Memory is of grace and compassion


MARY ROBINSON has been coming to the United States since she studied for a Harvard law degree in Boston in 1968, but she has paid particular attention to this country since becoming President. When she was received with the full honours of a State visit last June, it was her 13th visit to the US during her Presidency.

On virtually all of those visits she was honoured by respected universities, groups of legal professionals, and organisations involved with foreign policy, human rights, and women's and emigrant's issues. It can safely be said that no other Irish public figure has gathered so many awards and honorary degrees.

So on the cultural and academic fronts Mrs Robinson has left what will be the lasting mark of a distinguished and graceful personality who was always eager to express compassion for the less favoured, whether poor emigrants or famine victims.

On the strictly political front, there has been less opportunity to be an influence in American public life. Her office, as she always emphasises, is above party politics.

Thus, when she is questioned about Northern Ireland on her frequent visits to the US, she does not dodge the questions but responds in more general terms about how she views the peace process and how it should be furthered.

That she is a star attraction the State visit - last June clearly showed. The State banquet at the White House hosted by President and Mrs Clinton was the largest of their term, if not of any recent presidency. Some 350 guests were invited, whereas 120 is more normal for such occasions.

This meant that the East Room could not accommodate the throngs and a marquee had be erected on the South Lawn. This is the usual location for the formal welcome for incoming heads of state, so the ceremony had to be transferred to Fort Myer adjoining Arlington cemetery.

It must have been a poignant moment for the former young Harvard law student, who observed the anti Vietnam War protests in Boston 28 years earlier, to be welcomed with the full trappings of military bands and ceremonial by the President of the United States.

She was deprived of one honour which a visiting head of state would normally expect an address to the joint Houses of Congress.

This was due more to US domestic politics than any reflection on the President.

With the Republicans in control of both Houses, Speaker Newt Gingrich was in a position to thwart Senator Ted Kennedy, who had been pressing for Mrs Robinson to deliver an address. This honour was to go to the Taoiseach, Mr Bruton, who paid his official visit to Washington the following September.

The idea of the President of Ireland being a woman, a liberal who had fought against the ban on the importation of contraceptives, and a former member of the "left wing" Labour Party intrigued the American media. She was much sought for TV and radio interviews and she took the opportunity to project a different image of the Ireland of the 1990s from that to which many of the viewers and listeners were accustomed.

By coincidence, on the last day of the President's State visit, an IRA bomb exploded in Manchester injuring a large number of people. She was visiting a hospital in south east Washington when the news broke. When she returned to the Irish embassy the TV networks were waiting impatiently for her reaction.

It was an unfortunate conclusion to a visit during which all the speeches had expressed hopes for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, but the President exploited the tragedy to make her most impassioned appeal to the IRA to end their murderous violence. That was the message which went out to millions of Americans, more effectively than a stilted speech to politicians in Congress.

She knew how to make use of her "bully pulpit", as the Americans call it, no matter where it was a university hall, a hotel banquet room, a famine memorial, a cemetery where Wolfe Tone's widow was buried, a White House press conference.

That is how you get your message across in America. And she had many messages.