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Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson (born 21 May 1944) was the first female President of Ireland, serving from 1990 to 1997. She defeated Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan in the 1990 presidential election, becoming the first non-Fianna Fáil president in the office's history and the first Labour president. She resigned the presidency four months ahead of the end of her term of office to take up the post of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights[?].

President of Ireland
Term of Office:3 December 1990 - 12 September 1997
Number of Terms:1
Predecessor:Patrick Hillery
Successor:Mary McAleese
Husband:Nick Robinson[?]
Profession:Barrister, former Senator
Nominated by:Labour, Workers Party
Other candidates:Fianna Fáil: Brian Lenihan, TD
Fine Gael: Austin Currie, TD

Mary Bourke was born in Ballina, County Mayo in 1944, the daughter of two medical doctors. The Hiberno-Norman (of Irish-Normandy roots) Bourkes have been in Mayo since the thirteenth century. Like so many who came to Ireland with the Norman invasion, they ended up, as is often said in Ireland, "more Irish than the Irish themselves." Her family had links with every political strand in Ireland. One ancestor was a leading activist in the Mayo Land League[?] and the Irish Republican Brotherhood[?] while an uncle, Sir Paget John Bourke, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after a career as a judge in the Colonial Service, while yet another relative was a Catholic nun. Different branches of the Family were members of the anglican Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church. It was into this complicated historical mix of rebels against the Crown and servants of the Queen that Mary Therese Bourke was born.

Table of contents

Reid Professor of Law in Trinity College in her 20s

Though Roman Catholic, Mary Bourke received the permission of the then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid[?], DD to study in Trinity College, Dublin; Catholics were then forbidden by Church rules under threat of excommunication from studying in Trinity College Dublin, once a Protestant unionist bastion founded by Queen Elizabeth I, unless they had the permission of their Catholic bishop. This rule was abandoned in the 1970s, though at that stage it was widely ignored by Catholic students. In her twenties, she was appointed Reid Professor of Law[?] in the College, a prestigious appointment made to legal highflyers. (Subsequent holders of the title include her successor as President of Ireland - and as Reid Professor of Law - Mary McAleese and Irish Human Rights Commissioner and anti-abortion campaigner Professor William Binchy[?]. The current holder is abortion rights campaigner Ivana Bacik[?])

Elected to the Irish Senate

But it was one of Trinity College's three members of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate, that the young Mary Bourke first hit the national headlines. She campaigned on a wide range of causes, from women's right to sit on juries and the requirement that all women upon marriage resign from the civil service, to the right to contraception. That latter campaign won her many enemies, with used condoms (though where they could find them is puzzling, since they were illegal and thus supposedly unavailable!) and other items regularly sent in the post to the young senator by conservative critics. A rumour was even spread that a chain of pharmacies that had the name 'Robinson' in the title were owned by her family, her promotion of contraception being an attempt to increase profits. (Her family had no such association with that pharmacy, which has since been renamed, having been taken over by the British pharmacy chain, Boots.) When she introduced the first Bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception, nobody in the Seanad would even 'second' the Bill. (Every Bill needs a proposer and a seconder for it to be discussed.)

She also worked as legal advisor for the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform with future Trinity College Senator and possible future Irish presidential candidate David Norris.1 Ironically, just as Mary McAleese replaced Mary Robinson as Reid Professor of Law, and would replace her in the presidency of Ireland, so Robinson replaced McAleese in the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. In another irony, for a woman whose family had such Church of Ireland links, her marriage as a Catholic to a Church of Ireland student, Nicholas Robinson, caused a rift with her parents, though it ultimately was healed and her family became strong supporters of her.

The Civic Offices
One of the notorious Civic Offices (nicknamed the 'Bunkers') which Dublin Corporation built on the site of what had been the best preserved viking site in the world. Robinson was one of the leaders of the unsuccessful campaign to save the site.
Mary Robinson (as she now was) served in the upper house as an independent senator, but in the mid 1970s she joined the Irish Labour Party[?]. However her efforts to be elected to Dáil Éireann were unsuccessful, as were her efforts to be elected to Dublin Corporation[?]. She, with hundreds of thousands of Irish people clashed with Dublin Corporation when it planned to built its new administrative headquarters on Wood Quay[?], one of Europe's best preserved Viking sites. Though Robinson and people who in the past might never had supported her causes, fought a determined battle, Wood Quay[?] ultimately was bulldozed and concreted over, to build the controversial Civic Offices.

