Learn more about Mary Robinson
- Mary Robinson is also the name of an English poet, see Mary Robinson (poet)
|Term||3 December 1990 - 12 September 1997|
|Preceded by||Patrick Hillery|
|Succeeded by||Mary McAleese|
|Date of birth||21 May 1944|
|Place of birth||Ballina, County Mayo|
|Profession||Barrister, former Senator|
Mary Robinson (Irish name Máire Mhic Róibín; born 21 May 1944) was the first female President of Ireland, serving from 1990 to 1997, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997 to 2002. She first rose to prominence as an academic, barrister, campaigner and member of the Irish senate (1969 - 1989). She defeated Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan in the 1990 presidential election becoming, as an Independent candidate nominated by the Labour Party, the Workers' Party of Ireland and independent senators, the first elected president in the office's history not to have the support of Fianna Fáil<ref>http://www.electionsireland.org/results/president/index.cfm</ref>.
She is credited by many as having revitalised and liberalised a previously conservative political office. She resigned the presidency four months ahead of the end of her term of office to take up her post in the United Nations. Robinson has been Honorary President of Oxfam International since 2002, she is Chair of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and is also a founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. Robinson is also one of the European members of the controversial Trilateral Commission.
She serves on many boards including the GAVI Fund. Robinson’s newest project is Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative (http://www.realizingrights.org/), which promotes equitable trade and development, more humane migration policies and better responses to HIV / AIDS in Africa. The organization also promotes women's leadership and supports capacity building and good governance in developing countries. Since 2004, she has also been Professor of Practice in International Affairs at Columbia University, where she teaches international human rights. Robinson also visits other colleges and universities where she lectures on her views of human rights.
Born Mary Therese Winifred Bourke  in Ballina, County Mayo in 1944, Mary Robinson was the daughter of two medical doctors. The Hiberno-Norman Bourkes have been in Mayo since the thirteenth century. Like many who came to Ireland with the Norman invasion, it was said of the Bourkes that they ended up "more Irish than the Irish themselves". Her family had links with many diverse political strands in Ireland. One ancestor was a leading activist in the Irish National Land League of Mayo and the Irish Republican Brotherhood; an uncle, Sir Paget John Bourke, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after a career as a judge in the Colonial Service; while another relative was a Roman Catholic nun. Some branches of the family were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland while others were Roman Catholics. Robinson was therefore born into a family that was a historical mix of rebels against and servants of the Crown.
Though Catholic, Mary Bourke received the permission of the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid to study in Trinity College, Dublin; at the time Roman Catholics were forbidden by church rules from studying without a dispensation in Trinity, which was founded by Queen Elizabeth I and was once a Protestant, Unionist bastion. In her twenties, she was appointed Reid Professor of Law in the college, considered to be a prestigious appointment made to accomplished lawyers. Subsequent holders of the title have included her successor as Irish president Mary McAleese, Professor John F. Larkin Q.C., Irish Human Rights Commissioner and prominent pro-life and anti-divorce activist Professor William Binchy.
In 1970 she married Nicholas Robinson. Despite the fact that her family had close links to the Church of Ireland, her marriage to a Protestant student caused a rift with her parents, who did not attend her wedding, although the rift was eventually overcome in subsequent years. Together they have three children.
 Career in the senate
Robinson's early political career included election to Dublin City Council in 1979, where she served until 1983. However she first hit national headlines as one of Trinity College's three members of Seanad Éireann (the Irish senate) to which she was first elected, as an independent candidate, in 1969. From this body she campaigned on a wide range of liberal issues, including the right of women to sit on juries, the then requirement that all women upon marriage resign from the civil service, and the right to the legal availability of contraception. This latter campaign won her many enemies. Condoms and other items were regularly sent in the post to the senator by conservative critics and a false rumour was spread that the chain of pharmacies Hayes, Conyngham Robinson was owned by her family (and so therefore that her promotion of contraception was an attempt to benefit members of her family). So unpopular was her campaign among fellow politicians that when she introduced the first bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception into the senate, no other member would agree to 'second' the initiative and so it could not be further discussed. As a senator she served on the following parliamentary committees:
- Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation (1973–89)
- Chairman of its Social Affairs Sub-Committee (1977–87)
- Chairman of its Legal Affairs Committee (1987–89)
- Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown (1983–1985)
For many years Robinson also worked as legal advisor for the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform with future Trinity College senator David Norris. Coincidentally, just as Mary McAleese replaced Mary Robinson as Reid Professor of Law in Trinity, and would succeed her to the Irish presidency, so Robinson replaced McAleese in the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.
