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Women candidates transform Irish politics


An all-woman slate running for the presidency of Ireland? Go away, as the Irish say to obvious nonsense. But it won’t go away -- the stunning reality that even the major parties have put up female candidates untainted by the scandals and corruption shadowing Irish politics this decade.

We just returned from nearly two months in Ireland, not as tourists but as part-time residents, where we had a unique opportunity to witness the woman problem in a country that telescopes social change into the fewest possible years. Families that didn’t possess telephones or washing machines 11 years ago now accept microwaves, videocassette recorders and computers as daily necessities.

The explosion of women on the political scene is one of the most dramatic recent wrinkles. And, to the Irish male establishment, most disconcerting. Yes, we heard, when we first arrived in mid-August, they are proud that former President Mary Robinson was elected to head up the human rights post in the United Nations but she was a fluke in Irish politics, someone who sneaked into the presidency and used it to further her own ambitions.

Once she emigrated to the U.N. -- “and good riddance to her,” said many -- the presidency would revert to its traditional role: a place to deposit former prime ministers or party loyalists who maintain their public prestige by appearing at state funerals, All-Ireland football championships and the openings of summer schools.

The Irish presidency is largely ceremonial. The president is not permitted to speak out on political issues but, rather, serves as a sort of defanged public relations personage. Because there’s no power involved, it seems a natural spot to place women in a nation bent on improving its gender image. Therefore, it’s puzzling to witness the explosion of feelings and heat this election is unleashing.

The consensus in early September was that voters would eventually choose between two established political contenders: John Hume of the Social, Democratic and Labor Party and Albert Reynolds of Fianna Fail.

Instead, with breathtaking speed, four women emerged to claim Mary Robinson’s crown and not one of them the result of old party loyalty or death of a husband (Radio and television commentator Cokie Roberts once noted that in all likelihood the first U.S. woman president would be a vice president who gets there by the president’s dying. “But that’s thoroughly appropriate,” she said. “Women have gotten so much by guys dying.”)

With the exception of one-time Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana, the women are exceptionally qualified, experienced and proof of talent in their respective secular fields. Mary McAleese is a law professor and peace activist from the North. Mary Banotti is an Irish delegate to the European Union. Adi Roche is an environmentalist and cofounder of the highly regarded Chernobyl Children’s Project. Together, they offer Irish voters a dazzling diversity of quality-of-life options.

Journalist Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times, assigns a more fundamental meaning to this diversity: “Each of the candidates, by her very presence, offers a particular definition of what the context for our national identity should be in the early years of the new millennium. Each locates Ireland on a different map. Dana’s candidacy places Ireland in the context of the American religious right, as a Christian nation battling the forces of godless modernistic decadence.” (He penned this before Mother Angelica and flock endorsed Dana).

O’Toole continues, “Mary Banotti’s Ireland is a European society, intimately and irreversibly a part of the European Union. Adi Roche’s Ireland belongs in the small world of global environmental consciousness, the world in which a Ukrainian nuclear explosion is also a deeply Irish disaster. Perhaps most awkwardly of all, Mary McAleese’s Ireland is what it officially pretends to be but does not always feel like, a borderless island in which at least the Catholics of Northern Ireland are also “us.”

As outsiders watching the astounding historical precedent of an all-female slate unfold, we were struck by the initially bemused trivialization of the candidates by the press and media. It wasn’t until the last viable male withdrew, either by choice or by party edict, that the press began analyzing what happened. Even then the news focused more on the surprise dumping of tarnished former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds by the conservative Fianna Fail party than on the selection of McAleese as the party’s candidate. One got the impression that she was a mere footnote to the news stories.

Two days later, the Irish Times ran a cartoon prolonging the trivialization of female candidates: a flower-child female splashing slogans on the wall of her bedroom (with teddy bear on pillow.) Two books rest on the bookshelf: Dream of the New Millennium and Platitudes for the New Age. A man, probably her father, stands at the door, and asks, “What do you think you are? A presidential candidate?”

And what are the slogans he’s deriding? Peace, Share, Joy, Inclusiveness, Care, Love, Harmony. Hardly subversive goals in a nation yearning for all of the above. Conventional wisdom has it that if John Hume, veteran politician and negotiator in the historic peace process currently taking place, had run as he was urged to do, he would have been a shoo-in. But it is doubtful a similar cartoon would have been directed at him although the slogans accurately represent his goals.

But why did the parties all turn to women? As one letter writer asked, “What happened to the manhood of old Ireland? It does not say much for us when we cannot come up with a man who is willing to stand for president, or who is considered suitable or good enough by our political parties.”

Enter the media and the extraordinary coincidence of a nation immersed in coverage of the lives of three other women -- Mary Robinson, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa -- at the same time that parties were struggling over naming candidates. The virtues of these initially powerless women were trumpeted by press and media daily, overtly or covertly broadcasting the concept that women possess unique leadership potential in powerless positions.

This concept was first widely publicized during the many official farewells for Robinson, who was publicly credited with “reinventing the presidency,” the unspoken message implying that her predecessors accomplished little beyond the ceremonial. She was more than just a pretty face, the editorials proclaimed, and both she and Ireland would be remembered for her concern for refugees throughout the world.

