Mary McAleese: I Was A Refugee On My Own Island

Refugees from Syria are hoping against hope for a helping hand from other countries, the former president of Ireland said, as she recalled her own experience fleeing conflict at the beginning of the Troubles.

Mary McAleese, who said she had been "literally a refugee on my own island", noted that the public is keen to talk about people, not numbers, when it comes to dealing with the crisis.

The image of a young Syrian boy washed ashore in Turkey earlier this week sparked outrage and calls for governments throughout Europe to do more to help the tens of thousands of people running from war.

Mrs McAleese who, with her family, had leave their home in Ardoyne, Belfast in 1969, said people in Ireland, Britain and across Europe are eager to help those in need.

"The ordinary men, women and children on the street have said 'actually, do you know what? We have to do something. We cannot just respond by talking about numbers or bureaucracies or structures. We have to talk about this human being to human being,'" she told an audience at St Mary's University in London.

Ireland has said it will take at least 1,800 refugees, three times as many as original plans announced in July, while Britain is to take "thousands more" refugees from the camps in countries around Syria.

Describing the fear felt by people trying to escape danger for want of a better life, Mrs McAleese said she remembers vividly the moment her father packed up her family and drove to Dublin in the middle of the night as violence broke out in Northern Ireland.

She said: "One of the things I learned from that experience is you are on your own, and that is how these people, who are refugees in, not a migrant crisis but a refugee crisis, that is how they are in reality."

She said people who had left their homes "petrified", will be hoping for a sense of common humanity and a helping hand.

Mrs McAleese was speaking at an event as part of a conference entitled Ireland: Agents of Social Transformation, organised by the British Association of Irish Studies (BAIS).

She will take up a new role as Distinguished Professor of Irish Studies at the university in Twickenham in January.

Professor Lance Pettitt, Director of the Centre for Irish Studies the university, said: "I am delighted to welcome Dr McAleese to St Mary's. The BAIS conference is an important forum to discuss major issues facing Ireland in the 21st century and I look forward to Mary's contribution to this debate."

Mrs McAleese, who alongside her husband Martin built many friendships with loyalists during her tenure as president, told the audience she is confident Northern Ireland's politicians can overcome the latest "pothole in the road", referring to the political crisis over the existence of the IRA.

"In my view that's hopefully all that it is - a pothole rather than a major obstacle," she said.

"These are people who have overcome enormous obstacles, so this one should not be beyond the wit of politicians. They should be able to fill in this pothole I think with good will."

The breakdown in relations at Stormont reached a new low after the killing of a former IRA father-of-nine Kevin McGuigan, allegedly by former terror associates, earlier this summer.

Following the killing Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton said the IRA - which was supposed to have dissolved a decade ago - still exists for peaceful purposes and the shooting was carried out by individual Provisional IRA members but not sanctioned at a senior level.