Mary Robinson on her remarkable Irish presidency

Former Ireland President Mary Robinson. Picture: Getty
Former Ireland President Mary Robinson. Picture: Getty
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FORMER Ireland President Mary Robinson has never shirked a challenge. Her latest is what she describes as the biggest human rights issue in the world today – how to protect the globe’s poor from climate change. By Chitra Ramaswamy

MARY ROBINSON is telling me about the moment she was asked to run for President in her native Ireland. It was Valentine’s Day, 1990. The former attorney general, John Rogers, pitched up at Robinson’s house and said he had been authorised by the Labour Party to invite her to become a candidate. Her initial response? Jaw-dropping astonishment. She was a former senator and lawyer with a reputation for championing liberal causes: family planning, the separation of church and state, women’s rights and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. She was a middle class, middle-aged, married woman; highly educated, part of the establishment yet one of its fiercest critics. Someone who had fought – always with cool, clear-eyed judgment rather than tooth and nail – to remain independent. Someone who had made an enemy or two.

Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson. Picture: Getty

Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson. Picture: Getty

The president, on the other hand, was seen as a staunchly conservative role, a ceremonial head of state representing style over substance. There hadn’t been a presidential election in Ireland for 17 years. It’s not surprising that Robinson’s instinct was to say no.

“I wasn’t at all receptive,” she says. “Retiring from politics had been a very good decision for me. It meant I could focus on actually making a difference in people’s lives. I had never thought about the presidency. It seemed remote from the issues of the constitution. And it suited the Taoiseach and the government at the time that the President would be exalted and out of the picture. And preferably not directly elected.” She laughs, and flashes me a mischievous smile. In the following seven years of her remarkable presidency, during which she transformed the office completely, she would certainly be exalted. But she would never be out of the picture.

Anyway by the end of that day Robinson had changed her mind. “Nick [her husband] said to me, ‘you’re the constitutional expert. Go and read the presidential oath’. When I did, I thought ‘wow. That could be very different indeed. And wouldn’t it be interesting to change this institution? To use it to really represent the people of Ireland?’”

This is a very Mary Robinson story: understated, principled, studious and quietly confident. And there are many more like it in her inspiring memoir with its typically inclusive (some might say deflective) title Everybody Matters. There is the childhood in Ballina, County Mayo, as the bookish daughter of loving and deeply religious doctors who felt “a frisson of excitement” when she came across Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1958 speech about universal rights in her school library. The way she later defied the family she so adored to stand up for her beliefs. The year she spent in Paris when she was 17 that profoundly changed her life, introducing her to Sartre, feminism, and red wine. Or, much later in 1993, when she travelled to west Belfast to shake hands with Gerry Adams in what was the first working visit by an Irish president to any part of Northern Ireland. No-one wanted her to go, yet the handshake came to be regarded by many as the catalyst for the following year’s IRA ceasefire.

“For me the challenge was always to live up to the promise I made to the people of Ireland in my 
inaugural address,” she says. “I really did wake up every morning with that sense of responsibility. And that’s why it was important to go into Catholic/Republican West Belfast. Those communities felt so isolated and undervalued. I knew it was something I could do with integrity and something that would make a difference. And it did.”

We meet in Hotel Missoni a few hours before Robinson is due to deliver a sold-out lecture at Edinburgh University on Human Rights in the Modern World. She is dressed in trademark suit jacket with a string of pearls, not that she would thank me for mentioning this. She had enough of all that as Ireland’s first woman president. “There was a very conscious sense of being a woman and a focus always on what I was wearing,” she says, rolling her eyes. “My good friend Bride Rosney dealt with it in a very earthy way. When I was going on state visits and journalists would inevitably ask ‘what will the president be wearing?’ her answer was always ‘you tell me what your president – inevitably a man – is wearing, and I’ll tell you what ours is wearing’. That helped.”

She comes across as warm and energised and tells me that at the age of 68, she has indeed mellowed and is “a typical Irish granny”. “I’ve learned not to take myself so seriously and to use humour more,” she says, adding that it’s a lesson learned from Archbishop 
Desmond Tutu, her fellow Elder in a group of 12 leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. She also has a politician’s knack of bringing every answer back to a single issue (in her case, climate justice), though she has always been more interested in moral authority than political influence. Since returning to Ireland in 2010 following a long stint in Geneva as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and then New York, founding the advocacy organisation Realising Rights, she has started up the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.

“I see this as the biggest human rights issue in our world today,” she explains. “I feel like all the work I’ve done has led me to this. For too long the icons of climate change have been the melting glaciers and the polar bears stranded on ice floes. But climate changes impact on people, and on the poorest people the most. We have to deal with this as a matter of great urgency.”

She’s fired up now, and begins to quote some terrifying statistics at me. “There are 1.7 billion people who have no access to electricity. And about 2.6bn people still cook on coal, firewood and animal dung and ingest all sorts of fumes. Did you know more women die from inhaling indoor fumes than malaria?” I shake my head. “It all shows what a skewed world we live in,” she says impatiently. “We’re heading towards an unliveable planet. And our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be very angry with us. I can hear them saying, ‘how could they have been so short-termist? So stupid? So selfish?’ ”

She warns me as we sit down that she is staying out of Scottish politics while she is here. So she’s not going to tell me where she stands on independence? She laughs heartily. “I stand as a former president of Ireland who will not engage,” she says carefully. “It’s a matter for the Scottish people and the UK as a whole.” She is, however, impressed with the country’s record on climate change, and praises the Scottish Parliament for being the first to expressly debate a motion on climate justice.

She is, at first, equally reticent when it comes to commenting on the current debate surrounding Ireland’s abortion laws following the death of Savita Halappanavar last month in a Galway hospital. “Obviously it’s very devastating,” she says carefully. “It’s a sign that the law should have been changed much earlier. But I’m loathe to comment and I haven’t commented in Ireland.”

Later, however, I ask Robinson what still makes her angry and she says this: “The amount of violence in our world, the fact that we haven’t lived human rights the way the UN Declaration wants us to, and let me say it … the unnecessary death of a beautiful Indian woman.”

We talk about regrets, and she says she wishes she hadn’t left her presidency ten weeks early to take up the position at the UN, a job that was initially so fraught she came close to a nervous breakdown. “The honour of serving as Irish President was, and will always remain, the greatest of my life,” is how she puts it in her memoir. She also regrets that she is regarded by some members of the Jewish community, particularly in the US, as anti-Semitic because of her longstanding support of the Palestinians. “It is such a wounding thing to say to someone who really lives the true human rights agenda,” she sighs. “I felt it strongly when I was living in New York. I realised what a hate figure I was and it was astonishing to me. When Barack Obama awarded me the Presidential Medal of Freedom both Desmond Tutu and myself were criticised in some Jewish circles.”

President Obama said of Robinson that day, “[she] has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world”. And back home, as a recent newspaper profile commented, “she remains as symbolic a figure for Irish women as Obama is for African Americans”.

“Writing a memoir never felt right until I had completed the circle,” she says. “I began life in a small place in Ireland, never imagining what I would do with my life. And after all these incredible experiences I’ve returned to County Mayo. I love working from Ireland and this climate justice agenda will take up the rest of my active life.” So retirement isn’t on the cards any time soon? Robinson laughs as she gets up, checks her watch and prepares to head off to deliver her lecture. “Don’t get me started.”

• Mary Robinson will deliver the Dundee Christmas lecture at the University of Dundee, Dalhousie Building, 
on Saturday, at 6pm