Mary Therese Winifred Robinson (Máire Mhic Róibín) (May 21, 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 and Fine Gael's Austin Currie 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.
She is credited by many as having revitalized and liberalized a previously conservative political office. Robinson resigned the presidency four months ahead of the end of her term of office to take up her post as delegate in the United Nations. She was succeeded by Mary McAleese, becoming the first woman to succeed another woman as an elected head of state. Robinson has been Honorary President of Oxfam International since 2002, and is Chair of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). She is 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, which promotes equitable trade and development and more humane migration policies and better responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa. Realizing Rights also promotes women's leadership and supports capacity building and good governance in developing countries. Robinson is Chancellor of the University of Dublin. Beginning in 2004, she has been Professor of Practice in School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, where she teaches international human rights. Robinson visits colleges and universities where she lectures on human rights. She received Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2004, for her work in promoting human rights.
Her passion for human rights, for justice, and for sustainable development has attracted support for the idea that the world will only be a fair place for all when people recognize their co-responsibility and place shared values at the center of global action and concern. Although Robinson has clashed with the Roman Catholic Church on birth control and is critical of its patriarchal organization, she has spoken openly about the role that faith has played in her life, defining the divine in terms of God's love. Robinson has dedicated her life to empowering women and advocating justice for the poor.
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.
Mary Bourke studied law at Trinity College, Dublin. 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-choice Senator Ivana Bacik, 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 months. Together they have three children.
Career in Seanad Éireann
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 (Senate), to which she was first elected, as an independent candidate, in 1969. She launched her candidacy after commenting to colleagues that only elderly male professors were ever nominated to the Senate. Concern for women's rights and empowerment has been a mainstay of her career, both as a lawyer, politician, and international civil servant. From the senate, 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 rumor 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 liberalize 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 adviser 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 named 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 legalized, although heavily restricted, women were on juries, and the marriage ban 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 program party leader Dick Spring was proposing. However, as she read the briefing notes, she began to realize that the program 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.
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. With the Labour Party, the first name for a possible candidate was an elderly former minister for Health, and hero to the left, Dr. Noel Browne. Browne was a household name for having done more than anybody else in Ireland for tackling Tuberculosis in the 1950s. However Browne had little or no contact with Dick Spring and therefore had to live in hope of being nominated without the endorsement of the party leadership. The possibility that Browne might be nominated raised the possibility of an internal argument within the party. The fact that Browne was enthusiastic for candidacy, in a contest where Labour never before contested, now acted as pressure for Labour to find a candidate. The Labour Party leadership now had to act. Spring did not feel that he could control Browne for the duration of the election, given Browne's history towards eccentricity, and defying party policy to such a degree that Browne had to leave several political parties. In these circumstances the decision to propose Robinson proved to be politically inspired. Robinson had an advantage in being the first candidate nominated for the election, in that she could cover more meetings, public addresses, and interviews. However, she refused to be drawn on specifics in case she would alienate possible support. Robinson also received the backing of the Irish Times newspaper, and this proved hugely advantageous.
Candidates from other parties
Robinson's campaign was boosted by a lack of organization 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 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.
The head start that Robinson attained in the nomination process, and the fact that the Fine Gael candidate was from Northern Ireland, resulted in Robinson attaining second place in the polls. Given that Fine Gael normally received 25 percent of the election result, and were reduced to third place this was an achievement in itself. Robinson had proved superior media skills to both alternative candidates, and only now had to compete with the Fianna Fáil party election machine.
At this point a transfer pact was decided upon between Fine Gael and Labour, as both parties were normally preferred partners for each other in general elections. However, the Fine Gael candidate felt shortchanged by this deal as the media was more interested in the Robinson campaign, and, privately, he did not like Robinson. Currie later remarked that Lenihan was his personal friend, and that he felt personally sick at being asked to endorse somebody he did not like, for the sake of beating Lenihan. The possibility of transfers increased Robinson's chances if only Lenihan could be further weakened.
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 Defense. Lenihan's integrity for the highest office in the land was seriously questioned. Lenihan's role in the event in 1982, seemed to imply that he could be instructed by Haughey in his duties, and that in effect electing Lenihan was in effect empowering the controversial Haughey. In a pointless effort to weaken Robinson a government minister and Haughey ally, Pádraig Flynn launched a controversial personal attack on Mary Robinson "as a wife and mother" and her "new found commitment to the family." Flynn, even more controversially, also joked privately that Robinson would "turn the Áras into the Red Cow Inn." Flynn's tirade 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. 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.
