Odd man out, 4 women seek Irish presidency Ex-cop is challenging four other candidates for 'woman's' post

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article Monday on four women seeking the Irish presidency misstated the post now held by former Irish President Mary Robinson. She is now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Sun regrets the errors.

An article yesterday incorrectly identified Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, as a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

The Sun regrets the error.

DUBLIN, Ireland -- A gray-haired, red-faced, 60-year-old former cop named Derek Nally stands out among the five candidates seeking to become the president of Ireland.

He's the only man in the field.

"I don't want gender to be an issue," he says. "But it sure is a factor. I'm not the prettiest of the five. They're bound to call me the man in the gray suit."

In what is shaping up as the most unusual race in Irish political history, four women and one man are running hard for the largely ceremonial office as head of state.

The candidates are trying to succeed Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president, who declined to run for a second seven-year term as president and became the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

It was Robinson who transformed the Irish presidency from a retirement home for elderly male politicians into a dynamic platform.

She became the image of a caring Ireland, presiding at official functions, comforting refugees in Somalia, even offering a symbolic handshake to Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing.

Robinson's deft political skills and charisma set the stage for this year's election free-for-all.

"Finally, Irish women have come out of the kitchen. Our voices are being heard," says Adi Roche, 42, an environmental campaigner who is running as the Labor Party's candidate.

"Before Mary Robinson, most of us wouldn't have even considered that we could set our sights on the presidency," Roche says. "Mary Robinson stretched the boundaries. She opened the door."

And through that door have rushed a host of candidates representing the changing face of Ireland.

Mary McAleese, 45, a lawyer and educator from Northern Ireland, was nominated by Fianna Fail, the country's largest party.

Residents from both sides of the Irish border are eligible to run for the presidency of the southern republic.

Mary Banotti, 58, a member of the European Parliament since 1984, was named by the main opposition party, Fine Gael.

Rosemary Scallon, 46, a singer who goes by the name of Dana and lives in Alabama, came back to Ireland and barnstormed the country to earn a ballot place in an unprecedented fashion. She became the first candidate nominated by local county councils.

Miriam Lord of the Irish Independent wrote: "Circle the wagons! The four Marys are on the warpath. Their mission is to care, care, care, care, care. Whether we like it or not, it's huggy-wuggy all the way now until Oct. 30. Care is their core."

In the Irish parliamentary system, the most powerful figure is the prime minister.

Although the president has few powers other than the ability to refer pending legislation to the Supreme Court, the race is far from being a beauty contest. The race symbolizes a fast-changing country, where the old order, even the old borders, are eroding.

The Ireland of the past -- poor, agricultural, socially conservative -- has been swept away.

The new Ireland is a European success story. Its economy is growing at a rate of 6 percent a year. Its cities are being made over, with construction cranes dominating the skylines of Dublin, Cork and Galway. Its culture is being spread through the music of groups like U2 and the Cranberries, and the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Seamus Heaney.

There's even a thriving Irish movie industry, boosted by tax breaks and lush scenery.

Economic change has been followed by social change. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church has waned in recent years, amid several high-profile sexual scandals and changing public attitudes. Contraception is no longer a topic for debate. In November 1995, the voters legalized divorce in a referendum.

And women, once looked upon as second-class citizens, have made great strides toward equality. Women comprise 42 percent of the work force, up nearly 10 percent in a decade. In the early 1970s, before Ireland became a member of the European Community, married women were ineligible for many civil service jobs.

Politics remain a mainly male profession, though women hold only 20 of the 166 seats in Ireland's lower house of Parliament, and 11 of 60 in the upper house.

"We were very much a patriarchal society," McAleese says. "Women, if they worked, had predetermined occupations that were service driven -- teaching or nursing. The first time I suggested I wanted to be a lawyer, I was told it was impossible, that I was a woman."

And who told her that?

"My parish priest," she says.

The tension between the old and new Ireland is on display in the race for the presidency.

Dana is a reminder of old Ireland, from her strict, conservative stands on social issues to her status as an emigrant who found her future -- and fortune -- in America, where she works for the Eternal Word TV Network.

Dana, who hails from Londonderry in Northern Ireland, was one of the island's first modern superstars, winning the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest by beating the likes of Julio Iglesias.

Dana is against abortion and divorce, says the person she admires most is Pope John Paul II, and fears that Ireland may be on the way toward emulating the decadence of the United States.

"Diversity and traditional values can be maintained," she says. "Ireland has produced tremendous spirit and moral fiber over the years that have given the country strength. Now that we have NTC some money, why give all that up?"

Banotti, a former nurse and social worker, has links with the old and new Ireland. Her grand-uncle was Michael Collins, the fiery nationalist whose terrorist techniques and political guile helped create the modern Irish state.

She is also the first divorced person to hold elected office in Ireland.

Banotti has led the European fight against child abduction and pornography. She is an environmentalist who wants to conduct a litter-free campaign, refusing to place her posters on light poles.

To some, Banotti's biggest drawback is that she is a politician.

"There is a lot of nonsense being spoken, people are throwing it at me -- in some way because you're a politician, you're less worthy," she says. "I absolutely refute that totally."

Roche is tapping into a different Ireland altogether, threading together a diverse group of grass-roots activists, whose concerns are social and moral. She is married to a music teacher and childless -- by choice, she says.

Roche is founder and executive director of the Chernobyl Children's Project, which provides shelter and medical care to children affected by the fallout from the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

She's known for her tough talk and hands-on approach. But she was hurt early in this campaign when disgruntled charity workers publicly castigated her as a bully.

"The presidency to me is like a mirror, a reflection of what is good about Ireland, the embodiment of Irish hospitality," she says. "We are known the world over for 100,000 welcomes. My presidency would radiate that, and reflect that back."

Perhaps the candidate who best sums up the complexity of Ireland is McAleese, the current front-runner who is a top administrator at Queens University in Belfast.

She is a social conservative who is against abortion and divorce. Yet she favors the ordination of women as Catholic priests. And she supports gay rights.

McAleese is also an ardent nationalist, who seeks a united Ireland. She was reported to have once described Great Britain as a "police state" crippled by "hysterical" prejudice.

Asked about her past public stands, McAleese says, "My views on these subjects are irrelevant to the views of the presidency."

"You can't take up positions," she says. "You are not in a position to argue issues. The role of the president is not to lead crusades."

So, she presents herself as a unifying figure, a woman whose history mirrors Ireland's.

"The presidency is one of those curious symbols," McAleese admits. "It just defies logic."

But symbols and ceremony matter. Ireland isn't just electing a president, it is selecting an image to show the world.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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