substantial comment. McAleese’s problem is that she divides opinion very markedly yet she does (whether genuinely or not) try to reach out to both communities. In that very reaching out, perversely, however, she manages to divide opinion further.McAleese is clearly a very talented individual. Her biography demonstrates an impressive record as an academic and lawyer. Clearly many NI nationalists will have been delighted when McAleese was elected (by a considerable margin). Some of those unionists who disliked her probably remembered that she was in charge of the university group which removed the national anthem and RUC band from QUB graduation and supported the Irish language signs in the Students’ Union (the latter eventually removed after an outside consultants’ report on the whole episode). However, she said at the outset that the theme of her presidency was building bridges and appeared to make a point of visiting people and places on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.
The biggest and pretty fatal problem for McAleese in terms of unionist support was of course the infamous Prods were Nazi’s remark. It must be stressed that this was not the same as the set of remarks which ended Fr. Alec Reid and Rev Harold Good’s decommissioning bus-tour. Whilst Fr. Reid did actually say “They (Catholics) were not treated like human beings. It was like the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews,” McAleese’s remarks were rather more subtle: “They gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics.” Despite the fact that strictly speaking she did not compare Protestants to Nazis: it was still a spectacularly inappropriate set of comments, inappropriate in its analysis of the scale of general Protestant (or Catholic) views and also inappropriate in its falsely comparing any group in NI’s experience with what happened to Europe’s Jews.
McAleese (unlike Reid) made a fairly full apology. However, for many unionists the damage was done: Her subsequent remarks such as those about the Queen only being able to visit the RoI after the devolution of policing and justice powers simply reinforced unionists’ perceptions. The fact that they were later confirmed as merely official Irish government policy did not help. Her latest remarks about Irish people joining the British army are simply the latest remarks which will annoy unionists.
One of the problems is of course that apart from the Nazi’s remarks the other comments would have been fairly unremarkable from any other RoI political figure: they might well have generated little comment; certainly not the fury which has greeted McAleese’s utterances. Part of this problem is that her whole campaign seemed focused on her being a clone of Mary Robinson (even to the extent of a makeover resulting in a suspiciously Robinson-ish appearence). McAleese was never going to be as popular with unionists as Robinson but to an extent she set herself up for a fall by proclaiming herself a bridge builder. She then very spectacularly burnt those bridges by the Nazi episode.
All McAleese’s bridge building since has been viewed by many unionists in the context of the Nazis remark. After that episode it was unrealistic for McAleese to continue bridge building: she should have simply concentrated on her (popular) role in the RoI and indeed amongst the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. That she continued to try meet with unionists might be seen as laudable tenacity but looks (to unionists) like a stubborn refusal to accept just how disastrous her errors were.
Nationalists, however, I suspect see her as still trying to build those bridges and unionist rejection of this as deliberately stubborn (?thran) unionist behaviour. I suspect many nationalists may feel that unionists now make a deliberate attempt to be offended by as many of McAleese’s remarks as possible. As such ironically far from McAleese being a bridge builder she is now almost accidentally a ditch digger in terms of dichotomising unionist and nationalist opinion of her and in the process in her own little way increasing not narrowing the gap between Northern Ireland’s communities.
McAleese has of course been further hindered in her bridge building function by things outside her control. A good example would be Sinn Fein’s unionist engagement charter. With McAleese as with SF (to a vastly greater extent); there tends to be grave suspicion amongst unionists that the hand of friendship is being outstretched purely in order to drag the unwary unionist closer to a united Ireland and often also to denounce unionists as the cause of all Ireland’s ills. The fact that McAleese was clearly never involved in murdering people may make the suspicion less bad but still that concern lingers. Mary Robinson was able to carry off a genuine unionist engagement as she had a track record of taking unionist concerns seriously (her resignation from her cabinet position over the Anglo Irish agreement being the prime example). Clearly Mary McAleese had the opposite record even prior to her foray into mid twentieth century European history.
The problem is that when McAleese tries to do things to please unionists she is likely to be regarded as either trying to mend fences which she has already broken by her own foolish remarks or as trying to persuade unionists into greater accommodation with the RoI or concessions to nationalism. When she makes even fairly anodyne remarks as she did about the British army she will be objected to to a greater extent than most comparable Irish politicians. When unionists inevitably reject her pleasantries or castigate her other remarks, this inflames northern nationalists to many of whom she must be the local girl made good. Hence, ironically Mary McAleese, by trying to reach out to unionists, may well be increasing the divisions on this island. Her presidency may well be judged a success by the Irish. However, in terms of the unionist community her presidency has been one of burning not building bridges.