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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.

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.