Profile: Mary Robinson – Here’s to you Mrs Robinson

On a rainy Sunday in west Cork, former president Mary Robinson demonstrated that her skills as an orator and passion for equality and fairness are as finely honed as ever. Michael Clifford reports

Mary Robinson

The driving rain did for Dermot Collins. It seeped through his overcoat, through his suit, into his shirt and vest, leaving him desperately in need of a change of clothes. All around him, he could see others in a similar state of discomfort. Yet nobody among the crowd of 2,000 abandoned their post. All were in thrall to the words being uttered by a 65-year-old woman, who had attended to give her interpretation of Ireland past and present. Once more, 40 years after she first attempted to bring clarity to the problems besetting Irish life, Mary Robinson was striking a chord.

Last Sunday at the annual commemoration of the death of Michael Collins at Béal na mBláth, Robinson delivered a speech in which she noted that the lack of “a comprehensive vision of what sort of society we want” lay at the root of the problems Ireland faced.

“Every generation faces its own challenges which call for particular qualities of vision and leadership,” she said. “That is as true today as it was in Collins’s time, even if the island that Michael Collins lived in and died for is a very different place from the modern Ireland – and the responses needed are also very different.”

Decrying the lack of vision, she went on: “In the absence of a vision of our future which enjoys broad support, every interest group will put its own concerns first and fight to protect what it has. That would be a recipe for disaster.”

Dermot Collins, the chairman of the commemoration committee was highly impressed, not just by the content of Robinson’s speech. When he approached her to attend the commemoration, her only request was that the timing be moved forward by two hours to facilitate her flying out to an important meeting in Tel Aviv.

“We moved it to 1pm, but she got back on to us later to say she had organised to make the later time,” Collins said. “From our point of view, we were most fortunate that somebody who is so highly regarded internationally could come and give the oration at the spot where one of Ireland’s greatest men died.”

Robinson’s visit also belied a reputation she had acquired in some quarters for being awkward and difficult on a personal basis. After the oration, she remained on the stage in the driving rain and met with hundreds of well-wishers. Afterwards, she repaired with the others to a pub in the nearby village of Crookstown. Then she was gone, flying out at 5am the following morning to continue her work around the globe.

She left a warm afterglow. On Monday, the Irish Times published a large extract of the speech. Robinson had always been a favourite of the Old Lady (formerly) of D’Olier Street, but the speech was widely interpreted as a call to arms from a highly credible source at a time of defunct leadership.

These days, Robinson divides her time between New York and her home in Co Mayo. She is founding president of the human rights organisation Realising Rights, the mission for which is to “put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage”.

The work entails a fair degree of travel, but at the end of next year, the former president intends to relocate on a more permanent basis to Ireland. To say that she is coming home to retire elicits a laugh from one source close to her. “That woman will never retire,” the source says.

Mary Bourke was born in Ballina, Co Mayo, to two medical doctors. On leaving school, she entered Trinity College at a time when Catholics had to receive the permission of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to study in what was a Protestant bastion.

Robinson was only 25 when she acquired the title of Reid Professor of Law at Trinity. Her legal acumen could have signalled a brilliant career at the bar or in academia, but she chose instead to pursue a role in public life. She was elected to the senate on Trinity College panel in 1969, and remained a senator for 20 years. In 1970, she married fellow lawyer, Nick Robinson. The couple have two sons, one daughter and four grandchildren.

Her early years in the senate were marked by campaigns for equality, principally though not exclusively for women. She was involved in campaigns to allow equal access to juries, and to lift the civil-service ban that forced women to give up work on marriage.

One of the more high-profile campaigns was on liberalising the law on the availability of contraceptives. When she first proposed a bill on the matter in the senate, she could not even get a seconder.

In the mid-1970s, she joined the Labour party and tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to get elected to the Dáil and even Dublin Corporation. She resigned from the party in 1985, in the wake of the signing of the Good Friday agreement. The imposition of the agreement without the consent of the unionist majority in the North was something she said she could not support.

In 1990, she ran for the presidency with the backing of Labour. After an energised campaign she was elected and immediately set a new tone for the presidency. One of the first things she did in Áras an Uachtaráin was to place a candle in the window for the diaspora, which had increased and multiplied through the preceding decade.

She recast the role of president, adopting a more pro-active approach to the office, which won praise from, among others, her defeated election rival, Brian Lenihan.

In 1997, she resigned four months before the completion of her term to take up the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her tenure there raised the profile of human rights to such an extent that she became an irritant to the Bush administration in the US.

Her failure to be reappointed in 2002 was largely attributed to pressure from the US administration, which wanted rid of this woman who kept shining torches into geopolitical corners that the Bush people preferred to remain in darkness.

Earlier this month, the true ideals of America were properly reflected when Barack Obama presented Robinson with the presidential medal of freedom.

When she does return home at the end of 2010, it is most likely she will have something further of substance to contribute to the national debate at a time when there is a paucity of ideas on where we go from here.
August 30, 2009