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President Mary McAleese: ‘Changing History’

23rd November 2007

Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, gave the 2007 Longford Lecture.


Introduction by Mary Kenny, journalist, author and broadcaster.

The President of Ireland, Mrs Mary McAleese, holds an office which is both constitutional and ceremonial, but not political: that is, she is the defender of the Irish Constitution and she is the Head of State, but her brief is to unite rather than divide the people: and she does not, thus, make speeches which are overtly political. Yet, with grace, humour and brains, President McAleese has a consummate ability to go beyond and above the political and yet fashion an address which has a historical sense of political significance, and a long view of historical and political developments.

In giving the Longford Lecture for 2007, President McAleese engagingly – and often lyrically – wove together the threads of Frank Longford’s long and eternally optimistic life – his British and yet Irish identity, his Protestant, yet Catholic, faith, and most notably the “transcendent power of forgiveness” which was Lord Longford’s cardinal virtue. This has become a vital marker in the narrative of Irish life and historiography over the past fifteen years: and most particularly a marker for the reconciliation which has taken place between the North and the South, and made progress, prosperity and a national sense of redemption possible.

Mrs McAleese and Lord Longford had much in common and this most especially: while both would support the voluntary unity of Ireland, both have stood against violence in the achievement of any such national goal. Some decades ago, I supported Lord Longford in an Oxford debate about the Irish aspiration to national unity, but he made one stipulation before committing himself to this proposition: any form of coercive violence in the pursuit of a political goal was unacceptabe.

President McAleese, a Belfast Catholic whose own family were victims of violent sectarianism when she was a young child, herself practised the Longford philosophy of moving forward through reconciliation and social improvement. And forgiveness.

Most particularly has she, during her acclaimed presidency – now in its second hugely popular term – done much to restore to Irish historical memory the respect due to those Irishmen who fought during the First World War, and who were for much of the twentieth century consigned to a kind of amnesia, since they had fought under the banner of the Crown. But they were Irishmen who also fought for the defence of small nations, and they should be remembered with honour.

This is a significant mission and the President has been able to effect a change of attitude without stirring political bitterness, but always with that genuine Christian sense of peace and reconciliation, and a dedication to to what is now rightly called “inclusiveness” in the narrative of history.

Rightly, too, President McAleese sees in Frank Longford the symbol of “the bridge” between a notion of “them” and “us”, and she takes her inspiration from that symbolic idea of bridging gaps.

Church House was filled with an appreciative audience for President McAleese’s address, and as she was a founding member of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, it was highly appropriate that that Pauline Crowe of the admirable Prisoners’ Abroad charity should have been awarded this year’s Longford Prize.

Frank Longford was a man of many facets: a historian as well as a prison reformer, and one of the major biographers of Eamon de Valera, whom he much admired. Yet Mary McAleese is presiding over a new age in Ireland’s development and her Longford Lecture is also a blueprint for the aspirations that are so popularly supported by the vast majority of her people.

The 2007 Longford Lecture Text

I am delighted and honoured to have been asked to contribute to this lecture series, dedicated to the memory of Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford who, despite three baronies and an earldom, earned the enduring affection of the plain people of Ireland for they recognised in him a greatness of heart for Ireland and a greatness of heart for humanity. There is a particular serendipity about this occasion for not only did Lord Longford and I share a life-long interest in prisoners but, as a founding member over twenty-five years ago of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, I am particularly delighted that Prisoners Abroad has won this year’s Longford Prize.

Lord Longford was born into this world at a time when the historically unhappy relations between Ireland and the British Empire were shortly to go through a convulsive and cathartic phase leading to the partition of the island of Ireland. By the time of his death, relations between Dublin and Westminster were the best they had ever been in our respective histories and the Good Friday Agreement had set the scene for a fresh new culture of peace and partnership. Six years on from his death we have all been pleasantly surprised to see how much momentum and traction the peace process has gathered, especially since the return of devolved government earlier this year. These are things that would have brought relief and pride to the man in whose name we are gathered for he was a man of deep faith in the capacity of the human person to change for the better, he was a man who believed in the transcendent power of forgiveness and was not in the least embarrassed to contemplate a world energised and refreshed by the healing power of love or to be demonised as naïve for such a belief.