Robinson initially served in the Irish upper house as an independent senator, but in the mid 1970s she joined the Labour Party. Subsequently she attempted to be elected to Dáil Éireann (the lower house) but her efforts were unsuccessful, as were her efforts to be elected to Dublin Corporation. Robinson, along with hundreds of thousands of other Irish people, clashed with Dublin Corporation when it planned to built its new administrative headquarters on Wood Quay, one of Europe's best preserved Viking sites. Though Robinson and people who in the past might not have espoused her causes, fought a determined battle, Wood Quay was ultimately bulldozed and concreted over, to build the controversial Civic Offices.
In 1982, the Labour Party entered into a coalition government with Fine Gael. When Peter Sutherland was appointed the Republic of Ireland's European Commissioner, Labour demanded the choice of the next attorney-general. Many expected Robinson to be the choice, but the party leader instead picked an unknown, new senior counsel called John Rogers. Shortly afterwards, Robinson resigned from the party in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement that the coalition under Garret FitzGerald had signed with the British Government of Margaret Thatcher. Robinson argued that unionist politicians in Northern Ireland should have been consulted as part of the deal, despite their reluctance to share power.
Robinson remained in the Seanad for four more years, although at this point many of the issues she had campaigned for had been tackled. Contraception had been legalised although heavily restricted, women were on juries, and the marriage bar on women in the civil service had been revoked. To the surprise of many, she decided not to seek re-election to the senate in 1989. One year later, however, Labour approached her about the Irish presidency, for which an election was to be held. She thought she was being asked her legal advice about the type of policy programme party leader Dick Spring was proposing. However, as she read the briefing notes, she began to realise that the programme was aimed at her. After some consideration, she agreed to become the first Labour nominee for the presidency and the first woman candidate in what was only the second presidential election to be contested by three candidates since 1945.
 Presidential candidacy
 Beating Noel Browne for the nomination
Few, even in the Labour Party, gave Robinson much chance of winning the presidency, not least because of an internal party row over her nomination. Senior partisans of the political left had championed the cause of an elderly former minister and hero to the left, Dr. Noel Browne. For his opponents on the left Browne was a brilliant but erratic maverick who had throughout his career fallen out with most of his colleagues, effectively once brought down a government, and been thrown out of a succession of political parties (even ones he had himself founded), from Clann na Poblachta to Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Socialist Labour Party. While Browne was regarded by many as unelectable, Robinson proved a success. Months before her rivals had even been chosen, she toured the country, creating a favourable impression with a well thought-out concept of how the office of President might be revitalised.
 Candidates from other parties
Robinson's campaign was boosted by a lack of organisation in the main opposition party: Fine Gael. Fine Gael, having gambled that former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald would run as its candidate (even though he had insisted for two years that he would not run for office) then approached another senior figure, Peter Barry, who had previously been willing to run but had run out of patience and was no longer interested. The party ultimately nominated the former civil rights campaigner Austin Currie, a respected new TD and former minister in Brian Faulkner's power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland from 1973-1974. Currie had little experience in the politics of the Republic and was widely seen as the party's last choice, nominated only when no-one else was available. Fianna Fáil chose Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Brian Lenihan. Lenihan was popular and widely seen as humorous and intelligent. Like Robinson he had himself delivered liberal policy reform (abolished censorship in the 1960s, for example), and he was seen as a near certainty to win the presidency. The only question asked was whether Robinson would beat Currie and come second.
However, as the campaign proceeded, it became apparent that Lenihan's victory was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that Robinson was a serious contender. Crucial to her appeal was the deep unpopularity of the then Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey and the rising popularity of the Labour Party leader Dick Spring. Notwithstanding, Fianna Fáil knew they could count on Lenihan to mount a barnstorming campaign in the last few weeks.
