Former Irish president Mary Robinson discusses her new memoir 'Everybody Matters'
Mary Robinson, author of 'Everybody Matters,' talked with me about everything from her meeting with the queen of England to the relationship between Ireland and Rwanda.
In 1990, Mary Robinson became Ireland’s first female president.Skip to next paragraph
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As a progressive liberal, Robinson seemed a very unlikely candidate for the job in what was then a deeply conservative country.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, she worked as a human rights lawyer as well as a senator, arguing a number of landmark cases that challenged various clauses within the Irish constitution which failed to protect minorities. Robinson fought on behalf of women, who were effectively treated as second-class citizens; homosexuals, who were criminalized for their sexual orientation; and campaigned to change the law on the sale of contraceptives, which were illegal in Ireland without prescription until 1985.
When she became president, Robinson was determined to reinvigorate the role. In 1993, she was the first Irish President to travel to Britain, when she met with Queen Elizabeth II for tea in Buckingham Palace.
Robinson then returned to Britain in 1996 on an official state visit.
From 1997 to 2002, Robinson served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The role proved to have huge political difficulties, particularly in the post-9/11 world. Robinson openly criticized the Bush Administration, much to the chagrin of then Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan. In 2009, Robinson was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
In recent years, Robinson has returned to Ireland to live, where she set up The Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice, a center for leadership, education and advocacy for those affected by climate change across the globe.
Robinson’s memoir Everybody Matters recalls a long and dedicated career as a public servant, both at national and international level.
Recently she spoke with me about the difficulties the role of UN High Commissioner presented, how Eleanor Roosevelt provided a life-changing moment, and why she has always been persuaded by those who fight for equality and justice through non-violent methods.
Was it your awareness of middle class privilege from an early age that inspired you to peruse a career that fought for justice in society?
Well, I came from a family that was privileged but not rich. My mother was a very warm, engaging, and open person, but she was also quite snobbish. She thought our family were great because we had a background of a colonial past, and plaques on the wall in the Protestant church in the town of Ballina, County Mayo, because the first Catholic in the family was my grandfather. The more she talked about this, the more I was rebelling the other way. For me, it was all about fairness.
You talk about reading Eleanor Roosevelt at any early age. What did you see in her worldview that inspired you?
I always loved people who were inspirational. Figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Michael Davitt, Daniel O’Connell, and Martin Luther King. In 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt made a famous speech on the tenth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and she said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home.” When I read this, I had a lightbulb moment and thought, I really want to be involved in this.