Lenihan's supported evaporated, and Haughey concluded that the election was as good as lost. Haughey distanced himself from Lenihan, as he did not want any share in the blame. This had unintended consequences, as disquiet with the Fianna Fáil organization concerning Haughey's leadership increased dramatically. An episode of the current affairs television program, featured Fianna Fáil members in Roscommon openly attacking Haughey's leadership and character. Many canvassers now restarted the campaign to get Lenihan elected. However Lenihan's personal confidence was shattered. Though he recovered somewhat in the polls towards the end of the campaign, it was insufficient. Lenihan did win the first count. However transfers from Austin Currie proved critical, and the majority of these went as expected against Fianna Fáil. Lenihan became the first Fianna Fáil presidential candidate in the history of the office to lose a presidential election. Robinson now became President.
Robinson became the first Labour Party 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.
Member of the Club of Madrid.
Robinson was inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland on December 3, 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 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:1997-2008 ) 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 Éamon 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 which had previous links with the Official IRA, advised her not to meet Adams, whose party had previous 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.
High Commissioner for Human Rights
Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on September 12, 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 organization 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 criticized the Irish system of permits for non-EU immigrants as similar to "bonded labour" and criticized the United States' use of capital punishment. 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.
She was not afraid of controversy, attracting criticism from Israel for condemning Jewish settlement in the West Bank and from the United States for warning that the war on terror must not compromise human rights.
University of Dublin
Mrs. Robinson is the twenty fourth, and first female, Chancellor of University of Dublin. She represented the University in the Senate for over twenty years and held the Reid Chair in Law.
On July 18, 2007, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu convened a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. Nelson Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday.
Archbishop Tutu will serve as the Chair of The Elders. The founding members of this group also include Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, and Muhammad Yunus.
“This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken,” Mandela commented. “Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”
The Elders will be independently funded by a group of Founders, including Richard Branson, Peter Gabriel, Ray Chambers, Michael Chambers, Bridgeway Foundation, Pam Omidyar, Humanity United, Amy Robbins, Shashi Ruia, Dick Tarlow, and the United Nations Foundation.
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. Media critics who had previously ridiculed her presidential ideas now had nothing but praise for her role. By half way through her term of office her popularity rating reached an unheard of 93 percent.
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 liberalize the law on the availability of contraceptives, and a law fully decriminalizing 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 1997, she was one of the two winners of the North-South Prize.
In 2002, she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her outstanding work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and in 2003, the prestigious Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold of the United Nations Association of Germany in Berlin.
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 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 the same month she was the keynote speaker at The Future of International Criminal Justice Symposium hosted by the Penn State Dickinson School of Law, where she spoke on "The Rule of Law and International Human Rights in Challenging Times."
Robinson's election as the first woman President of Ireland secures her a place in history. Her period in office was marked by efforts to "foster a socially inclusive society" and by her focus on education. As a former College professor, she brought particular interests to her political career. Her interests were always spread across the globe, hence her concern for Irish in the diaspora and for international justice and human rights. She used her election to the Irish Presidency as a platform to launch a career in the international area. As UN High Commissioner for Rights, she did much to "spread human rights and awareness of sustainable development throughout the world.". Her election as President, too, translated her life-long advocacy of women's rights into practice and paved the way for her successor's election as Ireland's second woman President, Mary McAleese, and the first woman in history to succeed a woman as an elected President. Through the Ethical Global Initiative, she aims to promote the "relevance of the universal principles of human rights to the basic needs of health, security, education and equality" and to connect "universal principles to the daily lives and needs of the world’s poorest people" emphasizing co-responsibility and shared vales across the whole of human life.
Although she has criticized the Catholic Church for its stance on birth control, and for its patriarchy, she attributes her interest in issues of development and poverty reduction to her early education by the Sacred Heart nuns. At the age of 16, admiring her great-aunt who was a mother superior (several aunts were also nuns) she was ready to become a nun herself. She says that most religions do not properly understand gender equality. However, her own belief in universal values derives from her conviction that God is "love," which for her takes priority over dogma. She says that when she was campaigning to legalize family planning, she was denounced from the pulpits. She expresses admiration for Church leaders such as Desmond Tutu, commenting too that he possessed qualities that are often associated with women, a nurturing style. Empowering women, she says, is the best strategy to raise the level of development across the globe.
- Official Website of the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- Elections Ireland, Presidential Elections 1938-2004. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- Sally Quinn and Mary Robinson, Divine Impulses, Washington Post. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Mary Robinson. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- The Boston Globe, Mary Robinson: Human Rights Crusader. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- UC Riverside, UCR: Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series Starts Feb. 3 at UC Riverside. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- The Council of Europe, The North South Prize of Lisbon. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- Jeanette Càceres, How Often Have we said "Never Again?" Voices Unabridged: The E-Magazine on Women and Human Rights Worldwide. Retrieved July 17, 2008.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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