Shy, deeply spiritual and almost an actor. The lesser-known Mary Robinson
She returned to Ireland and was appointed Reid professor of law at TCD, a post later held by Mary McAleese. More significantly, in political terms, she was elected to Seanad Éireann as an Independent on the Trinity panel in 1969, at the age of 25.
Robinson began a long struggle to change the law banning contraceptives in the State. She pays warm tribute to the senators John Horgan and Trevor West for their support when she tabled a bill in the Seanad to change the law. But the conservative political system clamped down on her. “I think it’s the only time in the whole history of the Oireachtas that the Seanad would not even give a first reading and print [a bill].”
Robinson tells how, as well as having political ambitions, she was briefly attracted by the stage. This ended when she failed an audition at the Focus Theatre, which espoused Stanislavsky method acting. “I was told to imagine an object and think myself into being it, and I had the imagination to imagine myself into my briefcase, would you believe, but the trouble was, I had my eyes closed and I was told, ‘No, no, you can’t just close your eyes and think you’re a briefcase.’ ”
When Robinson’s legal colleague John Rogers came to see her in her home before the 1990 presidential election, she was taken aback when he asked her to run in the election, with the support of the Labour Party. She finally agreed, with the aim of working “for the people of Ireland as their head of state – and not just be the figurehead head of state and the ‘spokesperson for the Government’ head of state”.
Taking office after the dramatic campaign was a challenge. “If you think of the hurly-burly of the election and meeting everybody and being so involved in the issues – and, then, the sort of silence and almost loneliness of the Áras.”
She found the move from the Irish presidency to her role as UN high commissioner for human rights more difficult. “I was warned that it was a very difficult job,” she says of her five years in the post.
She regrets leaving office shortly before her seven-year presidential term had expired, to take up the UN position. There was “a lot of pressure” from the UN’s then secretary general, Kofi Annan, for her to start as soon as possible. “Very shortly afterwards I realised that it was a real mistake, because it had given people the sense that somehow the presidency hadn’t mattered as much as it did matter or was somehow a stepping stone.”
In 2007 she joined a group known as the Elders, with Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and other distinguished figures, to contribute their wisdom on international problems. She enjoys this work as well as her other activities, such as heading the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.
Robinson’s work is not over. She has put the “story so far” into a book, based on the dictum of Ela Bhatt, the celebrated rights activist from India, another member of the Elders, who said: “Our experience is not just our own property – it must be shared.”
Everybody Matters (Hodder Stoughton) will be launched in Ballina, Co Mayo, by Taoiseach Enda Kenny on Monday