In 1990, Mary Robinson became Ireland’s first female president.
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.
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?
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.
Did you regret the press conference you gave that year as UN High Commissioner when you condemned the actions of the Rwandan Government?
I sounded at the press conference like a Western person who was giving out to Rwanda, not like somebody who had been deeply supportive, sympathetic and engaged. That’s why, when I was leaving Rwanda on that visit, I was so upset with myself. I think I am regarded as someone who has had a lot of success in life, and I want young people who are reading this book to know that there are going to be times when you are not going to be proud of what you did, but you go on.
Could you speak frankly about your difficult relationship with Kofi Annan while you worked in the United Nations as High Commissioner for Human Rights?
At the beginning, Kofi Annan was very pleased to have me as his first High Commissioner. But I soon found out that things were difficult in the role, and there were various internal problems with the organization and the office, which was new at the time.
I vented some of that frustration in a speech I gave at Oxford University in 1997. I was surprised when I received a call from Kofi Anan the following morning, saying, “Mary, you must not criticize the UN publicly, you owe me and the UN loyalty.”
I was kind of thinking to myself, "But my speech was constructive criticism." I started to realize afterwards, maybe some of Kofi Annan’s advisers didn’t like an assertive Commissioner for Human Rights who was going to speak out against the United States, China, and Russia, because he had to do business in the Security Council with these countries.
Could you talk about the difficulties the role of UN High Commissioner presents, particularly in areas of conflict – for example, the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, where most people presume one must take sides?
Well, you have to realize that human rights are not on either the Israeli, or the Palestinian side, they are on both. Having said that, the occupation is a terrible denial of human rights, and so it’s not equating a situation, but it’s also respecting that settlers were being shot at, and killed, and were living in fear. I met these people, and I tried very hard to be as fair as I could. The Palestinians were very pleased, perhaps over-pleased, which meant the Israeli side wasn’t.
You are an advocate for religious tolerance and pluralism, but at the level of church and state, should there be a separation?
It is preferable to separate, but it can be very difficult in the Muslim context. I’m more concerned about an interpretation of a Muslim religion which is more open and empowers women. That is something we have to recognize, that it’s not a monolith, and we have to encourage those in the Muslim world who are keen to promote an interpretation of the Muslim religion. It may not be a complete separation of church and state – that may just be a step too far for them at this moment in time.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned over your career?
That if you want change, it has to happen from within communities, not from the outside, and those from the outside can only support change by being patient and being respectful.
J.P. O'Malley is a freelance writer based in London.