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McAleese claims Irish presidency

Says new millennium 'true age of the Irish'

October 31, 1997
Web posted at: 8:34 p.m. EST (0134 GMT)

DUBLIN, Ireland (CNN) -- Pledging "to be the very best president that I possibly can be," Mary McAleese claimed victory Friday in Ireland's presidential election.

"I hope to be a president for a new century, a new millennium," the 46-year-old law professor from Belfast said in her victory speech at Dublin Castle. "I want us to share as a nation the adventure of this, the most dynamic country in Europe heading into that new millennium."

"It will mark, I believe, the true age of the Irish because I believe we are an unstoppable nation, now very definitely in our stride."

McAleese is the first Irish president to hail from Northern Ireland, the portion of the island under British control. The Irish constitution, which considers Northern Ireland to be part of the southern republic, allows people from there to run for office, even though they cannot vote.

McAleese is a Roman Catholic who supports the unification of the north with the rest of Ireland, though she renounces violence as a way to achieve that aim. Her election is expected to give a boost to Catholics in the north opposed to Protestant British rule.

McAleese easily bests 4 challengers

Counting votes

Voters cast ballots Thursday, and when the first round of counting was finished Friday, McAleese had 45.2 percent of the vote, easily besting second-place finisher Mary Banotti, who had 29.3 percent. Three other candidates trailed far behind.

Under the Irish election system, voters selected both a first and a second choice in the presidential race. After the first count, the three trailing candidates were eliminated and a second round of counting took place, with their votes redistributed to voters' second preferences. A candidate had to win a majority to claim the presidency.

After the second count, McAleese had 58.7 percent of the vote, compared to 41.3 percent for Banotti. Political analysts described it as the strongest showing ever by a candidate in an Irish presidential election.

For the second presidential election in a row, voters in Ireland -- a very traditional Catholic society where political life remains a largely male-dominated enterprise -- picked a woman for the mostly-ceremonial presidential post.

McAleese will succeed Mary Robinson, who brought new stature and prestige to the office after her groundbreaking election in 1990. She resigned to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In this election, four of the five candidates were women. The lone man in the race, Derek Nally, came in last place.

Dana's strong showing surprises

McAleese's election was not a surprise, as she led in pre-election polls. What did surprise the political establishment was the stronger than expected third-place showing by independent candidate Rosemary Scallon, a well-known Irish singer who goes by the stage name of Dana.

Scallon, who lives in Alabama in the United States and campaigned on a platform stressing traditional Catholic values, took 14 percent in the first count. That was nearly twice as many votes as Adi Roche, another female candidate who had the backing of several Irish leftist parties and had even led the presidential race in early polls.

McAleese will be the head of state of a country that has changed profoundly in the 1990s. An economic boom has created a cosmopolitan, sophisticated Ireland, diverse and Europe-oriented. A country whose people often emigrated abroad to escape poverty now welcomes back 15,000 expatriates a year.

"It's only in recent years that we've had economic success, social success, success in the arts, success in sporting achievements. And all of this has contributed to a huge psychological renaissance," said Gerard Hogan of Trinity College.

Correspondent Richard Blystone and Reuters contributed to this report.


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