Just as our first ladies take on a project like literacy, disadvantaged children or beautifying the environment -- projects that are usually considered peripheral to the role of running the nation’s real business -- President Robinson took on the diaspora, relating it to the forced emigration dating back to Ireland’s famine and brought it to the world’s attention in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

“We are the famine memory,” she proclaimed to the world and the Irish responded and continue to respond in an astounding outpouring of money and aid workers to starving spots around the world, a generosity that puts our nation and others to shame.

Three Irish humanitarian organizations, GOAL, Concern and Trocaire, are listed among the top respected and compassionate NGOs -- nongovernmental organizations -- right up there with the Red Cross. Under Robinson’s leadership, Ireland has become internationally regarded as the state version of Quakers in compassion to the world. And for all their grousing about their former president’s travels, the Irish are justifiably proud of their international image of humanitarianism.

Then there was Princess Diana. Because of ongoing antipathy to the British monarchy, we were mystified at the genuine and widespread grief exhibited by the Irish until we realized they related to her as a fellow victim of that monarchy. They were particularly incensed by Prince Charles’ infidelity before, during and after the marriage and felt that Diana was used as breeding stock for an heir and then discarded, much as Ireland has been treated by England throughout history.

All this was secondary, though, to Irish admiration for Princess Diana’s active involvement in humanitarian causes. Again, like Ireland, she may have been denigrated and demoted, but she responded by taking up causes like AIDS and the abolition of land mines. Her courage in taking on non-royal behaviors, such as hugging an AIDS victim, contrasted strongly with the “proper” behavior of Queen Elizabeth.

Finally, Mother Teresa represents the apex of power in powerless leadership. While most stories proclaimed her life of good works, a secondary story was gleefully covered: that she was run out of Belfast in 1973 by Bishop William Philbin. “That’s not nun’s work you are doing, Sister,” said Philbin when he saw the nuns on their knees scrubbing the floor in a slum dwelling in West Belfast.

Perhaps the link between the courage of three women battling the power structure and the selection of four women for the presidency is just coincidence. But the reality is they were women and they focused on human needs rather than power politics. If Mary Robinson were Martin Robinson, and if Prince Charles had died in that car crash, and if Mother Teresa were Fr. Vincent de Paul, would female candidates have been as attractive to the Irish constituency at this time in history? These three were just too visible to ignore. In this atmosphere, even the most ardent antifeminist was unable to call upon that old canard that emerges wherever a female candidate surfaces, “Women aren’t cut out to lead.”

We will be watching this election with interest from back home in Colorado. Ireland retains an old but seemingly popular voting procedure. Instead of choosing a single candidate, the voter selects first, second and third choices. When Mary Robinson ran, she was regarded as a joke, expected to win by almost no one.

But the first choice between two party men split the vote and she slipped in on second choice votes. That’s why her election was considered a fluke by many. She was not the first choice of the majority of voters.

It could happen again and Ireland could find itself honoring as president a Christian vocalist who was born in Northern Ireland, lives in Alabama next to Mother Angelica’s television spread, and renamed herself Dana for show biz purposes.

Dana’s platform is pro-life/family values, and she knows how to use the media. She is attractive, unflappable and touches the hearts of those who long for an Ireland of the past. Because family values here include honoring the family name, she’s trying, with limited success, to switch from Dana to her true name, Rosemary Brown Scanlon. She sang for the pope and tried to launch her campaign from Knock. That’s qualification enough for some Irish voters.

I wouldn’t place any bets on this election. Initial enthusiasm over an all-female slate is giving way to the inevitable backlash by both men and women. John Waters, editorialist for the Irish Times, opened a recent column with, “Whenever someone like myself timidly suggests that this presidential campaign is sexist, someone pipes up that isn’t it strange we had nothing to say when the presidency was dominated by men. The logic is clear: It’s payback time for the patriarchal male who dominated his gentle sisters for so long.”

Waters is not alone in suggesting that revenge on males underpins the all-female slate. Or that domination of males is the reason these tough women have chosen to run. A balance of toughness and femininity is the tightrope all these candidates must walk. Ireland doesn’t like its females tough, even though Irish women are as tough as they come. (Read the memoirs of sons of Irish mothers.)

Mark Brennock of the Irish Times pointed up the dilemma. He was writing of Roche but his words apply to all the candidates: “The Labor Party chose her for her young, idealistic and committed image, which it believes will attract young voters who are suspicious of the political establishment. If she emerges as a tough authority figure who chews up those who get in her way, her attractiveness for the anti-politician voters could be dimmed. ... If the accusations merely add a veneer of toughness to a person already acknowledged as compassionate and caring, she may even gain from the present exchanges.”

It’s the Geraldine Ferraro dilemma all over again: Be tough but don’t be tough. In America we’re still battling over whether a woman should be compassionate or tough while Ireland must choose from among three women who are compassionate and tough and Dana who has slim public evidence of either.

(As I wrap up this article, a news flash reports the entry of an 11th-hour male candidate, Derek Nally, into the race, so perhaps the embarrassment to Irish manhood will be avoided after all. As a former garda or police officer, Nally’s toughness cannot be questioned, and as the founder of the Victims’ Support group, he has proof of compassion -- everything a man should be in this race.)

Dolores Curran, author and syndicated columnist, lives in Colorado.

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 1997