Mary McAleese: Irish people have ‘no right’ to be racist

‘We have to create new narrative around a reconciled Ireland where everyone is welcome’

Former president Mary McAleese has called for the abandonment of old thinking about a united Ireland at an event in Dublin.

“We really, really have to abandon the old narrative around a united Ireland,” she said on Saturday night, adding that Irish people, considering their own history, had no right to be racist.

Mrs McAleese was speaking at Dublin's St Patrick's Cathedral in a panel discussion as part of the Jonathan Swift Festival, with other panellists including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, historian Ida Milne, and economist and Irish Times columnist David McWilliams.

On the issue of a united Ireland, Prof McAleese said: “We have to create a new narrative around a reconciled Ireland where everyone is welcome.”


The fact that all churches in Ireland were cross-Border offered “a powerful tool and resource”, she said, which supplied a dynamic “of a shared Christian value system which is expressed in ways today that are very, very different from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Our churches, as we move forward, have a huge role to play.”

She pointed out that “a Northern Catholic majority may or may not translate into support for a united Ireland”. Thanks to Brexit, there was the creation of “a new constituency of people who may well see themselves as European, but unionist”. They could, “ if the circumstances were offered to them, perhaps make a choice to join a united Ireland in order to remain in Europe”.

She noted how former taoiseach Enda Kenny "was able to secure, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in Britain on Brexit, a guarantee from all the European countries, including Britain, that if Northern Ireland ever opted in favour of a united Ireland, it would automatically go back into the EU".

This, she felt, “has actually been a very helpful thing because it sort of softens the argument. It also allows us go way beyond the ‘wrap the green flag round me’.”

Diversity in Ireland

Where diversity in Ireland and immigration were concerned, she was “actually very proud of Irish political leadership and Irish people generally on those issues”.

In Ireland “today, 17 per cent of our population comes from somewhere else. The last time that happened was probably the Plantation [of Ulster]. But this has been a different kind of absorption, and I think in general we have done a really, really wonderful job.”

That was not, however, to say "we have done a perfect job. That is not to say we don't have racism in our midst. It's not to say that some people coming here experience the kind of racism that breaks your heart and makes you say 'hang on a minute, we were the people who were the victims of racism, whether it was in England, where it was 'no Irish need apply', or in America, wherever we went to. We have no right to behave like that," she said.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times