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Sunday 11 January 2009

President's rhetoric soars but he roots trip her up 

PRESIDENT McAleese has again been upsetting Irish people outside her tribe. Famously, she said three years ago that the Nazis "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". Appalled by the distress and anger that resulted, she grovelled, but although she may have been forgiven by most Northern Ireland Protestants, her remark will never be forgotten.

You would think, therefore, that she would watch her words and actions with particular care, not least because she genuinely wants to reach out to people of other traditions: her November visit to Brakey Orange Hall in Bailieborough, Cavan, was a great success. Yet if she isn't consciously focused on being positive about what she would no doubt describe as 'the otherness of the other', her lack of empathy with the other tribe -- ie Protestant unionists or, indeed, free thinkers from her own -- makes it easy for her to be inadvertently insulting. She has a simple and old-fashioned view of Irish history and fails to grasp that, by joyfully harping on the wonders of the 1916 attempted coup, she not only upsets unionists but enrages those who believe that the triumph of physical force over constitutional nationalism was a disaster.

Then there's her favourite and often risible Irish-as- suffering-but-noble-MOPEs (Most Oppressed People Ever) 'narrative'. This, for example, from a recent Dublin lecture on human rights: "Ours is a sensitivity forged out of bitter and direct experience of being on the receiving end of sustained human rights abuse. In every generation, and often at profound personal cost, Ireland has produced the finest of human rights champions who, like O'Connell, never saw themselves in narrow insular terms but as articulators of the rights of all humankind." Come off it, Prez. Just to take one example of shameful isolationism and selfishness, there were precious few standing up against the anti-semitism that had Ireland refuse asylum to all but a pitiful number of Jews before, during and after the Holocaust.

It's her 'second faux pas', said Lord (Ken) Maginnis, probably the Northern Ireland unionist most friendly toward the Republic, apropos President McAleese's comment in her SIPTU speech last week that it was poverty "that would drive tens of thousands of young Irish men into the British Army to sacrifice their lives so that their families could eat".

"I do think that the Irish president should give a lot more thought to what she says on occasion," said Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP, who is also a frequent and relaxed visitor. "Either inadvertently or deliberately, at times she uses phraseology that is a poor attempt at rewriting history." "The trouble with Mary McAleese," said a friend the other night, "is that she doesn't understand men."

What they were all getting at was that by failing to mention that poverty was one cause among many, she had given the impression that no one from Ireland who fought in the First World War did so for any other than materialistic reasons. What about those loyal to Britain? Those who believed Germany was a menace? Those who wanted adventure? What about my Grandfather O'Sullivan, who in 1916, at 48, left his job as a gamekeeper in Cork to join the army to avenge the death of the heir to the estate?

The President's hostility to those from a nationalist background who challenge her narrow view of Irish history was evident when Conor Cruise O'Brien died. If the best she could bring herself to say about this great man was to congratulate his family on the "immense breadth and longevity of Dr O'Brien's career as a public servant, politician, writer and academic which was widely recognised both at home and abroad", she should have kept her mouth shut.

She didn't go to his funeral either, although her website shows no other engagement that day, and he was, if nothing else, a former minister. Nor, indeed, did the Taoiseach. But they were both there leading the mourners for Tony Gregory.

On mature reflection, I think the President's biggest problem is that she has no capacity for self-criticism, and clearly no one in her inner circle to remind her constantly that her tribal instincts have the capacity to damage her genuine desire to do a decent and generous job. She's the first to reach for platitudes like: "You make peace with your enemies, not with your friends", yet, when talking to her friends, she lapses into remarks that make her tribal enemies feel she's still at heart a chippy, narrow northern nationalist.

Despite the anti-Britishness that mars some of her speeches, President McAleese seems to admire the queen. She could do worse than emulate her by remembering she is a symbol of her country rather than the mouthpiece of a tribe.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards