In 1990 Mary Bourke Robinson (née Bourke; born 1944) became the first woman to be elected president of Ireland. She was named United Nations commissioner for human rights in 1997.
Mary Bourke Robinson
Mary Robinson was born in May 1944 in Ballina, County Mayo. Her father, Dr. Aubrey Bourke, was a general practitioner in that area for 50 years. Her mother, Tessa O'Donnell, came from County Donegal.
The only girl in a family of five, she attended Mt. Anville, an exclusive Catholic girls' boarding school in Dublin. Next she studied at Trinity College at a time when the Irish Catholic hierarchy disapproved of Catholics attending that then predominantly Protestant university. She was admitted to the bar in 1967 after having attended the King's Inn. Subsequently she went to Harvard where she earned a Masters in Law. In 1969 she became the youngest professor of law at Trinity College. She married Nicholas Robinson, a Dublin solicitor, and they had three children. Her marriage at first met familial disapproval because her husband was a Protestant.
In 1969 she was elected to Seanad Eireann, the senate or upper house of the Irish legislature, as the youngest ever member. She represented the Dublin University (Trinity College) constituency and was a member of the Irish Labour Party, a socialist democratic party which in the 1970s and 1980s would be a governing coalition partner with the larger Fine Gael Party, one of the two essentially conservative nationalist parties dominant in Ireland. She was continually reelected and served for 20 years—until she became president in 1990.
Both as a senator and as a barrister Robinson championed numerous causes that could most appropriately be categorized as civil libertarian and feminist. In 1974 she introduced an unsuccessful private member's bill to liberalize Irish legislation on contraceptives. In various courts, Irish and European, she appeared on behalf of such causes as the ending of discriminatory treatment of women in selecting of Irish jurors, the granting of the franchise to 18 year olds, the protection of archaeological excavations from building developers, the equitable treatment of children born outside of marriage, and the restriction of wire taps on journalists.
She campaigned for the losing side in two constitutional referenda. The first, a "right to life" amendment that added constitutional permanence to the existing Irish legislation against abortion, was approved by about a two to one margin by the electorate in 1983. The second, a 1985 proposed amendment that would change the existing constitutional prohibition of the dissolution of marriage and allow divorce in certain circumstances, was defeated by a comparable margin.
Robinson took an independent position on the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which many regard as the most significant development in Irish history in the second half of the 20th century. The accord, in which Britain and Ireland acknowledged that the status of Northern Ireland would not be changed without the consent of the majority of the province's population, was attacked by hardline Irish nationalists as the "copper-fastening" of the partition of the island. Northern Irish Unionists, on the other hand, saw the extending of a quasi-consultative role to the Irish government on the governance of Northern Ireland as the first step on the "slippery slope" towards their being abandoned into a united Ireland. Mary Robinson resigned from the Labour Party, which was part of the coalition government that had signed the treaty, to register her disapproval. She was convinced that any democratic reconciliation in Northern Ireland must have the consent of the Unionists, who had not been a party to the negotiations leading to the agreement. Furthermore, she believed it was incumbent on the Republic of Ireland to so amend articles two and three of its constitution, where a de jure claim for the whole island is made, so as to transform the wording from a claim into an aspiration.
Five years later she was selected as the presidential candidate of the same Labour Party. She also received the support of the more left-wing Workers Party and the environmentalist Green Party. She entered the campaign months before the voting, something very unusual in the election to the primarily honorific post, and was not given a serious chance at success by most knowledgeable observers.
The major opposition party, Fine Gael, had great difficulty in getting any of its major figures to agree to run in what was felt would be a certain victory by the governing Fianna Fail Party, whose candidates had won all previous contested presidential elections. Fine Gael finally settled on Austin Currie, a member of the Irish parliament whose earlier political career had been in Northern Ireland as a member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the moderate constitutional party of the Catholic minority.
Brian Lenihan, the former foreign minister, defense minister, and deputy leader of the Fianna Fail Party, was the candidate of the latter and was expected to be an easy victor, in no small part because of his own immense popularity and a general high level of sympathy as a consequence of his having undergone serious surgery a year before. However, in the closing stages of the campaign an embarrassing contradiction appeared between Lenihan's public denial that he had several years earlier tried to influence the then president to install a Fianna Fail ministry without benefit of a general election and his actual admission of the same on a tape made of a private interview he gave to a graduate student of political science. Many in the electorate were incensed more at the apparent lack of veracity than at the politically inappropriate but legal lobbying.
Lenihan still topped the polls on November 7, 1990, with 44 percent of the vote, with Robinson in second place with 38 percent, but the victor must have an absolute majority. Therefore, the second choices on ballots for the eliminated third place contestant, Currie, were distributed to the two front runners. The result gave Robinson a clear majority. She was expected to fully utilize the educational potential of the presidency to draw attention to numerous general concerns, particularly the socially and economically disadvantaged, the environment, and human rights in general. She stills holds this position in 1997.
Throughout her career as president, Robinson has had to deal with wars, internal government scandal and trying to overcome the stigmas applied to her for being a woman. To her credit she has tried to right some of the Irish historical wrongs. She took office asking for tolerance between the Catholics and the Protestants. She memoralized women who worked in laundries run by the Roman Catholic Priests (from 1766 to the 1960's) as pennance for their "immorality." She was present (Oct. 1996) when Gov. George Pataki signed a new law to make the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th Century a required lesson in New York public schools. And she was a key-note speaker at the 1996 International Women's Leadership Forum in Stockholm.
In 1997 Robinson was named the UN high commissioner for human rights, a move expected to invigorate the post created three years ago to promote civil liberties worldwide. Amnesty International, a critic of her predecessor Jose Ayala Lasso, welcomed the appointment and urged her to act quickly to confront human rights abuses in Congo, Sierra Leone, Colombia and elsewhere.
Further Reading on Mary Bourke Robinson
For an account of Mary Robinson's election victory see Glenn Frankel, "Socialist Feminist Wins Irish Presidency" in the (Washington Post, November 10, 1990). While there are no biographies of Robinson, excellent general histories of contemporary Ireland are J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1988: Politics and Society (1989) and Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922 to the Present (1985). Lively studies of prominent recent political leaders are Raymond Smith, Garret: The Enigma (1985) about Garret Fitz Gerald, and Joe Joyce and Peter Murtagh, The Boss: Charles J. Haughey in Government (1983). Updated information gathered from LA Times World in Brief, Ireland: "President Sworn In, Calls for Tolerance," Tuesday, December 4, 1990; Chicago Tribune, "Irish memorial," 05/12/96; "Schools Ordered to Study Irish Rights Commissioner," 06/13/97. Biographical information is also provided in The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia edited by David Crystal.