The new Irish president is no hardline nationalist says Kevin Rooney
A new McAleese of life?
Some claim that the election as president of Mary McAleese, a northern nationalist, represents a return to civil war politics, where people voted according to which side candidates took in the Anglo-Irish conflict. Others say it proves that southern voters still want a united Ireland. And still others claim that the victory of McAleese, well-known for her anti-abortion views, coupled with the high vote for Dana, the former Eurovision song contest winner and family values candidate, points to a revival of Ireland's famously conservative Catholicism.
But the attempts to fit the results of the presidential poll into the framework of old-style Irish politics give a wholly misleading impression of what the election was all about. McAleese does not represent a return to traditional nationalism and Catholicism. She personifies the remarkable transformation of Irish politics, and shows how redundant the old terms are.
Nobody suffered more from the collapse of old-style politics than those who relied on them to undermine Mary McAleese. In past elections in the Irish republic, politicians on all sides have used the national question to polarise debates and discredit candidates. In this election, however, the tried and tested tactics of civil war politics backfired.
As McAleese took a strong lead in the polls, leaked documents showed that she had Sinn Fein sympathies and had even expressed pleasure at the increased republican vote in the last general election. These revelations were grasped by veteran anti-republican politicians like Eoghan Harris and John Bruton to paint McAleese as a dangerous candidate who would wreck the peace process by pushing a nationalist agenda.
When Gerry Adams intervened to pledge his support for McAleese, it was seen by many media commentators as the death-knell for her campaign. In fact the affair probably sealed McAleese's success, by allowing her to project herself as, in effect, the peace process candidate.
Mary McAleese is a nationalist. But being an Irish nationalist today means something entirely different from the past. The defeat of the republican struggle to get Britain out of Ireland means that the national question no longer exists in the old way. In the vacuum left by the national question, a new form of nationalism has emerged.
Nationalism no longer describes the political goal of an end to British rule and a united Ireland. It now sees itself as one tradition among others. While people calling themselves nationalists may have a deep-seated desire for a united Ireland, they will not fight to achieve that goal. Instead they will work in support of an 'agreed Ireland' in which nationalism and Unionism can thrive as two traditions commanding equal respect. Emptied of its political goals, nationalism is now primarily a cultural affair, expressed in demands for parity of esteem, respect for cultural identity and so on.
Gone is the old nationalist language of victories, defeats or historic conflicts. In its place, McAleese used the row over her alleged Sinn Fein sympathies to talk the new language of modern day nationalism - of inclusivity, of diversity, of consensus, of respect for all traditions. Those attempting to portray modern day nationalists like McAleese as violent and ideologically driven only ended up looking like extremists and intransigents themselves.
In response to the attacks on her, McAleese described her honourable role in securing an IRA ceasefire. Her campaign slogan 'Building Bridges' was aimed at reaching out to the Unionist community. She talked of her 'love' for Unionists and boasted of having many Unionist friends. Far from finishing her off, Gerry Adams' support for McAleese may well have strengthened her campaign. Adams, who once had the kind of pariah status now reserved for Saddam Hussein, is slowly but surely becoming the principal spokesman for modernised Irish nationalism. Not only has Adams persuaded the republican movement to stop trying to force an end to British rule, but he has constantly stressed the need to devise a new and inclusive vision of Ireland.
In the interview in which he pledged his support for McAleese, Adams showed his contempt for old-style politics which had made Ireland a 'narrow partitionist, factionalised and dysfunctional society', and embraced a new concept of nationalism, 'an all-Ireland view which tries to embrace all the people of this island as equals'. Adams often resembles Tony Blair in his feel for the language of the times. Unlike the Unionists he comes over as willing to compromise, forgive and break with the old doctrines. While Adams continues to support a united Ireland, he now admits that his political vision is no more nor less valid than any other and that all views must be accommodated in a new 'agreed' Ireland.
The language of the peace process goes down well in southern Ireland today, where identity politics and the victim culture are in the ascendant. The previous president Mary Robinson epitomised the new-style politics in which Ireland is defined by its concern for the oppressed and victims worldwide. Robinson's new job as UN human rights ambassador was a natural promotion for a woman who had drawn on the history of the Irish famine to claim Ireland had a unique ability to reach out to the wretched of the Earth.
The Robinson-style emphasis on Ireland as a healer reached ridiculous levels during the presidential election, with all five candidates promoting their credentials as friends of victims. Adi Roche was nominated by the Green Party, Labour and the Democratic Left because she had set up a charity to help children of Chernobyl. Cashing in on her Princess Diana looks, she campaigned on the issue of landmines and offered to turn the presidential residence into a Disney wonderland for deprived children.
Mary Banotti, the runner-up, reminded voters that she had set up the first refuge for abused women and a centre for the treatment of alcoholism. Derek Nally, whose sex mitigated against his chances of winning, modestly declared himself the 'Martin Bell' of Irish politics and emphasised his role as Chair of Victim Support Ireland. He announced that in the event of becoming president, he would appoint advisers from Rape Crisis centres and Women's Aid groups. Dana set out her stall in support of those from broken homes and 'victims of abortion'.
Mary McAleese expressly stated that she would create a presidency, 'that holds out a hand to victims'. In a mawkish address to 2500 disabled people in Dublin, she went to great lengths to show her empathy by recounting tales of her deaf brother and autistic cousin. McAleese's campaign managers squeezed a wheelchair into every photocall until foreign observers could be forgiven for thinking that half the Irish population was disabled.
Many pundits commented on the predominance of female candidates. But the 'feminisation' of Irish politics is about much more than the prominence of women. It is about the celebration of frailty, the worship of the victim and the rejection of confrontational politics. Nobody observing this election could fail to notice the Princess Diana factor as candidates vied with each other to be seen as the most caring and compassionate. In an echo of Lady Diana's Panorama interview, Mary McAleese talked of wanting to embrace everybody.
While the presidential election reflected the new face of Ireland's political elite, it was greeted with little enthusiasm from the voting public. The turnout was the lowest ever as less than half the electorate bothered to vote. Many commentators complained about the bland nature of a campaign where candidates avoided politics and denied ever having taken a firm stand on anything. This abandonment of principle sent the candidates running for cover when confronted with any real political issues.
Mary Banotti, when first challenged on her past support for limited abortion and for adoption rights for gay couples, ran away from reporters. Later in the campaign she developed more sophisticated techniques for avoiding the question, rejecting 'labels' and stating that her views were personal. Her refusal to engage with anything political prompted one journalist to compare her with natural gas, 'odourless and colourless'. Even Dana, the only candidate who stood on a principled platform - for family values - could not keep it up. She was soon backtracking and trying to show a more liberal side to her nature.
Are the 'modernising' changes in Irish politics to be welcomed?
The country that was known for its strong sense of national identity, for producing heroes like James Connolly and Michael Collins and for resisting British rule, now presents itself as a land of victims where all identities can thrive as long as nobody challenges anybody else or stands for anything. The turnout for the election suggests that it is not immediately obvious to the Irish people how they can benefit from the new politics.
Mind you, one tangible benefit was the banning of Dana's songs from the airwaves for the duration of the campaign. Although, come to think of it, her Eurovision winner 'All kinds of everything' would make a fitting anthem for the diverse nation that is Ireland today.*
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998