I first met the late Lord Longford early in my career as an academic lawyer specialising in criminal law. I had arrived early at Broc House in South Dublin for a conference entitled “Mad or Bad.” It was a cold day and I had bundled up well, so as I stood in the cloakroom, apparently the first to arrive, I was pleased to be able to hand my heavy overcoat and dripping umbrella to a gentlemanly cloakroom attendant dressed in a morning suit and standing by the rack of empty coat hangers. We shared a few words as he took my things and very graciously hung them up. I did think his face familiar but couldn’t place it until the keynote speaker was announced and with that Lord Longford, fresh and apparently none the worse for being mistaken for the cloakroom attendant, took to the stage. I was mortified! He, to his credit when I later apologised, was clearly delighted to be able to say to me that, as I airily handed him my coat, he did wonder which was I – mad or just plain bad.

In that accidental encounter I met Frank Pakenham, the modest man of exquisite good manners, the man of humour, the man whose ego could take any amount of hammering without a loss of humanity, compassion or grace, the man comfortable in his own wisdom and being. It was the 1970s and there was a long road to be travelled to prosperity in Ireland and an even longer road to peace.

The south was still a country that young people emigrated from, the north a place of deep hatreds and open, violent conflict. Both were places where the rigid perspective of one generation trapped the next, where change was feared and stereotypes abused.

Here was a man unafraid of change. The Conservative turned socialist, the Protestant turned Catholic, the English Lord of Unionist stock turned Irish nationalist, the distinctly sociable personality who chose the loneliness of causes that isolated him, the Oxford double-first and scholar who routinely had to listen while lesser intellects described him as childish and naïve, the man who relentlessly probed the prejudices of others and held fast to a few of his own. This intriguing man would, I hope, be pleased that the Ireland which he loved so much has today set the scene for a new narrative, a new history, one driven by the energy of this historic and never-before-witnessed confluence of peace, prosperity and partnership.

There are new chapters being written that I am sure Frank Pakenham, the historian and writer, would love to have recorded for, while the vanities of identity never bothered him too greatly, they surely disturbed many others and caused a lot of disquiet. He would, I hope, be reassured by today’s Ireland where identity is not an ‘either/or’ choice, and where we are increasingly relaxed about parallel and interwoven strands of identity, those that the past has bequeathed us and which are a mix of Irish and British, and those which the future is setting out for us with the new immigrant Irish citizens drawn from all over the world. Their children will teach us a thing or three about the mix and meld of identities and cultures.

‘History’ versus histories

With a new confidence in our future Ireland has begun to look the past in the face. We are prising open the sealed space between historiography and history, a space that had always found it difficult to place men like Frank Pakenham, men and women too whose stories did not fit the conveniently-shaped boxes that have shaped separate and unreconciled narratives of Anglo-Irish matters for so many years. These old narratives are now giving way to a more considered story of our two peoples and, while coloniser and colonised are unlikely ever to stand easily in each other’s shoes, we are nonetheless beginning to reveal those stories where we can at least stand side by side.

One powerful such story is that of the significant Irish contribution to the First World War which until recently had been the subject of what has been described as a ‘policy of intentional amnesia’. In a remarkably short period of time the 210,000 volunteers from all over Ireland, a majority of them Catholics and Irish nationalists, had been airbrushed into a stark story which recounted on one side only the sacrifice of Ulster Protestants, mainly in the 36th (Ulster) Division and on the other only the heroism of those who took part in the Easter Rising.

Last year for the first time Dublin hosted two commemorative events, one commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the Rising and the other the ninetieth anniversary of the Somme. The fifty thousand Irish men who died are commemorated in the joint Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in Belgium. It was opened nine years ago by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the King of the Belgians and I, and its opening helped to create a platform of shared memory through which we hope to realise the dream of the great Irish intellectual, Professor Thomas Kettle, one-time nationalist MP at Westminster, who died at the Somme fighting with the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers:

‘Used with the wisdom which is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.’

