Robinson Presidency: A Symbolic Change. POLITICS

IRISH voters caught the world's attention last month by choosing Mary Robinson, a leftist (by Irish standards), feminist human-rights lawyer, as their president. ``A significant part of the electorate wanted to give a clear message to the major parties that they wanted change,'' says Noel Dempsey, a member of parliament representing Fianna Fail, the governing party.

The voters chose a safely symbolic way of asking for change, though. The presidency is quite limited constitutionally; discussions of how Mrs. Robinson will change Ireland center on her prerogative to invite whom she will to the presidential residence.

``Hooray for the end of civil war politics!'' exults a Dubliner in her office overlooking one of the city's posh Georgian squares. But the Robinson win, while significant, does not mean a major leftward lurch, nor complete abandonment of traditional political structure.

Ireland has basically two conservative or centrist parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, deriving from different factions during the Irish civil war. Differences between them have more to do with culture than ideology. Think of Fianna Fail as conservative, populist Democrats and Fine Gael as moderate, progressive Republicans, and you'll have a workable analogy. The left in Ireland - the Labour Party and the Workers Party - have about 18 percent of the vote between them. The Progressive Democrats, economically conservative but socially liberal, have 3 to 5 percent.

The Irish political agenda seems divided between the unquestionable and the unmentionable. What a Dublin economist calls ``an almost Nordic consensus'' holds on the three main issues: the economy, the Anglo-Irish accord, and European Community membership. And despite the social conservatism embodied in Irish law (no divorce or legal abortion), the country still fits into a larger European pattern, both in its social welfare provisions and its renewed interest in free enterprise.

But advocates of social reforms, such as a divorce law, have had a hard time getting the main parties to take up their cause. Says Mr. Dempsey: ``We have 44 percent of the electorate; do we risk losing the rural vote, of which 55 to 60 percent is ours, by promoting social issues? And if the liberal wing of Fine Gael reaches out on these issues, they risk alienating the socially conservative affluent voters.''

THIS social agenda is what Irish voters are looking for Robinson to promote, however discreetly. One of her campaign ads read, ``You have a voice. I will make it heard,'' and everyone knew what she was talking about.

The rule in presidential elections had been for the voters to rubber-stamp a consensus candidate put forth, or at least assented to, by Fianna Fail. But this time, the Fianna Fail candidate, Deputy Prime Minister Brian Lenihan, was caught in a political scandal, and the prime minister was forced to fire him.

Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes, meanwhile, chose as his party's presidential candidate Austin Currie, a recent transplant from Northern Ireland. The choice ``was a turnoff,'' Jim Mitchell, Fine Gael campaign director, freely admits. (Mr. Dukes, already in trouble with his party, resigned a few days after the election.)

Thus Dick Spring, Labour Party leader, emerged as queenmaker. A contested election ``for the good of the office'' had been his idea in the first place, and he had recruited Mrs. Robinson to run.

In the Nov. 7 balloting, Mr. Lenihan fell short of an outright majority of first-preference votes. Mr. Currie, who came in third, was eliminated, and the second-preference votes of his supporters were allocated between Lenihan and Robinson. Robinson had won three-fourths of these votes, and that put her over the top - 52.79 percent to 47.21 percent.

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