 Lenihan campaign implodes
It emerged during the campaign that what Lenihan had told friends and insiders in private flatly contradicted his public statements on a controversial effort in 1982 by the then opposition Fianna Fáil to pressure President Hillery into refusing a parliamentary dissolution to then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald; Hillery had resolutely rejected the pressure.
Lenihan denied he had pressured the President but then a tape was produced of an 'on the record' interview he had given to a postgraduate student the previous May in which he frankly discussed attempting to apply pressure. Lenihan claimed that "on mature recollection" he hadn't pressured the President and had been confused in his interview with the student. But the government threatened to fall over the issue.
Within days, the "unbeatable candidate" was dismissed as Tánaiste and Minister for Defence. Though he recovered in the polls towards the end of the campaign, Lenihan became the first Fianna Fáil presidential candidate in the history of the office to lose a presidential election. At this point a cabinet colleague, Padraig Flynn launched a controversial personal attack on Mary Robinson "as a wife and mother", an attack that was itself attacked in response as "disgraceful" on live radio by Michael McDowell, a senior member of the Progressive Democrats, then in coalition with Fianna Fáil and up to that point supporting Lenihan's campaign.<ref>McDowell, a former TD, had been a controversial figure in the government. Though with no seat in parliament, he was nevertheless projected as the party's "conscience", launching attacks on Fianna Fáil that caused considerable anger in Fianna Fáil. The PDs threatened to quit the government after the revelations about Lenihan. They gave Haughey an ultimatum: either hold an inquiry into the pressure placed on President Hillery, or dismiss Lenihan. Through professing loyalty to his "friend of thirty years" Haughey chose the latter option and dismissed Lenihan.</ref> When Robinson met McDowell later in a restaurant, she quipped, "with enemies like McDowell, who needs friends?" Flynn's attack was a fatal blow to Lenihan's campaign, causing many female supporters of Lenihan to vote for Robinson in a gesture of support.
Robinson became the first Labour candidate, the first woman and the first non-Fianna Fáil candidate in the history of contested presidential elections to win the presidency. Famously, RTÉ broadcast her victory speech live rather than the Angelus.
Robinson was inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland on 3 December 1990. She proved a remarkably popular president, earning the praise of Lenihan himself, who before his death five years later, said that she was a better president than he ever could have been. She took on an office that had a low profile but which, once the pressures placed on President Hillery back in 1982 became known, suddenly was taken very seriously again. (As was Hillery, who was seen as a national hero because of his evident integrity in standing up to former colleagues in 1982.) She brought to the presidency legal knowledge, deep intellect and political experience. Her clear vision enabled her to raise issues in a manner which did not break the tight constraints of a very limited office. She took on the issue of what she called the 'diaspora', the vast number of Irish emigrants and people of Irish descent. She also changed the face of Anglo-Irish relations, visiting Britain and in one particular epoch-making moment, became the first Irish president to visit Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. She welcomed visits by senior British royals, most notably the Prince of Wales to her official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin.