In 1982, the Irish Labour Party[?] entered into a coalition government with Fine Gael. When Attorney-General Peter Sutherland[?] was appointed Ireland's European Commission, Labour demanded the choice of the next Attorney-General. Many expected Robinson to be the choice, but party leader instead picked an unknown, new senior counsel called John Rogers. Robinson not too long afterwards resigned from the party in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement[?] that the coalition under Garret FitzGerald had signed with the British Government of Margaret Thatcher, Robinson arguing that the majority unionist community in Northern Ireland deserved to be consulted as part of the deal.

Robinson remained on in the Seanad for four more years. Many of the issues she had campaigned for had been tackled. Contraception was legal though still restricted, women were on juries, the marriage bar on women in the civil service many years gone. To the surprise of many, she decided not to seek re-election to Seanad Éireann in 1989. One year later, however, the Irish Labour Party[?] approached her about the Irish presidency, for which an election was due. She thought she was being asked her legal advice about the sort of policy programme party leader Dick Spring[?] was proposing. As she read the briefing notes, she began to realise that the programme was aimed at her. After a lot of thought, she agreed to become the first Labour nominee for the presidency, the first woman candidate and the first third person to run in what was normally a two candidate campaign since 1945.

Presidential candidate

Few, even in the Labour Party, gave her any chance of winning, not least because of an internal party row over over her nomination. Senior left wingers had championed the cause of an elderly former minister and hero to the left, Dr. Noel Browne[?], a brilliant but erratic maverick who had throughout his career fallen out with most of his colleagues who had worked with him, in effect once brought down a government, and spent his entire career, being thrown-up of political parties (even ones he founded), from Clann na Poblachta[?] to Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Socialist Labour Party.[?] When informed that he was not the candidate, in fury Browne slammed down the phone and spent the rest of his life (he died during Robinson's presidency) making snide remarks about her. If Browne tempermentally was an unelectable candidate, Robinson proved a spectacular success. Months before her rivals had even been chosen, she toured the country, creating a very favourable impression with a well thought out concept of how the office of president could be revived.

Opposition campaign chaos

Robinson's campaign was boosted by the chaos in the main opposition party, Fine Gael. That party, having gambled that former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald would run for it (even though he had said he would never, ever, ever, run for the post continually for two years), then approached another senior figure, Peter Barry[?] who had been willing to run but had given up waiting and was not interested anymore. It ultimately nominated Austin Currie[?], a respected new TD and former minister in Brian Faulkner[?]'s power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland in 1973-74. But Currie had little experience in the Republic of Ireland and was seen generally as the party's last choice when no-one else was available. Fianna Fáil chose Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Brian Lenihan. A popular, funny and intelligent man, who himself had delivered on liberal policy reform (he abolished censorship back in the 1960s, for example), he was seen as a dead certainty to win the presidency. The only question was whether Robinson would beat Currie and come second.

But Lenihan had one politically fatal flaw, his credibility. A man of great ability, he had played down that ability and played up his lightweight, comic side, as "The Clown Prince of Politics" in the words of one journalist friend, often sent out to the television studios to tell a disbelieving electorate how there was "no problem" (his catchphrase) on a range of issues such as continued attempts to overthrow then party leader Charles Haughey, even when Haughey supporters were seen physically assaulting opponents in and around Leinster House.2 The result was, though he was liked a lot, he wasn't taken seriously. During the campaign, he managed to talk himself into a crisis; having confirmed to a post-graduate student, Jim Duffy, researching the presidency, that he had played a role in a seriously questionable effort by the then opposition Fianna Fáil to pressurize outgoing President Hillery back in 1982 into refusing a parliamentary dissolution to then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald. Hillery had furously rejected the pressure. Lenihan had confirmed his role for eight years, including in May 1990 in an on the record interview with Duffy. Then, mid campaign, he changed his story, and when pressure from his party on Duffy not to reveal in the information backfired, leading to the interview's release, within days, the 'unbeatable candidate' was dismissed as Tánaiste and Minister for Defence. Though he recovered in the polls towards the end, he became the first Fianna Fáil presidential candidate in the history of the office to lose a presidential election. Robinson became the first Labour candidate, the first woman and the first non-Fianna Fáiler in the history of contested presidential elections to win the presidency.

