Ireland’s first woman president elected 25 years ago

Mary Robinson pushed the office ‘as far as the wall and peeped over, but didn’t cross it’

The election of Mary Robinson as Ireland's first woman president 25 years ago was an extraordinary event, Bride Rosney has recalled.

Former special advisor to President Robinson, she said "it was an extraordinary time in Ireland, the year of Nessum Dorma, a year of a new found confidence, for the first time we were acting as Europeans." It was the year of 'Italia 90' when Ireland qualified for the quarter finals of the World Cup in Italy.

Mrs Robinson was elected president on November 7th 1990. In the same way that Václav Havel came to be identified with Czechoslovakia after his election as president in 1989, then of the Czech Republic from 1993, she believed Mary Robinson was "a person who could personify a nation."

She came to be “how people saw Ireland internationally”.

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In her own case Ms Rosney had been involved in the Robinson election campaign but intended returning to her post as principal of the Rosminian community school in Dublin's Drumcondra. "She invited me to be special advisor and I accepted for 18 months to ensure commitments and promises were fulfilled."

Her intention was to then return to her previous job but she found her work at the Áras so fulfilling she stayed on.

Mary Robinson was “the first president who had not enjoyed the support of Fianna Fáil”.

Her election was "a big departure and she wanted a different style of presidency." As a constitutional lawyer Mrs Robinson "went as far as the wall and peeped over, but she didn't cross it." There were strains with then Taoiseach Charles Haughey but "after initial tensions it all settled down" with governments of the day.

Mary Robinson became the first president to visit Northern Ireland on a regular basis and the first to do so also where the UK was concerned. Her handshake with Gerry Adams in Belfast and meetings with Britain's Queen Elizabeth helped normalise relations in and between these islands, Ms Rosney felt.

To summarise that presidency a phrase which kept coming back to her during the election campaign andsince was people saying they wanted a president “who would do us proud, give us a sense of satisfaction.”

Mary Robinson did that, but she did something else, “she went back to visit the places she said she would during the campaign.”

People “were always surprised” at that. “It was as if the didn’t expect that election promise to be fulfilled” either, she said.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times