Mary Robinson acted like a ‘queen’, says British diplomat

State papers describe Charles Haughey ‘basking’ in president’s ‘reflected glory’

Mary Robinson at her inauguration as president at Dublin Castle in December 1990.  Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Mary Robinson at her inauguration as president at Dublin Castle in December 1990. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


Mary Robinson “behaved for all the world like a queen” at a state reception after her inauguration as president in 1990, prompting a Fianna Fáil TD to say that the monarchy had been exported to Ireland, according to the British ambassador at the time.

A memo from Nicholas Fenn, released by the National Archives in London, details how taoiseach Charlie Haughey was able to “bask in her reflected glory” by remaining by her side during the reception in December 1990.

Mr Fenn’s personal impressions of the first woman president of Ireland said that her election was welcome news for the UK in that it would make the republic a “less angular and obsessive neighbour”. The memo is part of the latest release of state papers from the British National Archives.

Mrs Robinson was inaugurated in a ceremony in Dublin Castle on December 3rd 1990 and said that her term would aim to be one of “justice, peace and love”. The taoiseach later that day held a reception in her honour at the state apartments at Dublin Castle.

“That evening, at a glittering state reception in Dublin Castle, she received the leading figures in Irish public life. She behaved for all the world like a queen, provoking the begrudging comment to me of a Fianna Fáil TD that he had not expected to see the day when we would export our monarchy to Ireland. The republican taoiseach stayed by her side all evening. If this was partly to ensure that he heard everything she said, it also enabled him to bask in her reflected glory,” said Mr Fenn in his memo.

During her inauguration speech, Mrs Robinson spoke of how she would represent a new, more open, tolerant and inclusive Ireland and extend the hand of friendship to both communities in Northern Ireland.

“Irish presidents are not supposed to talk like this,” wrote Mr Fenn. While she had set herself the aim of transforming Irish public life, he said, she knew the constraints under which she was under.

“She can refer bills to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality. She can refuse to dissolve the Dáil on the advice of a taoiseach. She can address both houses of parliament. And that is all. She cannot leave the country or make a speech or open a flower show without the assent of her government. She will find it difficult to satisfy the inflated expectations which her rhetoric has aroused. One senior government official told me that she would be bored out of her mind by Christmas. I do not think so. What she says she will do is modest enough.”

Mr Haughey was quick to respond to the public mood of Mrs Robinson’s election and agreed to pay for a new special advisor and increase her entertainment allowance six fold. Her election had prompted “a stampede” for the centre ground for all of the political parties, said Mr Fenn, and she “disavows the gut anti-British instincts of her countrymen”.

“She clearly intends to act as a catalyst for the end of civil war politics,” Mr Fenn wrote. Before her election, Mr Fenn had speculated in another memo what would happen were she to win.

“This male chauvinist country will have elected a woman. This conservative country will have elected a militant liberal. This constitutional country will have elected a president determined to erode the constraints on the presidency and at permanent loggerheads with her taoiseach. An intriguing prospect.”

After her inauguration, Fenn said the new president should be welcomed by the British. “Mary Robinson’s election will change nothing in itself. But it seems to herald a transformation which would make the republic a less angular and obsessive neighbour. It is surely welcome.”