Today, as we seek to effect those reconciliations, a barely-credible narrative, distorted by all sides for political ends is being replaced by a truer narrative which gives all of the people of Ireland a point of common cultural reference, and a shared history to commemorate.

Similarly, and contemporaneously, the history of the Easter Rising in 1916, which has long been the subject of attempted manipulation by different parties in history, is now looked at in a broader light and commemorated in Ireland with confidence, dignity and pride. Forty-one years ago, Lord Longford, then in Wilson’s cabinet, caused an outcry by attending the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Rising where he was photographed beside his friend, President De Valera. Last year, representatives of the British government attended the ninetieth anniversary parade through the city of Dublin. Changed and changing times.

There is a slightly rueful Russian saying, that ‘These days we live in a country with an unpredictable past’. The saying holds equally true in Ireland but not in respect of the subordination of historical fact to power and spin. In Ireland, we say it with optimism and excitement, for now we have the confidence that comes from having transcended a cruel history and its lingering long-term consequences. We have made friends, good neighbours and partners of what were once seen as old enemies and we are making peace with our past in order to secure the peaceful, prosperous and inclusive future that we deeply desire for all the children of the island of Ireland whatever their faith, perspective or identity.

As the old, historic vanities are dispensed with and partisan imagery is jettisoned, a new iconography, a new imagery, is needed to depict the promise of our island’s bright future.


A glimpse of that future, of the images that capture in an instant the transformed times in which we live and the complexities that will underpin our common future, is seen in the re-invigorated relations between Ireland North and South. The Taoiseach’s meeting with the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley, on the site of the Battle of the Boyne, my own meeting with the First Minister at the Somme Heritage Centre and the First Minister’s declaration in Dublin last April that he was proud to be an Ulsterman and proud also of his Irish roots, gave a fresh focus to those thorny issues of identity which have in the past closed Irish people off from one another.

Where previously our history has been characterised by a plundering of the past for things to separate and differentiate us from one the other, our future now holds the optimistic possibility that Ireland will become a better place, where we will not only develop new relationships but will more comfortably revisit the past and find there as Lord Longford did, elements of kinship long neglected, of connections deliberately overlooked.

The launch of the new Northern Ireland Executive government on 8th May this year represented a watershed in political developments on our island, a vital step forward in our journey of reconciliation. No-one underestimates the huge task ahead of the Executive in forging consensus and maintaining collective responsibility across issues that normally divide political parties, nor do we overlook the work that needs to be done finally to eliminate the embedded culture of sectarianism but we also acknowledge that this is a beginning and in the Irish language we have a saying – Tús maith, leath na hoibre – a good start is half the work.

By any test, the Northern Ireland Executive has made a good start. A recent Irish academic treatise posits ‘The end of Irish history?’ With no disrespect, that is a highly unlikely scenario! We are in fact right at the very start of the most exciting chapter ever in the history of the island of Ireland. It is a work in progress but it is a work making visible progress as hope and optimism cut their way painstakingly through division and rancour. The benefits of this sea change in attitudes cannot be overstated – it has released into Irish society a new mood of dispensation to talk with fresh openness and without fear about things that were once, in some quarters, taboo, in particular the politics of partnership. For those of us who have grown up through the Troubles, the reduction in negativity and the growing generosity of spirit have been little short of miraculous.

The sheer unlikelihood of today’s reality in Northern Ireland, where men who were once bitter opponents sit side-by-side in government as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, is a living tribute to Lord Longford’s enduring belief in a person’s capacity for change and to the inherent power of the Christian capacity for forgiveness, even in the face of horrendous suffering.

People have made compromises and taken risks in order to set a new course for the future and, in truth, never having been so far down the path of peace before, we have few compass points to guide us. Yet we recognise the phenomenal potential, the strange alchemy of this moment and we look forward to seeing the results that will come from the combined genius of Protestant, Catholic, Irish, British, Gael and Ulster-Scots, planter and native, new migrant and old-timer as they focus on what they can achieve together for the first time in our history.