Her political profile changed also. Charles J. Haughey, Taoiseach when she was elected (and who had had to dismiss her rival, Brian Lenihan when the Progressive Democrats, the smaller party in government, threatened to leave the government unless he was sacked) had a diffident relationship with her, at one stage preventing her from delivering the prestigious BBC Dimbleby Lecture. Haughey's successors, Albert Reynolds (Fianna Fáil: 1992-94), John Bruton (Fine Gael: 1994-97) and Bertie Ahern (Fianna Fáil:1997- ) never hid their admiration of her work, with Bruton's and Ahern's governments actively campaigning to get her the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights post when she sought it. In the previous fifty-two years, only one address to the Oireachtas (parliament) had taken place, by Eamon de Valera in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Robinson delivered two such Addresses, though they were thought too long and intellectually obscure and not judged a success. She was also invited to chair a committee to review the workings of the United Nations, but declined when asked to by the Irish government, who feared that her involvement might make it difficult for it to oppose the proposals that would result if their head of state had been chair of the review group. Controversially, on one trip to Belfast she met with the local MP, Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin. Foreign Minister Dick Spring, who was leader of the Labour Party, advised her not to meet Adams, whose party has links with the Provisional IRA. However the Government refused to formally advise her not to meet with him. She felt it would be wrong, in the absence of such formal advice, for her as head of state not to meet the local member of parliament during her visit, and was photographed publicly shaking his hand. During her various visits to Northern Ireland, she in fact regularly met politicians of all hues, including David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
To the surprise of her critics, who had seen her as embodying liberalism that the Catholic Church disapproved of, she had a close working relationship with the Church. She visited Irish nuns and priests abroad regularly, and became the first president to host an Áras reception for the Christian Brothers. When on a working trip to Rome, she requested, and was granted, an audience with Pope John Paul II. Ironically the outfit was condemned by a controversial young priest, Fr. David O'Hanlon, in The Irish Times for supposedly breaking Vatican dress codes on her visit; the Vatican denied that she had — the Vatican dress codes had been changed early in John Paul's pontificate — an analysis echoed by Ireland's Roman Catholic Bishops who distanced themselves from Fr. O' Hanlon's comments.<ref>O'Hanlon also criticized Robinson for not making a state visit to the Vatican. That was revealed to be unjustified. She could only make a state visit if invited. No invitation had been issued. As the last state visit had been carried out by President Hillery in 1989, another state visit was not due for at least a decade.</ref>
 High Commissioner for Human Rights
Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 12 September 1997, resigning the Presidency a few weeks early with the approval of Irish political parties in order to take up the post. Media reports suggested that she had been headhunted for the post by Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan to assume an advocacy as opposed to administrative role, in other words to become a public campaigner outlining principles rather than the previous implementational and consensus-building model. The belief was that the post had ceased to be seen as the voice of general principles and had become largely bureaucratic. Robinson's role was to set the human rights agenda within the organisation and internationally, refocusing its appeal.
In November 1997, still new to her post, Robinson delivered the Romanes Lecture in Oxford on the topic of "Realizing Human Rights"; she spoke of the "daunting challenge" ahead of her, and how she intended to set about her task. She concluded the lecture with words from The Golden Bough: "If fate has called you, the bough will come easily, and of its own accord. Otherwise, no matter how much strength you muster, you never will manage to quell it or cut it down with the toughest of blades."
Robinson was the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Tibet, making her trip in 1998. During her tenure she criticised the Irish system of permits for non-EU immigrants as similar to "bonded labour" and criticised the United States' use of the death penalty. Though she had initially announced her intention to serve a single four-year period, she extended the term by a year following an appeal from Annan, allowing her to preside over the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, as Secretary-General. Robinson's posting as High Commissioner ended in 2002.
 Trinity College
Mrs Robinson is the twenty fourth Chancellor (and first female Chancellor) of Trinity College, Dublin.
She invited groups not normally invited to presidential residences to visit her in Áras an Uachtaráin; from the Christian Brothers, a large religious order who ran schools throughout Ireland but had never had its leaders invited to the Áras, to G.L.E.N., the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. She visited Irish nuns and priests abroad, Irish famine relief charities, attended international sports events, met the Pope and, to the fury of the People's Republic of China, met Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama). She famously put a special symbolic light in her kitchen window in Áras an Uachtaráin which was visible to the public as it overlooked the principal public view of the building, as a sign of remembering Irish emigrants around the world. (Placing a light in a darkened window to guide the way of strangers was an old Irish folk custom.) Robinson's symbolic light became an acclaimed symbol of an Ireland thinking about its sons and daughters around the world. Famously, she visited Rwanda where she brought world attention to the suffering in that state in the aftermath of its civil war. After her visit, she spoke at a press conference, where she became visibly emotional. As a lawyer trained to be rational, she was furious at her emotion, but it moved everyone who saw it. One media critic who had slated her presidential ideas in 1990, journalist and Sunday Tribune editor Vincent Browne passed her a note at the end of the press conference saying simply "you were magnificent."
