How a dentist helped disarm Northern Ireland

DUBLIN, Ireland — Scene: the dining room of the American ambassador’s residence in Phoenix Park, Dublin, one afternoon in 2004.

The ambassador, James C. Kenny, a fundraiser for President George W. Bush, chats pleasantly with the Irish president Mary McAleese and her dentist husband Martin (who also happen to be his neighbors), as well as a third lunch guest with a strong working class Belfast accent.

This guest is Jackie McDonald, self-styled brigadier of the loyalist paramilitary organization, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), classified as a terrorist group in the United Kingdom.

“I said to the ambassador, ‘This is a beautiful meal, the only meal I ever got from the Americans,’” recalls McDonald, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1989 for blackmail, extortion and threats to kill, but at the time of the lunch was seeking a political way forward. “Gerry Adams gets the same meal and $500,000 from the Americans.”

The ambassador gets the point. Adams, head of Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party, is able to raise funds in the United States while the UDA cannot.

McDonald adds, however, with gratitude, “I’m sitting here and you are treating us as equals and there’s Martin over there, a personal friend.”

As the curtain falls, we can appreciate the lunch's significance. It was held on the initiative of Martin McAleese as part of a process of “opening doors” for the UDA that is only now being publicly acknowledged.

McAleese is a Catholic dentist who grew up in Protestant east Belfast where his family was burned out by loyalists and forced to flee. As the spouse of Ireland’s president, seemingly condemned to a walk-on role at official functions, he decided to reach out quietly to the loyalists in his strife-torn home city.

It was a daring and risky decision. UDA members had killed hundreds of Catholic civilians in the "Troubles" that claimed more than 3,500 lives in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998.

The first contact came in 2003 when McAleese went to meet McDonald in the Taughmonagh social club, reputed to be UDA’s Belfast headquarters, and invited him to lunch in Aras an Uachtarain, the president’s official residence in Dublin. Sixty-five loyalists, some of them former bombers and gunmen who had been conditioned to regard the Republic as enemy territory, arrived in a bus at the mansion where viceroys once oversaw British rule in Ireland.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” said McDonald. “Some of us had never been across the border. We were wondering were we doing the right thing?” They found Mary and Martin McAleese to be Belfast natives like themselves, though from “the other side,” and keen to talk about a new future in Ireland where every community would be involved. “When we left we were all saying ‘When are we coming back?’” said McDonald enthusiastically.

Soon afterward Martin McAleese invited the UDA leader and a few pals to play golf at the prestigious K Club (which would host the 2006 Ryder Cup) a half-hour’s drive outside Dublin.

“It was a smashing day," said McDonald, who admits being a very amateur golfer. “At lunch in the clubhouse Martin presented me with a check for £19,000 ($29,000) to build facilities and floodlights for the Dunmurry Young Men’s Football Club” in Belfast. It was the first of several occasions when Martin McAleese would discretely raise funds from business contacts to help deprived loyalist communities in Northern Ireland.

McAleese then brought the UDA leader to meet the then-Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, in Dublin in 2007. This was a first in divided Ireland.

“We realized they hadn’t got two heads and they realized we hadn’t got two heads,” said McDonald.

The encounter happened against the background of a slow-moving peace movement in Northern Ireland whose iconic Unionist politician, Ian Paisley, had not shaken hands with Ahern up to that point. This changed when Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, came to Dublin shortly afterward and gripped Bertie Ahern’s hand in a strong gesture of friendship.

McDonald believes the UDA blazed a trail for such ground-breaking moves. “We were making it easier for Paisley; if loyalist paramilitaries could go to Dublin, then so could he.”

The UDA confirmed in January this year that it had decommissioned all its weapons — following a similar move by the IRA two years earlier — and the media-shy Martin McAleese has finally broken his silence about his terrorist contacts. He told Irish television last week, “I never had any feelings of resentment or revenge. I feel very strongly we really have to make the peace process as inclusive as you can.” He admitted to being very nervous at the first meeting in the UDA club. “I had no idea what the response would be!” And when McDonald came to Dublin, he was nervous in turn.

There are still occasional violent incidents in Northern Ireland, but with the IRA and the UDA disarmed and on permanent cease-fire, and with the extraordinary friendships that have sprung up across the divide, the prospect of a return to the "Troubles” is remote.

Martin McAleese, probably the best-liked (amateur) politician in Ireland today, is now turning his attention to the new crisis in Ireland, that of soaring unemployment. At his initiative, President Mary McAleese has just announced an online competition offering cash prizes of €100,000 ($136,000) each and development funds of up to €500,000 ($678,000) for new, innovative projects that will create jobs, with funding coming from private donors. “Jobs, that is what most people are concerned about,” said Martin McAleese.