Northerner May Be Next Irish President

Hume has sought peace in N. Ireland. With the president of Ireland resigning Sept. 12, he might seek the post.

The search is under way in the Republic of Ireland to find a successor to Mary Robinson, who resigns as head of state Sept. 12. President Robinson's seven-year term was to have ended in late October. But she is departing early to take up her new position as High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations.

The election of her successor is Oct. 30. Those with a publicly declared interest in the position include former Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and the Christian singer, Dana, whose real name is Rosemary Brown.

Dana is fondly remembered as the fresh-faced 18-year-old who became the first Irish winner of a Europewide televised song contest in 1970. A committed Roman Catholic, she developed a religious singing career, performing on three occasions for Pope John Paul II. Today she lives in the United States, where she hosts a televised talk show on a Catholic cable channel.

Aspirants need to win endorsement of at least 20 members of the Irish Parliament or four local-government authorities. Since these positions are largely held by members of the main political parties, this restricts candidates to those with party support.

An intriguing, though unannounced, candidate is veteran Northern Ireland politician John Hume.

Mr. Hume is leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). He has devoted his political career to seeking an end to the historical differences between nationalists, who favor becoming part of Ireland, and unionists, who want to continue as part of Britain. Hume's SDLP is nationalist, advocating a united Ireland, but only through peaceful means.

As president of the Irish Republic, Hume would provide nationalists with a powerful symbol of the united Ireland to which they aspire. At the same time, many unionists in Northern Ireland might be fearful that Hume would use the position to further the objective of a united Ireland.

Because Ireland claims sovereignty over Northern Ireland, Hume is considered to be an Irish citizen and is eligible to be president, even though he is a British citizen. His biographer, Barry Whyte, said last weekend that Hume was undecided and that he would make up his mind shortly.

Many colleagues say Hume's election as president would be a fitting reward for a career dominated by the search for peace in Northern Ireland. But many senior nationalists are concerned about Hume departing the scene just as crucial negotiations are set to start next month.

Unlike a US president, an Irish president has no tangible political power. The Irish president signs legislation passed by parliament (but has no power to veto it) and receives foreign dignitaries. With government approval, the president makes official visits abroad.

As the first woman head of state, Robinson set out to change the perception of the office as a form of retirement. In her seven years, she has voiced the concerns of minority groups in Irish society, such as those diagnosed with AIDS, the disabled, and drug addicts. The highly visible Robinson has repeatedly received nearly 100 percent approval ratings in opinion polls.

Hume offers many of the qualities thought necessary of a president. One former member of the SDLP party, Brian Feeney, says Hume has a "recognized international reputation and the integrity" necessary to follow Robinson.

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