In Profile: Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

For more than 40 years, Mary Robinson has been campaigning for social change and a passionate advocate for human rights through her various roles as constitutional lawyer, senator, Irish president, UN high commissioner and, most recently, founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice.

About Mary Robinson

Robinson, who has just published her memoir Everybody Matters, originally wanted to be a nun when she finished six years in boarding school at Mount Anville in the early 1960s. “The options for women at the time were relatively limited,” she explains. “I was very religious and I came from a religious family.” She was also influenced, she says, by aunts who were nuns and told stories of making a difference.

She offered herself as a candidate for Mount Anville but was advised by the reverend mother to go away for a year. After a year in Paris, she decided she wanted to study law and subsequently did a four-year honours degree in legal science in Trinity, an LLB and, at the same time, studied for the King’s Inns and got the barristers degree. She followed up with a master’s of law at Harvard Law School in 1968.

“That was a very influential year because students were questioning the morality of the Vietnam War and lecturers taught in a much more interesting way – the Socratic method,” she says. “I realised that I wanted to both practise and teach law, the way I had been taught in Harvard.”

When she returned to Ireland her first teaching post was a part-time tutorship teaching torts in UCD. She was then appointed the Reid Professor of Law in Trinity in 1969, which focused on constitutional and criminal law.

The professorship enabled her to both teach and practise. Because she was receiving a small but reliable income, she was able to specialise in constitutional law and take a range of interesting cases in the Irish courts relating to, for example, discrimination against women in jury service, discrimination against married women and adoption law.

Becoming a senator

In 1969, she was elected to the Irish Senate. “I decided to challenge the then status quo, which was that elderly male professors would stand and be elected. Against the odds and with a rainbow collection of people who hadn’t usually been involved in politics we managed to win that election. I wouldn’t have gone forward if I hadn’t had strong convictions that we needed to open up Ireland and separate Catholic teaching from aspects of the criminal law and therefore reform the law on contraceptives, legalise homosexuality and change the constitutional ban on divorce.”

It was why she had chosen legal studies, she says. “My grandfather had influenced me that law was about justice. And I also thought it was about social change. So I studied law not to make money or to have a career particularly, but to make change. It was for me a plus that I was able both practise and take cases in court and teach– teaching as we know is a great way of learning and keeping up with the literature and the case notes and developments. Then when I was elected at the age of 25 to the Senate, I could participate and I wanted to change those laws that were not giving enough space and were not good for trying to build better relations with Northern Ireland, which I was also very interested in.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, she was tackling issues of civil liberties and joined the anti-apartheid movement with Kadar Asmal. She joined the Labour party because she wanted to deepen her own economic analysis and involvement.

She left the party specifically over the Anglo-Irish Agreement negotiated by Garret Fitzgerald with Margaret Thatcher. “It was seen as a great breakthrough, but it had been done without the knowledge or involvement of the unionists and they were outraged. I felt – and I must say Frank Cluskey also felt this and Paddy Harte of Fine Gael – that this was going to alienate the unionists even further. And there was a kind of mood of triumphalism in Dublin. I had already flagged that I was concerned about this and, after a meeting with the Labour party, there was a statement that it had been unanimously endorsed. I felt I had to go back to the backbenches and speak out.

“Thinking back, I think that although it didn’t work in itself, it did break a mould and from then on both governments were working more together to try to bring about a solution that could work in Northern Ireland.

Being approached by the Labour Party to run as its presidential candidate was, she says, a complete surprise. Her initial instinct was to politely decline. “I had retired from the Senate a few months beforehand and very much thought my future would be as a lawyer. But Nick [her husband] encouraged me to read the provisions of the Constitution relating to the presidency, which I hadn’t paid too much attention to. And it became obvious that a directly elected president under the oath of office could really serve the Irish people and that excited me and I began to talk about that. And as I talked, people began to say, that’s the kind of president we want.  Genuinely, it was the greatest honour of my life to be elected and serve for those seven years as president.”

One of her biggest achievements to date, she says, has been fleshing out the office of president, making it more proactive and directly representative of the people.

“I felt at the end of the seven years the office of president was much more significant in people’s lives and had the potential. And I’m very pleased to see that both Mary McAleese and now President Michael D Higgins carried through that form of presidency as if it was always natural. But it wasn’t before. At all levels I feel that I strengthened the office.

“When I became UN high commissioner for human rights the office was new and underfunded and weak. After five years, I felt it was a much stronger office with great morale and motivation, terrific human rights officers, keen to do the work in support of the high commissioner who would be my successor.

“The office continues to be that strong office that I helped to build up with my colleagues. The reason I say that is genuinely individuals come and go. We do our best, but we’re individuals. But if you can strengthen an institution, then that’s much more likely to bring about sustainable progress in the future.”

Robinson says she has learned many lessons over the years. “When I introduced the family planning legislation and was denounced from the pulpits, etc, that really affected me because I was only 25. I was used to being liked and admired. For the first time I found I was being hated. The lesson I learned was that if you really believe in something, be prepared to be criticised. And it actually gives you more moral strength.

“I learned a lesson of making a huge mistake in allowing Kofi Annan to put too much pressure on me and leaving the 10 weeks early from the presidency, because that meant the people felt I didn’t really enjoy being president, or else I was on a stepping stone somewhere else, which absolutely wasn’t true. Deciding not to seek a second term was the hardest decision I ever made. I really wanted to be president, but I knew I could probably only be the flat-out, 100pc president I had been for the seven years for another three or four. There is a lot of repetition and I had made the changes I had come in to make.”

Apart from the promotional schedule around her memoir, Robinson is currently very involved with her foundation for climate justice. “I’m utterly passionate about that,” she says. “I also have a huge sense of urgency. I think it’s affected also by the fact that I’ve become a grandmother of four children. They’ve changed my own time horizon. They’ll be in their 40s by 2050. They’ll share this planet with at least nine billion others, we understand.

“And already we’re seeing that climate is undermining food security. It’s undermining access to water and it may have huge implications for people having to move. I’m not just concerned narrowly about my own grandchildren. I’m concerned that we’re not making the decisions now that will result in a liveable world even by 2050. We are not acting responsibly.

“We should realise that we are entering into a time when we could have catastrophic consequences and we’re running out of time to deal with it. And I believe that women can have an enormous impact on this.  We need to take action and change behaviour. Whether it’s in rich countries in recycling and reducing, or in poor countries coping with climate and food insecurity, it’s women who are going to be the main actors and decision-makers.

“That’s one aspect of our climate justice. Another is access to energy. It’s shocking in the 21st century that 1.3 or 1.4 billion people don’t have access to electricity and have kerosene or candles in their home; 2.7 billion people still cook on firewood or animal dung and ingest bad fumes and, of course, the vast majority are women. This is unacceptable when we have solar and small hydro and other kinds of fuel that can provide cheaper renewable energy, which will help the poor communities to become more climate resilient.

“It’s my focus and it’s my challenge to university graduates. This is your future. Young people seem to get the fact that we really do have a huge problem of the deniers of climate change confusing the media, and the media somehow not reporting sufficiently the urgency of the situation. And then the politicians getting away with not having to take the decisions we need to take.  And not all of them are hard decisions. We can have very good lives on renewable energy and we can be fitter if we cycle or walk a bit more.

“One of the things I think we really need is young graduates who have great ideas on energy efficiency; young graduates who can say yes, maybe we’ll have to have a property tax but we can also probably gain as much by energy efficiency. Get out there and have business plans that promote that.”

September 2012