President of Ireland

Robinson proved a remarkably good president, earning the praise of Lenihan himself , who before his death five years later, said that she was a better president than he ever could have been. She took on a office that had a low reputation but which, once the pressures placed on President Hillery back in 1982, became known, suddenly was taken very seriously again. (As was Hillery, who was seen as a national hero because of his evident integrity in standing up to former colleagues in 1982.) She brought to the presidency legal knowledge, deep intellect and political experience. Her clear vision enabled her to raise issues, yet in a manner which did not break the tight constraints of a very limited office. She took on the issue of what she called the 'diaspora', the vast number of Irish emigrants and people of Irish descent. She also literally changed the face of Anglo-Irish relations[?], visiting Britain and in one particular epoch-making moment, became the first Irish president to visit Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. She welcomed visits by senior British royals, most notably the Prince of Wales to her residence, Áras an Uachtaráin.

Mary Robinson resigns as President of Ireland, September 1997
from left to right: Pat Rabbitte (since Leader of the Labour Party), Former Taoiseach John Bruton, Tánaiste Mary Harney, Nick Robinson (husband), President Robinson, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, then Labour Leader Ruairi Quinn and three members of the collective vice-presidency, the Presidential Commission; Cathaoirleach Senator Liam Cosgrave, Chief Justice Liam Hamilton and Ceann Comhairle Seamus Patterson

Her political profile changed also. Charles J. Haughey, Taoiseach when she was elected (and who had had to dismiss her rival, Brian Lenihan[?] when the Progressive Democrats, the smaller party in government, threatened to leave the government unless he was sacked) had a diffident relationship with her, on one state preventing her from delivering the prestigious BBC Dimbleby Lecture[?]. Haughey's successors, Albert Reynolds (Fianna Fáil: 1992-94), John Bruton (Fine Gael: 1994-97) and Bertie Ahern (Fianna Fáil:1997- ) never hid their admiration of her work, with Bruton's and Ahern's governments actively campaigning to get her the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights[?] post when she sought it. In the previously fifty-two years, only one address to the Oireachtas (parliament) had taken place, by Eamon de Valera in 1969, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Robinson delivered two such Addresses, though they were thought too long and intellectually obscure and not judged a success. She was also invited to chair a committee to review the workings of the United Nations, but declined when asked to by the Irish government, who feared that her involvement might make it difficult for it to oppose the proposals that would result if their head of state had been chair of the review group. Controversially, on one trip to Northern Ireland she met with the local Belfast West MP, Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin. Foreign Minister Dick Spring, who was leader of the Labour Party, pleaded with her not to meet Adams, whose party had links with the Provisional IRA. However the Government refused to formally advise her not to meet with him. She felt it would be wrong, in the absence of such formal advice, for her as head of state not to meet the local member of parliament on a Northern visit. During her various Northern visits, she in fact regularly met people from all parties, including David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

