McAleese said that Unionist fears of “absorption” into the Republic must be dealt with in terms of imagining a newly-framed Ireland which can yield something “infinitely richer” and “beyond the vanities of plantation and partition”.
McAleese said that the law and lawyers will be fundamental to the project of re-imagining Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement and Stormont should still operate after partition ends, she said and Unionists must have their identity protected.
“All the protections that are built into the Good Friday Agreement are for everybody,” she said.
She asked whether civic society is prepared to make compromises in order to arrive at consensus, pointing to the “intelligence, muscle and creativity” of recent civic forums in shaping public policy.
McAleese said the connectedness between scholarship and civic society would take the issues into a “safe space” for debate.
Brexit is a massive constitutional change, done badly, McAleese observed, with a binary referendum called without as much as a green paper, which has now bolted like an out-of-control horse.
However, EU solidarity towards Ireland has been “outstanding” in the face of Brexit.
“I don’t believe there is the remotest chance that at this late moment that it will change,” she said.
The real problem has been the lack of solidarity in the United Kingdom parliament, she said, describing the present fracturing of British politics as “quite distressing”.
“You could take any page out of that 585-page [Brexit] agreement with absolutely no assurance that when you bring it back to the British parliament that they are going to approve,” she said.
“I’m a Europhile. I believe that [the EU] is one of the greatest and noblest things that humankind has devised in its history.
“I don’t think people will ever say that about Brexit,” she said
“It was the despair [about repeated wars] and also the creative idealism of Europeans to imagine a Europe beyond the gravitational pull of stupidity, selfishness, greed, conflict, vanity…and it has worked supremely well.”
McAleese said that EU has been a very good deal for Ireland but warned that the ground has to be prepared for Irish unity.
She pointed to academic research from British Columbia in Canada on a united Ireland’s economic future, which is “so much better operating as one unit, than as a partitioned unit”.
McAleese said she grew up in “dysfunctional” Ardoyne in Belfast, which had 70% unemployment and the highest per capita number of sectarian deaths during the Troubles, with murders happening outside her family’s front door on a regular basis.
“What stupidity, what a waste.
“How could we ever have endured, and let that happen?” she asked.
“One of the things that salvaged it, that brought us back to some degree of reality and hope, was the law,” she said.
“I look now at the role played by the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty constructed …by creative lawyers and politicians, that gives people on all sides the belief that they count.
McAleese, who is the eldest of nine children, said that her mother and her siblings, all of whom lived close by, had sixty children between them, living in a difficult, conflicted environment.
“As I look across that clan, and how we adapted to those circumstances, I see sixty different adaptations.
“I thank God that I was a young woman who had some degree of brainpower that would carry me into university, and carry me away from the temptation of reacting to things through the use of violence.
“Not everybody in my immediate circle, whether friends or family, made that choice, or had that choice,” she said.
She described how “in that mad maelstrom”, she and future husband Martin McAleese both took inspiration from the great Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell.
Faith in the law
“We looked at how his faith in the law, and his faith in politics and persuasion, allowed us to believe in the human capacity to change, even to soften the hardest of hearts.”
When they married in 1976, the couple make a pilgrimage to Kerry, birthplace of O’Connell, “to dedicate our lives in a very special way to his work, to his belief, and also to accept, as he did, that on the way you are only someone with the baton, for a while, and how important it is to hand that baton on to the next generation”.
When Daniel O’Connell died, he believed he was an abject failure.
“Well he wasn’t, but it took his vision until 1998 to become partially real and we are still on the way to realising his full ambition for the future of this island.”
Despite the North’s 30-year trajectory of violence, McAleese always maintained her belief in the rule of law.
The North no longer has dysfunctional legal and policing systems and now has entirely credible structures and systems right across the entire community, vindicating that belief in non-violence.
“That which seems impossible, with the right kind of intellectual heft and passion, can really change things for the better.
“The human solidarity around the Good Friday Agreement has held, and is holding,” and the values and vision of parity of esteem will be redeemed and vindicated in the generations to come, she said.
The Good Friday Agreement was never stress-tested against the possibility of Brexit, and would have been recast had that possibility been considered, she said.
But demographics are rapidly changing the make-up of the North, she pointed out, and will shortly create a nationalist majority.
Mary McAleese was speaking as she was honoured on Friday as a recipient of the Hibernian Law Medal, along with Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness.
The event heard that 30% of the Irish judiciary is now female and the number of women in the solicitor profession now exceeds 52%.
Four of five Hibernian Law Medal recipients have been women, following 2018’s honouring of former Chief Justice Susan Denham and former Canadian Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin.
Lord Neuberger, former president of the British Supreme Court, was also honoured last year.