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How a dentist helped disarm Northern Ireland

Martin McAleese, the husband of the Irish president, helped open doors for Pro-British loyalists.

British army soldiers patrol the Lower Shankill area in front of a mural by the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), the largest Protestant paramilitary group in the district, Feb. 6, 2003, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Getty Images)

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.