All the President’s man

As the end of his wife’s presidency approaches, Martin McAleese has been nominated for a prestigious Trinity Alumni Award. Sarah Clarkin looks at the contribution he has made to Irish life.

Dr Martin McAleese will leave the Áras alongside his wife, President Mary McAleese, in 13 months’ time. Dr McAleese has come to be seen as something of An Ideal Husband, not in reference to the political corruption and blackmail of Oscar Wilde’s production, but in genuine reflection of the asset that he has been to his wife’s presidency.

Strong to his belief that “every human heart has the capacity to change,” Dr McAleese almost echoes the famous line from An Ideal Husband, “no man should be judged by his past.” It is this unwavering belief alongside a durable dedication to making the future a better place for our children that Dr McAleese has contributed hugely to a better future for the two Irelands.

Dr McAleese married in 1976 and began studying dentistry in Trinity College in 1980, although with a marriage and a mortgage, it was a vastly different experience from his time in Queen’s.

He does not see the university as having changed much since the time he spent here, but sees the introduction of programmes such as the Trinity Access Programme as a “great thing.” In his eyes, we all have a social responsibility to make education more inclusive, increasing the opportunity and potential of all elements of society, including those previously denied such prospects.

This social responsibility is witnessed again when the issue of women in politics is raised, for although Dr McAleese is married to a woman who reached the highest echelon of politics, he recognises that in Ireland, only 13 percent of our elected representatives are female. While Dr McAleese is not sure that quotas would facilitate women of merit being elected, he is firm in his belief that there should be balance, and that the correct support mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that an equal gender balance can flourish.

It is this implication of fairness inherent in Dr McAleese’s character that shapes so much of his work. It can be witnessed again in the competition initiated by the president’s husband, “Your Country, Your Call”. While the most obvious desired output of the competition were proposals to be taken and developed, one appreciates that the sense of ownership Dr McAleese hoped the competition would generate was more important to him, the desire to lift the country’s spirits and inspire hope and the belief that we are not helpless in the face of such economic doom and gloom seems to have been the main motivation behind the competition.

It was designed for everyone, from the farmer to the university student, and all groups could have an input on the website. It is a mark of his hard work that the competition – the winners of which were announced last Friday – went global, with the website boasting hits from over 176 countries.

Yet, perhaps what Dr McAleese will be most remembered for is his work on the Peace Process, and it can be argued that no other man would have managed quite what he has. The devastation of the Troubles was a firsthand experience for him. Dr McAleese was in his final year in Queen’s University in 1971, when, aged 20, he was burned out of his home by loyalist elements in the predominantly unionist area of East Belfast where he and his minority Catholic family lived.

Despite this, he is adamant that he is a man devoid of bitterness. It is this commendable lack of hostility which allowed him to work alongside loyalist paramilitaries and convince them that they had nothing to fear from Dublin. Dr McAleese approached the problem with a vastly different approach. Security had been the British government’s weapon of choice, but he was adamant that the prejudices would not be overcome by the employment of coercion.

In order to “breathe life into the theme” of his wife’s presidency, “Building Bridges”, dialogue was opened to establish stability, understanding and reconciliation. It was his ability to see far beyond their disparities and recognise that beneath the limitless schism, stood two sides with a common purpose, namely enhanced prospects for their children to inherit. This led to unprecedented inroads being made in the peace process and have in no small way contributed to what is hopefully a lasting peace in the North.

“Your Country, Your Call” seems a fitting last hurrah for a man who undertook formidable toils throughout his wife’s two terms, yet is adamant that he himself will not run in 13 months time. If the culmination of this recession is our version of the Underworld, guarded by Cerberus with its three inherently Irish heads of begrudgery, bitterness and resentment, then Dr McAleese can be viewed as our Hercules, completing seemingly impossible tasks, uniting the divided and conquering the unconquerable, with simple messages such as working together and accepting responsibility.

When former President Mary Robinson asked what the people wanted from their president, the public replied with “someone to do them proud.” If this is to be extended to the President’s husband, Dr Martin McAleese has fulfilled his duty admirably.