Dublin: Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald is often spoken about as potentially Ireland’s first woman prime minister and on Monday night I learned why.
I was in the Teacher's Club, in Parnell Square in Dublin, a magnificent old Georgian building. Upstairs from the function room was a wonderfully appointed drawing room where, many years ago, James Joyce and Count John McCormack attended singing lessons.
I was there as an honoree of Drew University in New Jersey’s peace building program. Each year they bring 100 peace studies students to Ireland or other world trouble spots to explore how conflict could be resolved.
Given the latest events in France the need for peacemaking has never been greater.
In Ireland they learned the gun could not solve the problem and they had the guts and vision on all sides to try something new.
Sinn Fein had the greatest journey of all to make. Listening to Mary Lou McDonald it was clear that part of the reason they have succeeded has been the growth of a very smart suburban political group within Sinn Fein, the match for any political party in Ireland.
Sinn Fein was at the heart of the peace process political strategy and now it has wider goals, such as gaining government in the Irish Republic as well as in Northern Ireland.
Mary Lou, as she's known throughout Ireland, is the new face of Sinn Fein in the south, but this already battle-hardened politician will feature even more in Ireland's future, I’m sure.
Sinn Fein is the now party but it faces unprecedented challenges. Should it go into government as a minority party after the next election for instance? Similar parties who have tried that, such as Labour, the Greens and the Progressive Democrats, have been destroyed in the polls as they got the lion’s share of the blame.
That is the kind of conundrum leaders like Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald will likely face after the next election. It will determine the future of the party in the south.
But Monday night was an occasion to celebrate success in the shape of the peace process.
The Drew University project takes place all this week in Ireland and it is a magnificent occasion.
They will visit Donegal, Derry, Belfast, and get a complete grounding in how conflict resolution worked in Ireland despite failing almost everywhere else.
Donegal County Council is underwriting the visit, which is bringing much needed revenue and many visiting Americans to the isolated county.
Gaeltacht Minister Joe McHugh spoke passionately about what peace had meant there and a huge icon, and not just in Donegal, former Irish soccer goalkeeper Packie Bonner also spoke movingly of leaving Donegal, as so many emigrants have, to make a life abroad.
When I was talking to the students I told them that the reason that the peace process succeeded, I believe, was American soft power.
There were no US soldiers sent to Northern Ireland. Instead President Clinton dispatched himself and later Senator George Mitchell to lead the peace onslaught.
What they found was a land ready to give peace a chance but needing outside forces to help galvanize that.
Clinton provided that with the visa for Gerry Adams and his first visit there in November 1995 (which will always be a highlight in my life).
Hundreds of thousands turned out to welcome the first American president to visit Northern Ireland and we all knew there was no turning back then.
Present in the room at the Teachers Club were representatives from Pakistan, Egypt, and Africa all pursuing the elusive goal of peace in their own countries.
They had come to Ireland to learn, and I hope they did, though we all know it is still a work in progress.
Drew University is providing an invaluable conflict resolution program that should be the envy of other colleges.
Long may it prosper.