93% popularity rating

She invited groups not normally invited to presidential residences to visit her in Áras an Uachtaráin; from the Christian Brothers[?], a large religious order who ran schools throughout Ireland but had never had its leaders invited to the Áras, to G.L.E.N., the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network[?]. She visited Irish nuns and priests abroad, Irish famine relief charities, attended international sports events, met the Pope (where she was condemned by a young right wing priest in The Irish Times for supposedly breaking Vatican dress codes on her visit; the Vatican insisted she hadn't, an analysis echoed by Ireland's Roman Catholic Bishops who disowned the controversial priest's comments) and, to the fury of the People's Republic of China, met the Dalai Lama. She famously put a special symbolic light in her kitchen window in Áras an Uachtaráin (which was visible to the public as it overlooked the principal public view of the building, as a sign of remembering Irish emigrants around the world. (Placing a light in a darkened window to guide the way of strangers was an old Irish folk custom[?].) Robinson's symbolic light became an acclaimed symbol of an Ireland thinking about its sons and daughters around the world. Famously, she visited Rwanda where she brought world attention to the suffering in that state in the aftermath of its civil war. After her visit, she spoke at a press conference, where she became visibly emotional. As a lawyer trained to be rational, she was furious at her emotion, but it moved everyone who saw it. One media critic who had her slated her presidential ideas in 1990, journalist and Sunday Tribune[?] editor Vincent Browne[?] passed her a note at the end of the press conference saying simply "you were magnificent."

Mary Robinson, on the former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland's throne, signs her Declaration of Office, using de Valera's quill
Browne's comments matched the attitudes of Irish people on Robinson's achievements as president between 1990 and 1997. By half way through her term of office her popularity rating reached an unheard of 93%! When in 1997 she resigned for the presidency three months early to take up the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights[?] she was perhaps the most popular Irish political leader ever, the most widely recognised president since de Valera, the most popular president of Ireland in the history of the office, so popular she was the first choice for re-election to the office if she had sought it even of the late Brian Lenihan[?]'s Fianna Fáil. In the final photocall of her presidency, former taoisigh [prime ministers] and senior government figures stood beside her, beaming with pride at what had been, by any standards, a remarkably successful presidency that had changed the face of the office, the office-holder and Ireland. (See photo above)

Ironically, in one of her roles as president, the signing into laws of Bills passed by the Oireachtas [parliament] she was called upon to sign two very significant Bills that she had fought for throughout her political career. A Bill to fully liberalise the law on the availability of contraceptives, and a law fully decriminalising homosexuality and unlike Britain and much of the world, providing for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

But perhaps the ultimate irony of all was who succeeded her as president. The woman, who had succeeded her as Reid Professor of Law in Trinity College Dublin, the woman she had succeeded as legal advisor to the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, was now the woman succeeding her as to become the eighth president of Ireland, Mary McAleese.


1Norris has been suggested as a possible presidential candidate for either Fine Gael or Labour in the 2004 presidential election.
2One elderly longtime Haughey critic and former minister dismissed by Haughey, Jim Gibbons, was physically assaulted in the main hall of Leinster House in February 1982 by a mob of Haughey supporters after one leadership heave against the leader. In the aftermath, new swivel doors were erected to prevent mobs pushing their way into the parliament building. Other critics were seen being punched and kicked in the courtyard outside the building. After his death over a decade later, Gibbons' son revealed that his father had never fully recovered from the physical assault on him. To sent out to try to convince the electorate and the media that there was 'no problem' in the Fianna Fáil party, Lenihan was in no way a party to the behaviour of some of Haughey's supporters, but kept his personal distaste private.

Additional reading

  • Stephen Collins, Spring and the Labour Party (O'Brien Press, 1993) ISBN 0862783496
  • Eamon Delaney, An Accidential Diplomat: My Years in the Irish Foreign Service (1987-1995) (New Island Books, 2001) ISBN 1902602390
  • T. Ryle Dwyer, Short Fellow: A Biography of Charles J. Haughey (Marino Books, 1999) ISBN 1860231004
  • Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life (Gill and Macmillan, 1991) ISBN 071711600X
  • Fergus Finlay, Mary Robinson: A President with a Purpose (O'Brien Press, 1991) ISBN 0862782570
  • Fergus Finlay. Snakes & Ladders (New Island Books, 1998) ISBN 1874597766
  • Jack Jones, In Your Opinion: Political and Social Trends in Ireland through the Eyes of the Electorate (Townhouse, 2001) ISBN 13579108642
  • Ray Kavanagh, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Party:1986-1999 (Blackwater Press 2001) ISBN 1841315281
  • Gabriel Kiely, Anne o'Donnell, Patricia Kennedy, Suzanne Quin (eds) Irish Social Policy in Context (University College Dublin Press, 1999) ISBN 1900621258)
  • