Mary Patricia McAleese (née Leneghan) is inaugurated as the eighth President of Ireland on November 11, 1997. She succeeds Mary Robinson, making her the second female president of Ireland and the first woman in the world to succeed another woman as president. She is the first president to come from Northern Ireland.
Leneghan is born into a Roman Catholic family on June 27, 1951 in Ardoyne, north Belfast. The eldest of nine children, she grows up in Northern Ireland through the violent times that have come to be known as “The Troubles.” She is educated at St. Dominic’s High School, Queen’s University Belfast, from which she graduates in 1973, and Trinity College Dublin. She is called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1974, and remains a member of the Bar Council of Ireland. In 1975, she is appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin.
Leneghan marries Martin McAleese, an accountant and dentist in 1976. They have three children, Emma, born 1982, and twins Justin and SaraMai, born in 1985.
In 1987, McAleese returns to her Alma Mater, Queen’s University Belfast, to become Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies. In 1994, she becomes the first female Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the university.
McAleese defeats former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in an internal party election in 1997, held to determine the Fianna Fáil nomination for the Irish presidency. Her opponents in the 1997 presidential election are Mary Banotti of Fine Gael, Adi Roche of the Labour Party and two Independents, Dana Rosemary Scallon and Derek Nally.
McAleese wins the presidency with 45.2% of first preference votes. In the second and final count against Banotti, McAleese wins 55.6% of preferences. Within weeks of her November 1997 inauguration she makes her first official overseas trip to Lebanon.
McAleese describes the theme of her presidency as “building bridges.” The first individual born in Northern Ireland to become President of Ireland, McAleese is a regular visitor to Northern Ireland throughout her presidency, where she is on the whole warmly welcomed by both communities, confounding critics who had believed she would be a divisive figure. While on an official visit to the United States in 1998, Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Francis Law tells her he is “sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as President.” She tells the cardinal that she is the “President of Ireland and not just of Catholic Ireland.”
McAleese’s initial seven-year term of office ends in November 2004, but she stands for a second term in the 2004 presidential election. She is re-elected on October 1, 2004, being the only validly-nominated candidate.
McAleese is an experienced broadcaster, having worked as a current affairs journalist and presenter in radio and television with Radio Telefís Éireann. She has a longstanding interest in many issues concerned with justice, equality, social inclusion, anti-sectarianism and reconciliation.