N. Ireland Woman May Become Irish President

Belfast native ahead in Oct. 30 vote despite row over her leanings.

This coming Thursday, voters in Ireland appear set to elect their first president born in Northern Ireland.

Two public opinion polls last weekend put Belfast native Mary McAleese on course to become the eighth Irish president, and the second woman to hold that post, which is mainly ceremonial.

Should Professor McAleese succeed as expected, she will have overcome an election campaign that at one stage appeared finished, following the leak of secret government memos.

Over the past two decades, the Irish government has held confidential meetings with leading members of the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland.

A law professor at Queens University in Belfast, McAleese was among those consulted. Recorded in two memos of meetings earlier this year were her candid views on the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the likely future electoral performance of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

But it was a third memo that led to accusations McAleese was "soft" in her attitude toward IRA violence. The document concerned a conversation with a senior member of the moderate nationalist Social and Democratic Labour Party, and has the official claiming McAleese was "pushing a Sinn Fein agenda."

McAleese has dismissed the accusations, saying her objective in contacts with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was to ensure that "the gun was forever taken out of Irish politics."

Despite some initial controversy, there is universal acceptance that McAleese never supported republican violence. Nevertheless, many unionists have rejected the idea of McAleese fulfilling her election slogan of "building bridges" between the two communities in Northern Ireland.

Canon Cecil Cooper, who edits the weekly newspaper of the Protestant Church of Ireland, says her "overactive nationalism would make her terribly unpopular with unionists."

However, last week a senior unionist rallied to her defense. The deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, John Taylor, said he "never considered her to be a supporter of Sinn Fein."

Yet whatever the impact on election day Oct. 30, more long-term damage has been done to the information-gathering activities of the Irish government.

Londonderry accountant Gerry Murphy, who has been consulted by officials, says lives could be in danger. Murphy says, "I have the greatest faith in the officials. But I feel betrayed. This week it is Mary McAleese. Who is going to be next?"

A police investigation is under way, although even Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has little confidence that those responsible will be caught, stating, "You are not going to get any very satisfactory conclusion from it."

The McAleese controversy has also brought to the surface underlying tensions between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Many nationalists in Northern Ireland suspect the memos were leaked to undermine McAleese's presidential campaign. The nationalist newspaper The Irish News recently claimed that "in the eyes of some Southerners, a shadow of suspicion hangs over everyone who speaks with a northern accent."

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