Anglo-Irish relations

There has never been such an Ireland and many elements have gone into the mix to provoke such encouraging change. One crucial element has probably not received the attention it deserves and that is the seminal role played by the improvement in Anglo-Irish relations.

We two neighbouring jurisdictions have a lot of past to put behind us, yet our once fraught relationship is now healthy, vital, collegial and friendly. Writing in 1985, an Irish historian, Oliver MacDonagh, characterised the different views of history in our two countries with typical pithiness – ‘The Irish do not forget and the English do not remember.’ This analysis was more than a glib line. In the Irish view of history, MacDonagh suggests ‘no statute of limitations softens the judgment to be made on past events, however distant.’ In the English, linear view of history, on the other hand, everything moves forward with ‘a corresponding diminution of any sense of responsibility for the past’. Not a great combination and a recipe for the mutual mystery we have been to one another for many a long day.

Thirty odd years of chewing the cud together in Brussels has drawn our leaders very intensely into each other’s orbit and lessened the mystery. Forty years of dealing with the Troubles has distilled into a formidable partnership expressed brilliantly in the Good Friday Agreement. John Major and Albert Reynolds can take credit for moving us from fraught to friendly. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair can take credit for putting our relationship on a new footing with the Good Friday Agreement, a document which more than any speaks of a changed history and sets the scene for a radically-altered, better future characterised by a spirit of good neighbourliness and partnership between Ireland and Great Britain.

Our long-interwoven histories, dominated for years by narratives of conflict and conquest, resistance and suppression, have finally been freed of those fetters. The detail and depth of the relationships between our two peoples can finally be explored, and what is common between us, celebrated and harnessed for our future mutual benefit. Our shared membership of the European Union where our two governments interact on a daily basis, has done much to normalise relations, and has, of course, provided immense assistance with the consolidation of the peace in Northern Ireland. It has also, on a mundane, but equally important level, shown, across a whole range of issues, the breadth of the areas on which we agree.

Nowhere, however, is the extent of our commonality better expressed than in the extraordinary depth and breadth of the interpersonal links between our two peoples. Generation upon generation of friends and family, colleagues and comrades, have forged a web of connections which stretches across lines of borders, creed, colour and family. Notwithstanding our sometimes turbulent history, no two peoples are more closely bound than the British and the Irish. More than one million Irish citizens now live in Britain and, today, more than 100,000 British citizens now live in Ireland where they form a welcome and significant portion of our increasingly cosmopolitan population and a certain guarantee that the relationship will continue to thrive. Their children will draw culturally from many wells, indeed our very own Ambassador to the Court of St James is, of course, himself a Londoner as well as a quintessential Irishman.

The complex mosaic that has resulted from such intricate intertwinings raises interesting questions about identity, about ‘them and us’ in the British-Irish context. Indeed, the spirit of Lord Longford might well have us asking, without any diminution in terms of respective sovereignty, about the extent to which the peoples of Ireland and Britain can be regarded as strangers to each other at all.

The inevitable co-ownership of cultural ties which these human links bequeath to us is underpinned by quite formidable commercial and trade links between our countries. British exports to Ireland are more than twice its exports to China, India, Brazil and Mexico combined, while Irish exports to Britain represent almost half of our total food exports and a full half of the exports of our indigenous companies.

At so many levels we have, it seems, been getting on famously despite what the scriptwriters of history have been saying. I think Lord Longford always knew that. He knew the gap between perception and reality was huge and that is where he placed himself – in the gap, to be the bridge, to be walked over, tramped over but to be the one who believed that over the bridge there was nothing to fear and much to gain. He was a vital link, a conduit for people and ideas across otherwise unsurpassable obstacles. He would surely see these days as a sacred trust, to be used well and used wisely, in these days of change, of colossal change as we explore the very otherness of others and discover there friends we could have made if only we’d had the courage to peer over history’s barricades. For Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, history was “a nightmare from which [he was] trying to awake”, but for today’s Ireland, the nightmare is over and a new history is in the making. The years of waste are over. In our new history both Ireland and Britain will share pride in that legendary son born of both, Frank Pakenham, Earl of Longford, English politician and Irish patriot, historian and humanitarian, friend of the friendless and champion of change.