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Mary McAleese: 'I'd love to say I saw the bust coming... but I didn't'

In an interview to be broadcast this evening, the former President also discusses gay marriage and discusses her attitude to church governance.

Former president Mary McAleese makes one of her first broadcast appearances since leaving office with Gay Byrne on 'The Meaning of Life' tonight.
Former president Mary McAleese makes one of her first broadcast appearances since leaving office with Gay Byrne on 'The Meaning of Life' tonight.
Image: RTÉ

FORMER PRESIDENT Mary McAleese has spoken about her anguish at not having been able to foresee Ireland’s economic crash, and encourage the government to be ready to respond to it.

In an interview to be broadcast on RTÉ tonight, McAleese said she had regularly discussed the direction of the country with Bertie Ahern during his tenure as Taoiseach – and she had regularly sought to ensure that Ireland wasn’t a Celtic Tiger “wasn’t a selfish place”.

“I would love to be able to say that I had some gift of prophecy that I saw the bust coming,” McAleese told RTÉ’s Gay Byrne. “But I didn’t.

“In the Celtic Tiger we paid acres of money for acres of land… I did have concerns about the racing prices, and from time to time I discussed that and raised that.”

In the interview – being broadcast on ‘The Meaning of Life’ on RTÉ One this evening – McAleese also reveals that she had been occasionally tempted to join in the violent clashes that marred Belfast at the outset of the Troubles.

There was a big confrontation going on across the Crumlin Road, where we were living – and it was hot and heavy. Between Catholics and Protestants. This was just shortly before the Army moved in.

I came racing up to our house […] to grab the milk bottles and bring them down, either to throw them or to give them to the guys …

Oh, my father. When he saw what I was doing, there was war. I remember what he said to me – he said, ‘I did not rear a rabble. You will stay in the house and you’ll say your prayers.’ So that’s what we did.

That’s where you get good guidance and you’re helped and guided to make good choices.

McAleese – whose Catholic family were forced to move out of their home when the Troubles took hold in the 1970s – said she had never once heard her parents use any sectarian language.

“The values of the family, and the Christian values, stayed the same. You did not kill. You did not get involved in paramilitarism. If you had a problem you discussed it. You prayed about it.”

This, she joked, even meant praying for Ian Paisley – a effort the Unionist leader later told her he greatly appreciated.

Clashes with the church

In the interview McAleese also discusses at an event in Boston in 1998, only months after she had been elected President, when she felt great embarrassment and distress after then-Cardinal Bernard Law described her as “a very poor Catholic president”.

The attack – which McAleese said had been delivered in front of government ministers, government ambassadors and officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs – prompted her to respond:

I’m the President of Ireland, the president of people who are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, agnostic, Muslim, Orthodox… […] I really don’t think it’s any of your business to tell me when I’m either a good catholic or a good president.

McAleese said Law had raised “issue of my attitude to women in the church” – McAleese has spoken in favour of female ordination and the end of clerical celibacy – “and I said I’d never expressed an opinion while I was president, and it was in appropriate to raise matters that pre-dated my role as president.

“I won it hands down. Absolutely hands down, as those who were witnesses to it will tell you.”

McAleese said an invitation to Law to visit Ireland, which had been issued prior to McAleese’s travel to the United States, had been promptly withdrawn. Law resigned in 2002 after it emerged he had helped to cover up clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.

She added that she believed the then-Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell, with whom she had clashed after accepting communion in a Protestant church in December 1997, regretted his criticisms of her actions.

“I stayed very friendly with him after that,” she said. “It shows us the fault lines that existed. All the elephants that were in the room, that we still had to deal with, in terms of ecumenical endeavour.”

Canon lawyer

McAleese moved to Rome to study canon law after leaving the Presidency, and has this week published a book which discusses the Second Vatican Council and its agreement to move to a form of ‘collegiality’ where the Church would be governed by the College of Bishops in partnership with the Pope.

In the book, ‘Quo Vadis?‘, she argues that this principle has been abandoned, because the College of Bishops – who were intended to then consult with their dioceses and parishes in the running of Church affairs – has never met since.

She also argues in favour of gay marriage, arguing in the interview that gay people “as entitled to live their lives on their terms as I, as a heterosexual, am entitled to live my life on my terms”.

People talk about it like once we have gay marriage, it’ll be compulsory, and we’ll never ever have heterosexual marriage. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big supporter of marriage, I’m a big supporter of family – but I have a very strong view that for centuries now, gay people have lived in a really bleak, dark, secretive world and many of them have lived lives of interminable loneliness and dreadful complexity. [...]

I just think that people have this obsession somehow around homosexuality with the idea of sex, forgetting what it is that family and partnership is about – it’s about love and being there for another human being. That’s where I’m at in this debate.

‘The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne’ airs this evening at 10:15pm on RTÉ One.

Read: Former President and husband win Tipperary International Peace Award

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Gavan Reilly

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