Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson!

Mary Robinson: highly educated, civil and human rights campaigner, feminist, passionate, driven, courageous and the first female President of Ireland.  The more you learn about her the more you cannot help but admire her.  Throughout her life she has never been afraid to stand up for what she believes in and was at the root of most of the social changes in Ireland.

She studied in Trinity College and Harvard University.  In 1969 at the age of 25 not only she became Ireland’s youngest professor of law when she was appointed Reid Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law at Trinity College, she also stood for and was elected to the Senate where she remained for 20 years (while still practicing law), this started her on a semi-rocky road to try and bring Ireland into the 20th century.  She wanted to push reform bills through the Senate regarding contraception, abortion, adoption, the rights of women and homosexuality.  She received some hate mail and bad press for her efforts but this did not stop her.  She was more than happy to take on cases for women who wanted to go to court for a number of discriminations.  This included Josie Airey in the late 1970’s, as a result of this case Ireland started to provide free legal aid in family law which was not available before and it was a breakthrough in Irish marital law reform.

In 1989 she left the Senate but was eventually persuaded to run for President.  Until then Ireland had never had a female President or a President who had not been a member of a political party.  Although she was backed by a political party she ran as an independent and when she eventually won the election she distanced herself from them and their politics even more.

On her presidency she said:

“I was elected…above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system and who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland”

The mná na hÉireann (women of Ireland) were not forgotten even in her inaugural speech:

“As a woman, I want the women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history”

During her presidency she occasionally went against the wishes of the then Taoiseach (Ireland’s equivalent to a Prime Minister) in 1991 she met the Dali Lama.  She felt that as a campaigner for human rights it was something that she had to do.  Also controversially in 1993 she met and shook hands with Gerry Adams the Sinn Féin President and made an official visit to Queen Elizabeth in London.  She was the first Irish President to do this.

In 1997 while coming to the end of her term as President she decided not to go for a second term instead she took a post as UN high commissioner for human rights after being nominated for it by the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.  In doing so she had to resign as Irish President 10 weeks before her term was due to end, this would be something she would later be regretful of.  As high commissioner she traveled to numerous countries including China promoting human rights, her term ended in 2002.  After that she went to New York where she started up an advocacy group Realizing Rights it ceased operating in 2010 but their mission was “to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage”.

Her latest initiative is The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ).  It is

“a centre for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change who are usually forgotten – the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world.”

The foundation wants to develop a universal concept of climate justice.  It links human rights with the impact of climate change so it is not just seen as an ‘environmental’ issue.  The world’s resources are being depleted in a very uneven and unfair way.  This depletion is having a negative effect on the world’s poorest countries.  The foundation wants “the benefits and burdens associated with climate change and its resolution fairly allocated.”  The foundation and Mary are truly passionate about this cause.

It is hard not to be impressed by Mary Robinson and all she has accomplished in her life even if it is just reading about it in a few short paragraphs.  She did so much for Ireland before, during and after her time as President and she continues to do so much for people all over the world who are in need of help.  Bhí sí ana inspioráideach – she is very inspiring.

 Photo credit: Oxfarm International via Creative Commons 

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  • Agreed. I was still living in Ireland when Mary Robinson was president. She is an amazing woman.