Going gracefully against the grain
MEMOIR:During a remarkable career as lawyer, President and UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson has consistently and successfully defended the underdog
Everybody Matters: A Memoir By Mary Robinson, Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £20
MARY ROBINSON’S LIFE and achievements were vividly described in the authorised biography by Olivia O’Leary and Helen Burke in 1998, published soon after she had resigned as president of Ireland to serve as United Nations high commissioner for human rights. The biography benefited from her input.
Now this intimate, candid and intriguing personal memoir draws on the earlier work, giving her own retrospective account of her extraordinary life and revealing the pressures and sacrifices of those – especially the women – who dedicate themselves to public service in pursuit of a better world.
Robinson’s life and achievements are remarkable. Living on the progressive side of Ireland’s conservative political class, she overcame the political disadvantages of her privileged family background to become an iconic champion of the new Ireland, promoting the values of liberal democracy and successfully campaigning for the underdog and for the fundamental human rights not well protected by the de Valera Constitution. She tackled what she refers to as “the dubious relationship between the State and the Catholic Church, the constitutional prohibition on divorce, the ban on the use of contraceptives, the criminalisation of homosexuality”, as well as information and advice to women about abortion, and equal rights and equal status for women in the workplace and in the family.
A woman from a religious background, tempted in her teens to become a nun, she succeeded in overcoming the opposition of the Catholic Church, then at the height of its political influence. She was subjected to fury and venom, causing pain to her devout Catholic parents when she was denounced from the pulpit of their cathedral for supporting legislation to permit the use of contraceptives.
Mary and I were both greatly influenced by what we learned in the 1960s at Harvard Law School during the civil-rights struggles, inspired by great teachers, learning that there are values worth fighting for and that law can be an instrument of social change. It was a time when we liberals could be inspired by the enlightened jurisprudence of the American supreme court.
The Irish and English Bars we joined were disfigured by chauvinism and snobbery, providing few opportunities for newcomers without wealth or family connection. Our legal systems were insular and beyond the influence of supranational European or international human-rights law. We appreciated from the outset the potential importance of the European legal dimension. We were mavericks, cosmopolitan, psychically unemployable, but fortunate to belong to professions – the Bar and the academy – that value independence.
Each of us used European law and our access to the two European courts to seek remedies for injustices that could not be remedied by our own courts, and in doing so became unpopular among our conservative brethren on the bench and at the Bar.
Mary’s achievements in fighting for unpopular minorities, such as Travellers, and using the European legal systems to reach beyond the confines of Irish law and politics were spectacular. Where the Supreme Court had refused to strike down the archaic Victorian law that had criminalised adult male homosexual sexual relations in both our countries, she built on Jeff Dudgeon’s victory against the UK to win David Norris’s case against Ireland before the European Court of Human Rights.
Her most notable success in Strasbourg was in acting for Josie Airey, who could not afford a solicitor to represent her in obtaining a legal separation from her husband. Ireland had no civil legal-aid scheme, and she complained that she was being denied her constitutional right of access to justice. The Strasbourg court ruled that the Irish State had violated her right of effective access to the courts and had not respected her family life. The Airey case is a vital precedent in England at a time when civil legal aid and legal services for the poor and not-so-rich are being cut to the bone to meet the demands of an austere fiscal policy.