Irish President Mary McAleese provoked controversy yesterday by publicly hugging a unionist paramilitary leader, despite being forced to cancel a visit to the Shankill in Belfast under the threat of violence.

Children from a school in the UDA-controlled Shankill in west Belfast met the President at a hotel in the south of the city yesterday morning, after she was forced to cancel a planned visit to the area.

However, President McAleese was able to visit a primary school in south Belfast. Controversially, she was seen to hug the so-called UDA ‘brigadier’ for the area, Jackie McDonald.

President McAleese and her husband Martin are known to share a close personal relationship with McDonald, the leader of a sectarian murder gang. The relationship evolved from the President’s efforts to ‘reach out’ to unionists.

In the past McDonald, who has been convicted for extortion, has enjoyed a round of golf with the president’s husband Martin in the exclusive K Club in County Kildare. The UDA man also attended President McAleese’s inauguration in Dublin last November.

McDonald described the Belfast woman as “an ambassador”.

“Herself and Martin have worked wonders and have opened doors for people like myself who can go and show what sort of people we are and what we are not.

“Mary invited us down to the Aras on her birthday at the end of June. A lot of people from the estate and from the school came down and could see what type of person she really is and her personality is a great thing.”

He said children from Taughmonagh Primary School had been excited and parents were “delighted” at the visit.

However, victims of loyalist violence have expressed anger and dismay at images of the Presidential embracing the paramilitary kingpin.

Kathleen McCaughey, who was forced to abandon her home in Ahoghill this summer, said she was disappointed she and other victims of sectarian attacks had been ignored by the presidential visit.

“Some local politicians have visited me but no one from the Irish government or the President. Seeing her meet this man made me angry and I’m sure a lot of people looking on at this will share my anger.”

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© 2005 Irish Republican News