Going gracefully against the grain

MEMOIR: During a remarkable career as lawyer, President and UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson has consistently…

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.

Robinson taught law at Trinity College Dublin (the youngest Reid professor in its history); at the same time she practised law, and served for 20 long years in the Seanad.

Her husband, Nick, founded the Irish Centre for European Law, and they somehow juggled their public and private lives to bring up their beloved William, Tessa and Aubrey.

We worked together for Interights (the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights) and went to Brussels to create a network across Europe of like-minded advocates, Euro-Avocats. Robinson also joined my London chambers but was not able to practise there for long before she became president of the Republic. She had been passed over as attorney general by Dick Spring but seemed (to me) well placed eventually to become the first woman president of the European Court of Human Rights.

And then came the startling news that she had been approached by the Labour Party to be its candidate in the presidential election. As she recalls in her memoir, I was aghast and implored her not to accept “because if you run you will win”. She laughed in my face and replied: “Oh Anthony, that just shows how little you know about Irish politics.”

She was right about my ignorance of Irish politics, but she underestimated her political potential. She fought a brilliantly successful campaign across rural as well as urban Ireland, mobilising women and the underprivileged to help her break the political mould. She had the crucial support of her young family and of her shrewd, worldly, shy and self-effacing husband, whose wisdom, imagination and wry sense of humour (fitting to an erstwhile political cartoonist) have been her constant source of strength.

At her inauguration she shone brightly, a beacon of hope and enlightenment for young Ireland among the grey suits of the old political elite. She knew that she would have to overcome the taoiseach’s attempts to bridle her ambition. When her victory was announced, all Charlie Haughey could bring himself to say was: “Congratulations. Your car and driver are outside.”

Once more she succeeded brilliantly, a charismatic young president with a purpose, who became the people’s president. She brought grace and dignity and beauty to the office, giving it a significance it had previously lacked. Her achievements paved the way for her distinguished successors, Mary McAleese, and her former political colleague Michael D Higgins.

The narrow constitutional constraints of the presidential office were irksome to this young and energetic woman, who felt very isolated in the first days after the inauguration. But the constraints of office served her purpose well. She used the symbolism of poetry to convey messages of inclusiveness and compassion for everybody within and beyond Ireland. She reached out to the Irish diaspora everywhere, and sought to unite Ireland by recognising both communities in the North. She placed a symbolic light in a front window of Áras an Uachtaráin, and invited groups from Northern Ireland to visit there, as well as making 18 trips to Northern Ireland, of which the most significant and controversial was her visit to west Belfast in 1993, undertaken despite the opposition of the taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, and the tánaiste, Dick Spring, in the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition government.

She was refused consent to travel to England for the Dimbleby lecture, or elsewhere abroad. Much later, this time with the government’s consent, she met Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace at a “carefully orchestrated head-of-state meeting between two countries with a troubled past seeking in a symbolic way to begin reconciling”.

Mary sought my advice again when considering whether to accept the invitation to become the UN high commissioner for human rights.

She was right to decide not to pursue a second seven-year term as president but mistaken, in my view, in succumbing to pressure from Kofi Annan to take up the appointment before her term of office had expired, and mistaken also in jumping into the murky, fetid waters of the United Nations. Like several other friends, I advised strongly against this, hoping that she would work in Ireland and Europe rather than in the underfunded and politically fraught UN office.

She admits that perhaps she “brushed aside too lightly the underlying warnings” and that her decision to leave the presidency before completion of her term was “ill-judged” and “a serious miscalculation” but emphasises that the honour of serving as Irish president was and remains the greatest of her life.

It is easy to understand why she decided to make the world her stage. She was still only in her early 50s with ambitions to accomplish more, especially in Africa. Her visits to the victims of famine and genocide in Somalia and Rwanda had moved her to tears. She believed she could achieve more under UN auspices. But she was unable to recruit her own senior staff, or to increase the personnel or finance she needed to be effective. She lost the invaluable support of her special adviser, Bride Rosney, at the end of her first year and, without her, became embroiled in controversy about the media coverage of a visit to China and Tibet. She worked tirelessly to make an impact in advancing human rights and holding governments to account, and made 115 trips to more than 70 countries during five years.

She observes diplomatically that Kofi Annan “was on occasion less than comfortable with my assertive style”. It was indeed a difficult relationship. And then, in her final and most difficult year, George W Bush defeated Al Gore in the race for the White House, and Mary had to face the undermining of constitutional democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the aftermath of 9/11.

Mary was, of course, not popular in the Bush administration. The anti-Semitic fallout from the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban in the autumn of 2001 made her a hate figure among some elements of the Jewish community, even though the last thing she could be accused of is anti-Semitism.

Heroically, she managed to keep the conference on course, but she could not prevent the vilification of Israel by Arab states and the walkout by the US and Israeli representatives. She became the UN’s “uncomfortable voice” on 9/11, and, not surprisingly, Annan and the US government opposed her serving a further term.

Her memoir continues with an account of her many good works in the past decade for climate justice and human rights. It concludes not with an elegiac lament for what might have been but with her joy at having the time at last to come home to her ancestral roots in Co Mayo.

Mary explains that she “continues to honour the tradition that a former president should remain outside the cut and thrust of politics”.

And yet I wonder. Could not this gifted and remarkable Irish elder be put to one further service for her fellow citizens? Might she yet be invited to leave the comforts of grandmotherly life to review whether Ireland’s constitution and political structures are fit for purpose today? That would be outside the cut and thrust of politics.

If she were British she would be ideally suited to that task in recommending what is needed to reform our unstable and outmoded system, but then, as she once reminded me, I know little about Irish politics.

What I do know, and what this memoir reminds us, is that people in public life do not all have twisted tongues or cold hearts. In the words of Isaac Rosenberg, Mary’s testament is a moon for “mutable lampless men” everywhere and for everybody. Her wisdom and experience are rare.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC is a Liberal Democrat member of the British house of lords, practising constitutional and human-rights law at Blackstone Chambers. He campaigned successfully for legislation on human rights, equality, civil partnership, and forced marriage, and is now campaigning on defamation reform. He is a member of the parliamentary joint committee on human rights and the commission on a UK bill of rights