AT A LECTURE delivered to the English Speaking Union in Mayfair on Thursday, former Uachtaráin na hÉireann Mary McAleese told attendees that demographic shifts in the makeup of the Northern Irish state over the last hundred years have made the prospect of reunification plausible.
The event took place in the incredibly plush Dartmouth House on Charles Street, and seemed at first typical of London’s usual high society fare – plumped wingback armchairs, marble flooring, giltwood high ceilings and ancient looking crystal chandeliers.
The organisers – the English Speaking Union (ESU) – invited Professor McAleese to address members as part of an annual lecture series held in the building’s Churchill Room.
The Union itself is a charitable organisation dedicated to improving English language literacy in the UK and beyond, through exchange programmes, debates, competitions, workshops and scholarships for students from poor backgrounds.
Alumni include the likes of Michael Crick, Trevor McDonald and Tony Benn, and at 103 years old this year, Winston Churchill had once even served as its president.
Speaking last night, one of the Union’s trustees told The Irish Post: “The central tenet of the ESU is friendship.
“It offers, not only the opportunity to improve one’s confidence or to overcome their fear of public speaking, but is a lifeline to artists and scholars who might otherwise not have had the means to excel.”
It was in this spirit of good-naturedness that Professor McAleese made her appearance last night; reflecting on how the lecture’s namesake – Evelyn Wrench – had sought to put himself in the shoes of his political opponents during the Easter Rising of 1916, despite referring to the constitutional crisis enacted by it as ‘an uncomfortable state of affairs’.
Professor McAleese then went on to say that, having grown up in a Catholic household in the Ardoyne district of Belfast during the height of the Troubles, this sense of empathising with one’s political opponents became crucial in the brokerage of peace.
Professor McAleese served two terms as Uachtaráin na hÉireann between 1997 and 2011, during which time the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution were amended, the IRA decommissioned its weapons and Queen Elizabeth II visited the Irish State.
On this latter point, Professor McAleese spoke of how the Queen’s visit marked the first time since 1911 that a sitting British monarch had visited the Republic of Ireland.
She said that the Queen had been met by the Sinn Féin mayor of Cashel, Co. Tipperary, during that occasion – something which would have been unheard of up until relatively recently – and spoke of how Martin McGuinness’s visit to Windsor the following year was similarly unprecedented.
“After the Queen’s visit,” she said. “I received a letter from a 90-year old woman; ‘a dyed-in-the-wool Republican’ by her own words.
“This lady initially swore to herself that she wouldn’t acknowledge what she saw as this ‘betrayal’ of the Irish State, she wouldn’t participate in what everyone else was celebrating.
“But after switching on her television, and almost burning out the electrics over Her Majesty’s four day stay in Ireland, she wrote about how she watched the plane take off from Cork and that she wished the Queen well.
“Nothing stays the same,” Professor McAleese said.
Though cautious not to be drawn on firm political statements, the former President did mention that when Northern Ireland was founded a century ago, the demographic makeup of the region was 65% protestant to just 35% catholic.
“That polarity has almost been completely reversed,” she said, joking that: “Being the eldest of nine children and coming from a family of over 60 grandchildren, we certainly did our bit for Ireland!”
She also said that, although Partition posed the last main 'constitutional hurdle' on the island and that reunification looked like more of a possibility, diplomacy and talking things through still needed to be a vital part of of the discourse.
“I'm a big admirer of Daniel O'Connell and John Hume,” she said.
“Because, like Evelyn Wrench, they understood that feeling another's discomfort is the best form of empathy and can lead to the most creative solutions; especially when it comes to major political disagreements.”