Speaking in the debating chamber of the GMB, Professor McAleese covered a variety of topics in a Q&A session.
When asked what her greatest achievement was during her time in office, she referred to fulfilling her election slogan of “building bridges.”
She explained: “I realised that if we really wanted to affect change on this island, we were going to have to do what John Hume had always said and address the relationships that are flawed. In Northern Ireland the two communities’ relationships were skewed… And East-West, between ourselves and our neighbours, Britain. But it’s always struck me as rather foolish to be in a perpetual state of enmity with the people who live next door.”
She continued: “Over the years there were many milestones, but the Good Friday Agreement was by far the biggest change and that would address all those sets of relationships. The best day for me was when her Majesty the Queen was able to come here. The colonized and the colonizer are two very different perspectives but that they could come together as we did in 2011 and enjoy each other’s company… that was the completion, if you like, of the building bridges.”
After her presidency, McAleese has continued to be active in Irish public life. Highlighting her involvement in the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality during her time as a professor in Trinity, she reflected on her involvement in the same sex marriage referendum. “For me one of the best days ever in Ireland was May 23,” she said. “Looking back, I would call the day a tsunami of grace. I had absolutely no qualms [about getting involved in the referendum]. I had been involved in the campaign for gay rights in 1975. I have a son who is gay. Can you imagine the act of cowardice it would have been to be silent?”
Following a question from the audience, McAleese stated her position on the current momentum surrounding the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment: “If someone was trying to tell me that we need to have a law that says that every single woman who is pregnant has the right up till the moment of birth to end the life of the baby in the womb, then I couldn’t subscribe to that.”
She also expressed her fears concerning a possible exit of Britain from the European Union: “I’m hoping against hope that a new generation will be inspired by the idealism… of the European Union and the sheer necessary functionality that it also embodies.”
McAleese was inaugurated as the eighth President of Ireland in November 1997 and served as president for two terms until November 2011. Born in Belfast in 1951, she was the first president from Northern Ireland and the second female president of Ireland.