N. Ireland Nationalist New Leader Mcaleese Says Goal Is ‘Building Bridges’

Mary McAleese, a law professor from Belfast and a northern nationalist, was elected Friday as the eighth president of Ireland, the first ever from Northern Ireland.

Ballots cast on Thursday were counted Friday, giving McAleese the biggest mandate since presidential elections began here in 1938.

McAleese won about 45 percent of the first-preference votes, easily beating four opponents. Under Ireland’s proportional representation electoral system, voters list their preference for candidates in order, and McAleese was pushed over the 50 percent mark on the second ballot.

McAleese, 46, succeeds Mary Robinson, the first female president, who stepped down in September to become the United Nations commissioner for human rights. The presidency is mostly a ceremonial post, but Robinson made it more high-profile. McAleese said she wants to devote her seven-year term to “building bridges” with Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland, and to make the presidential mansion in Dublin’s Phoenix Park “the heart of Ireland.”

But unionists have widely criticized her as being “too green.” A moderate nationalist, McAleese grew up in North Belfast, the area that suffered the most deaths per capita in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Two of her best friends were murdered on her wedding day by loyalists, her deaf brother was almost beaten to death because he was Catholic, and her family was eventually intimidated out of their home.

McAleese’s victory was expected, as a series of polls conducted for Irish media outlets suggested she had a commanding lead. The runner-up, Mary Banotti, Dublin’s representative in the European Parliament, was expected to finish second. But the surprise of the election was the strong third-place showing of Dana, who hosts a talk show on a Catholic cable channel in the United States, and the poor fourth-place showing by Adi Roche, an antinuclear activist who runs a relief program for children damaged by the Chernobyl accident. Derek Nally, a retired police officer who started a support group for crime victims, finished last.

Dana got about 14 percent of the vote, double that of Roche.

Beaming last night at Dublin Castle, where the votes were counted, Dana, whose real name is Rosemary Scallon, hinted that she would run for Irish parliament. Running as an independent and derided by commentators as being too Catholic in the increasingly secular Ireland, Dana said she had become a precedent instead of president.

While some commentators were suggesting Dana’s strong showing and Roche’s disastrous result showed that Ireland’s “liberal agenda” was not as popular as once thought, others stressed that it was difficult to read that much into the vote. Only about half of the eligible voters turned out, a dramatic drop from 1990 when turnout was 64 percent.

McAleese is head of legal studies at Queen’s University, where she is also vice chancellor.

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