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.
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Working as a constitutional lawyer in Ireland in the '70s and '80s, you fought for women’s rights, but didn’t want to be labeled a feminist. Why not?Skip to next paragraph
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I was a young lawyer who wanted to change the position of women, so I didn’t want to be catagorized. When I was elected president of Ireland, many years later, I was a broad champion of women, happy to call myself a feminist. That is why in my inauguration speech in 1990, I thanked the women of Ireland, but I thanked them in Irish, calling them "Mná na hÉireann," which at that time was a very pejorative statement, almost like "sheila" is to women in Australia. But I made it a brand of honor somehow. I said I wanted women who were outside of history to be written into history.
How important was your meeting with The Queen in 1993 for Anglo-Irish relations?
The invitation to take tea at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II was huge at that time. Then, in 1996, I was invited back again, this time on an official visit by Prime Minister John Major. Along with my husband, Nick, I had lunch with the Queen and Prince Edward. Before that, I inspected a guard of honor, and the Irish national anthem was played. I remember as I stood on the steps of Buckingham Palace, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, and saying to myself, I know this is a moment that matters for my country.
You also met with Gerry Adams that same year in West Belfast; did you feel you would be criticized?
I was aware that it would be unpopular, but I went specifically to meet and support the community groups, not just Gerry Adams. I was criticized for it, but I knew from the moment I went into that hall in West Belfast that I did the right thing.
Did you feel as president of Ireland that you couldn’t publicly express your personal views about the IRA?
I couldn’t speak out about the IRA, or even about Irish politics, as president, because the President’s role in Ireland is above politics.
Were you sympathetic to the IRA at any stage of the Troubles?
Well, I graduated in Trinity College in 1967, and the civil rights movement began in 1968. Of course we knew about the discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland, and we were speaking out against it. But I had always been strongly persuaded by those who fight for equality and justice but who don’t use violence.
Could you describe your visit to Rwanda after the genocide in 1994?
Even though it was a couple of months after the actual genocidal killing, you could smell the blood, and see it everywhere. You could see the little children’s shoes in every building you went into. There was also a huge prison population, and I talked to a number of widows who had been raped. It was devastating. I was determined the following year, when I was invited by Ireland to represent the country at the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, that I would bring Rwanda to the table of the UN if you like.
But you had difficulty with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, at a later stage?
That was when I went back to Rwanda as UN High Commissioner in 1998. At that stage, I thought, they know me, but when I arrived, I was a UN official, and there was that coldness and distance, because the UN had betrayed Rwanda, and they were hurting.
I was caught up in that, and didn’t fully appreciate the extent of it. But I was also getting briefed about what Rwanda was doing in the Democratic Republic of Congo – understandably trying to catch those who had been responsible for the genocide but subsequently killing civilians in the process. So I had to try and raise that issue at various levels.