Mary McAleese in Glasgow


The former President of Ireland and advocate for human rights explains her current research into the implication of children’s rights for the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice.

My meeting with Mary McAleese, lawyer, academic and former President of Ireland, takes place in a very old haunt, a room with which I was once very familiar.  She currently holds a professorship in the theology department of Glasgow University and we meet in a small room on the first floor where I used to look out of the window during systematic theology seminars.  I remark on this as we shake hands.

A native Catholic of north Belfast she grew up familiar with the sharp end of sectarianism and the discriminations that came with it.  From school she ascended to Queen’s University, Belfast then Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in law and becoming a member of the Irish Bar in 1974.  Her academic career began at Trinity where she taught Criminal Law, laying the groundwork for a professional life marked by association with, and promotion of, the values of human rights, inclusivity and anti-discrimination.

She was elected to the Irish presidency in 1997 and served until 2004 when she was re-elected for a second term, finally stepping down in 2011.  Since then she has continued to advocate for the rights of those vulnerable to the harsh consequences of unjust discrimination, particularly women, the LGBT community, and children.  It is the latter group which form the basis of her current doctoral studies as Professor of Children, Law and Religion which she has held at Glasgow since October 2018.

I begin by asking how she is enjoying her Glasgow sojourn.  Without hesitation she affirms some familiar Glaswegian tropes: we are friendly; we are open and mildly gregarious compared to some of the dourer corners of the country; we are, in fact, very familiar; a bit like the Irish.  Quite Irish actually.  Many of her childhood holidays were spent in Scotland and there is, she says, an ease here that is making this period in her life and work feel like a return to a known place.

Her response, which is immediately eloquent and delivered without pause, takes a more serious turn when she highlights some less appealing shared characteristics.  Sectarianism is still around she thinks, but this isn’t something to be necessarily surprised or overly troubled about.  It’s part of our history, culture and psyche and the healthy flip side of it is an openness to discussing religion and politics. None of that embarassed reticence that may exist elsewhere on the island of Great Britain.  Not for us.

There’s an immediacy about this early exchange that somehow reflects the very commonalities she’s describing.  I remember that although we sit in a university faculty building and she is an accomplished academic, she is also a lawyer and a politician of standing and experience.  It is the impactful communication skills associated with those professions that are initially striking.  No reflective wall gazing to gather thoughts; no professorial ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’.  Rather an instant, coherent summation of points, rapidly declared.

I turn to the compelling matter of her current studies.  These, she explains, extend from her lifelong interest in the rights of children and in particular the way in which the Catholic Church has, or in many ways has not, supported their development.  The church is the world’s biggest provider of care and education for children with many millions of its members being people under the age of 16.  This explicit statistic is striking and I recall and share with her the statement made by Hilary Clinton, that ‘women’s rights are human rights’.  The parallel is clear.  With a nod of acknowledgement this sets off a discourse that for the next half hour requires every bit of my attention and is at times beyond my note-taking abilities.

The question at the heart of her current academic pursuit asks how a true recognition of the rights of the child would change both the Code of Canon Law and the shape of Catholic Social Teaching.  It provides a forensic analysis of what she describes as an historic neglect on the part of the church to do what I am now doing with concentrated interest: paying attention.  The church, she proffers, has failed to pay due attention to the human rights of its youngest members while imposing upon them extraordinary religious and moral expectations.  These, she contends, are conferred with the sacrament of baptism but what is missing from the teaching that accompanies the theology of baptism is a proper recognition and understanding of how the sacrament also brings into the light, and makes explicit, the inherent human rights of the child baptised.  She is careful to emphasise that it is not baptism that confers such rights.  These are God-given to every child and form an aspect of natural justice that is the birth right of every human being.  Baptism makes them explicit.  Or it ought to.

Mary McAleese’s enthusiasm for this chosen area of study converts it to something more.  It has an element of campaign to it, again resonant of the politician and advocate that she is.  This is clearly not a disinterested academic project.  It is a work of passion, of the heart as well as the mind, and it seeks to right what she perceives as an age old wrong: the failure of the church to attend appropriately to the well-being, safety and development of its children, in other words, to protect, defend and promote their natural human rights.  How has it failed?  By its sluggishness in ratifying the United Nations’ declaration, thus avoiding the Holy See’s responsibility as a ‘state party’, a benefiting and participating member; by its equivocating approach to reviewing the relevant aspects of the Code of Canon law; and, (perhaps most personally disappointing) by its lack of support and enthusiasm for the work of one of its most faithful pastors.

As a champion herself she is quick to give credit to others and when I ask who her own influences have been in this field one name spills forth immediately: Canon Joseph Moerman.  As Secretary General of the International Catholic Child Bureau he is largely credited with bringing about the International Year of the Child in 1979 and diligently pursuing the creation of its logical outcome, the Convention of the Rights of the Child.  It is beyond irony to Mary McAleese that this visionary priest did so much to bring about something his own church, at times, has been less than eager to embrace.  A failure, she has no doubt, that has contributed to, amongst other things, the church’s commensurate neglect in properly acknowledging and addressing the scale of the sexual abuse of children in its care.  The concept that Moerman persisted in espousing, that of the child as a holder of rights, throws light on the human and legal implications of such failure, and it’s a powerful moment in our conversation when we recognise his legacy.

To turn from this compelling subject to any other is a challenge at this point in our meeting but, mindful of time and the current political climate, I squeeze in a question about Irishness, Scottishness, Europeaness, sovereignty, nationalism, and the B word.  I offer the observation that I had voted in the European elections and was struck by the irony that, as one who would regard myself an internationalist, I had voted for a nationalist party because it offered the clearest policy position on staying in the EU.  She laughed appreciatively and in a way that implied a profound understanding of the shifting sands of modern politics and the rising tides of ‘identity’.  What were her own guiding lights, I wondered aloud, in these changing times?

She responded with a more muted reflectiveness.  She felt and hoped she had always been motivated by a desire to build bridges and to tap into the latent goodwill that she believes lies in people.  Her gospel mantra of choice is ‘love one another’ and she sees her legal and political career as providing opportunities to enact that simple yet confoundingly difficult call.  Today’s politics present huge challenges, she asserts, in a little slip into cliché, but then inspires again with the insight that all the debate about Brexit seems to be about ill-informed economics when, for many, the real value of the unity of Europe lies in shared values, peace, cultural understanding, and the very human rights we must cherish.

This energetic and highly focussed hour (for me at least) ends with a return to an earlier question.  Who were the big influences?  Who started her down this road of raising voice on behalf of those who are shouted down?  She’s talked about Moerman.  A family pastor is mentioned from her early years in Ardoyne.  One who did what most try to do: showed a child what a good friend could be.  In this more intimate context she speaks finally of her granny, an Irish woman from the south called Brigid, who had the wisdom to invite the children to church rather than force them, and who was kind and fair.  Having listened attentively to the former President of Ireland, Professor and Advocate expound eloquently from her reservoir of knowledge and experience on matters of law, ecclesiology, and human rights, there is a final note of simplicity.  She would not perhaps demur from the idea that it all comes down to a lovingly imbibed sense of kindness and fairness.

Lynn Jolly works in the third sector and is a member of the parole board.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.