Ireland’s first female president Mary Robinson was born 77 years ago today
Life & Style

Ireland’s first female president Mary Robinson was born 77 years ago today

MARY ROBINSON, Ireland’s first female president, was born on this day in 1944.

Looking at the woman she became, it would be easy to commit the cardinal historical sin of assuming it could not have been otherwise.

A promising young barrister from a respected and noble lineage – both her parents were doctors, and her father’s Anglo-Norman ancestry can be traced back to Charlemagne – she was bound to amount to something spectacular in politics.

But at the time when this energetic, female human rights lawyer first announced her candidacy for president in 1990, being a liberal challenger to a conservative office, establishment, and country, she was felt to be an unlikely winner.

Her main contender, Fianna Fáil’s Brian Lenihan, was the bookies favourite – which is unsurprising, as no Fianna Fáil candidate had ever lost a presidential election.

But several bumps in the political wheel of fortune notched Robinson’s candidacy into the spotlight.

First, Lenihan’s campaign was dealt a major blow after a recording emerged of him admitting to pressurising President Patrick Hillery not to dissolve the Dáil in 1982 – something he had repeatedly denied throughout his election campaign.

Then, as voting day loomed larger, the battle to be Ireland’s next head of state grew bloodier.

In the political fray that followed, one Cabinet minister, Pádraig Flynn, made a colossal misjudgement of the public mood.

By accusing Mary Robinson of "having a new-found interest in her family" during the campaign, Flynn implied that she was using them to curry political favour with the public.

This attack backfired by undermining support for Lenihan’s campaign, especially among female supporters who switched their vote to Robinson in a gesture of female solidarity.

No doubt Robinson’s previous career as a champion of human rights and equality helped to ingratiate her among women, members of the LGBT community, and other marginalised groups on whose behalf she had campaigned and waged legal battles for many years.

Robinson was one of the most popular presidents in modern Irish history, and by the time she left office to become the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, her popularity among the Irish public was at 93 per cent.

This popularity did not follow her into her new position as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, though, as she ruffled a few feathers on the international political stage.

When visiting Rwanda in her new capacity in 1998, she upset some pundits, including the Rwandan president Paul Kagame, when she criticised the government's handling of the post-genocide transition.

She later said in an interview with the Spectator: “I sounded at the press conference like a western person who was giving out to Rwanda, not like somebody who had been deeply supportive, sympathetic and engaged.”

While she may have thought her words too harsh at the time, a book published this year, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, by African foreign correspondent Michela Wrong, has vindicated some of her concerns about the human rights abuses of the Kagame government.

Robinson also received a sternly worded phone call from Kofi Anan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, after she criticised the institution in a talk at Oxford University in 1997.

While there was not much love lost between Robinson and the administration of George W. Bush, of whom she was a vocal opponent, she fell back into favour in Washington when the keys to the White House were handed over to President Barack Obama in 2009.

That year, Ms Robinson was awarded what must rank as the crowning achievement among her embarrassment of honorary titles and acknowledgements: the Medal of Freedom.

After presenting her with the award, President Obama said: "Mary Robinson learned early on what it takes to make sure all voices are heard.

“When she travelled abroad as President, she would place a light in her window that would draw people of Irish descent to pass by below.

“Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world."

Ms Robinson turns 77 today and is still involved in a number of charitable initiatives, including the Mary Robinson foundation for Climate Justice.