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Ireland's next president may come from Northern Ireland

The Irish elect a president on Thursday and, for the first time, it appears the winner will come from the British province of Northern Ireland.

Belfast law professor Mary McAleese, the confident front-runner from Ireland's largest party, Fianna Fail, is touting her roots in the North and campaigning under the slogan "building bridges."

McAleese's Belfast Catholic background has proved the most controversial aspect of the four-week campaign for president, a largely ceremonial office vacated by Mary Robinson, who became the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights.

Besides stirring up Protestant animosity, her origins have highlighted how many people in the Irish Republic view neighboring Northern Ireland with distaste and distance.

McAleese is able to run for Irish president despite her Northern Ireland roots and residence because she holds an Irish, not a British, passport, and she was nominated by a political party.

"Those people up north can't even vote down here and I've no vote up there either," said Carmel Nolan, who stopped to talk in front of Dublin's bullet-pocked General Post Office, a rebel stronghold in the 1916 uprising against British rule.

Britain granted southern Ireland independence six years later but retained the predominantly pro-British Protestant north.

"I've nothing personal against Mary McAleese," said the 74-year-old Nolan. "But why on earth should a foreigner be our president?"

In the latest poll, published Tuesday in the Irish Independent newspaper, McAleese's lead had increased to a commanding 17 percent over her nearest competition, European Parliament member Mary Banotti.

The poll of 1,100 people in 100 locations had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. After Banotti, of the Fine Gael party, the other candidates _ anti-nuclear activist Adi Roche, anti-crime campaigner Derek Nally and Christian singer Dana Rosemary Scallon _ had only single-digit support.

Earlier this month, leaked intelligence documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs painted McAleese as a supporter of Sinn Fein, the northern-based party that grew out of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

It didn't help when Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams endorsed McAleese as the most capable candidate. But McAleese emphasized that she has always voted for Sinn Fein's moderate rival for Catholic votes, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, or SDLP.

"I am not anti-British. I am an Irish nationalist. I make no apology for that," she told the British Broadcasting Corp., adding "the situation in Northern Ireland never justified the spilling of one drop of blood."

What McAleese has is an acute understanding of all shades of northern Catholic opinion and experience.

She and her eight younger siblings lived among Protestants in north Belfast until bomb and gun attacks on their home forced them out. Before that, her deaf brother was nearly beaten to death by Protestant thugs.

"I can understand so easily why people join the IRA," she told the Irish Times in 1984. "I felt the same desire for vengeance tearing at me, but deep down in my psyche I had strong Christian values."

In 1983, as a law lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, she helped the Roman Catholic bishops of Ireland present their anti-divorce and anti-abortion views to an Irish government forum.

In 1987, she was appointed director of the Queen's Institute of Legal Studies and later became the Queen's deputy chancellor, the highest position ever held by a Catholic there. During her tenure, she led the way in stripping the university of overtly Protestant ceremonies in favor of a "neutral" environment.

Most critically, McAleese took part in secret contacts between Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Belfast priests aimed at delivering the IRA cease-fire of 1994 and maintaining the new one announced in July.

Still, she is somewhat of a stranger 100 miles south in Dublin. She has campaigned aggressively across the Irish Republic, but some residents still see her as an opportunistic tourist.

"People wonder about Mary McAleese. We don't know enough about her," said hospital computer technician Jo Carney.

"She's very intelligent, and they say she has very strong views, but we're not getting to hear those," she added. "Having someone from the north as president just seems to be asking for trouble."