Browne's comments matched the attitudes of Irish people on Robinson's achievements as president between 1990 and 1997. By half way through her term of office her popularity rating reached an unheard of 93%. When in 1997 she resigned from the Presidency three months early to take up the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights she was the most widely recognised president since de Valera, the most popular president of Ireland in the history of the office, so popular she was the first choice for re-election to the office if she had sought it, even of the late Brian Lenihan's Fianna Fáil. In the final photocall of her presidency, former taoisigh and senior government figures stood beside her, beaming with pride at what had been, by any standards, a remarkably successful presidency that had changed the face of the office, the office-holder and Ireland. (See photo above)
In one of her roles as president, the signing into laws of Bills passed by the Oireachtas she was called upon to sign two very significant Bills that she had fought for throughout her political career. A Bill to fully liberalise the law on the availability of contraceptives, and a law fully decriminalising homosexuality and unlike Britain and much of the world at the time, providing for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.
In 2002 she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her outstanding work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In May 2005 she was awarded the first "Outspoken" award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).
In October 2006 she was awarded the Social Science Principes de Asturias Prize. The jury commended her for "offering her non-conformist, brave and far-reaching voice to those who cannot speak for themselves or can barely be heard."
In March 2005, Robinson gave a lecture entitled "Human Rights and Ethical Globalization" at the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series.
In 2004 over 1,000 students and some academic staff at Emory University in Atlanta, where Robinson was to give a commencement speech, signed an on-line petition accusing Robinson of being anti-Semitic and fostering hostility towards Israel. Mary Robinson flew to Atlanta to explain her views to staff and students at the university. <ref>"Robinson 'very hurt' by anti-Semitism allegations", The Irish Times, April 15, 2004.</ref>
 Additional reading
- Stephen Collins, Spring and the Labour Party (O'Brien Press, 1993) ISBN 0-86278-349-6
- Eamon Delaney, An Accidential Diplomat: My Years in the Irish Foreign Service (1987-1995) (New Island Books, 2001) ISBN 1-902602-39-0
- T. Ryle Dwyer, Short Fellow: A Biography of Charles J. Haughey (Marino Books, 1999) ISBN 1-86023-100-4
- Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life (Gill and Macmillan, 1991) ISBN 0-7171-1600-X
- Fergus Finlay, Mary Robinson: A President with a Purpose (O'Brien Press, 1991) ISBN 0-86278-257-0
- Fergus Finlay. Snakes & Ladders (New Island Books, 1998) ISBN 1-874597-76-6
- Jack Jones, In Your Opinion: Political and Social Trends in Ireland through the Eyes of the Electorate (Townhouse, 2001) ISBN 1-860591-49-3
- Ray Kavanagh, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Party:1986-1999 (Blackwater Press 2001) ISBN 1-84131-528-1
- Gabriel Kiely, Anne o'Donnell, Patricia Kennedy, Suzanne Quin (eds) Irish Social Policy in Context (University College Dublin Press, 1999) ISBN 1-900621-25-8)
- Brian Lenihan, For the Record (Blackwater Press, 1991) ISBN 0-86121-362-9
- Mary McQuillan, Mary Robinson: A President in Progress (Gill and Macmillan, 1994) ISBN 0-7171-2251-4
- Olivia O'Leary & Helen Burke, Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography (Lir/Hodder & Stoughton, 1998) ISBN 0-340-71738-6
- Michael O'Sullivan, Mary Robinson: The Life and Times of an Irish Liberal (Blackwater Press, 1993) ISBN 0-86121-448-X
- Lorna Siggins, The Woman Who Took Power in the Park: Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, 1990-1997 (Mainstream Publishing, 1997) ISBN 1-85158-805-1
 Other source material
Media coverage in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Examiner (now renamed the Irish Examiner), The Star, The Irish Mirror, The Irish Sun, Sunday Tribune, The Sunday Independent, The Sunday Times, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. Also briefing notes issued on various occasions (notably state, official or personal visits by Robinson abroad) supplied by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Buckingham Palace, Áras an Uachtaráin, the Holy See and the press offices of the United Nations (including  the text of her Romanes Lecture in November 1997). Some background came via an interview with Mrs. Robinson.
The Korea Liberator:  Criticism of Robinson's failure to speak out while North Korea deliberately starved two million of its people to death, largely during her tenure (warning: graphic image).
 External links
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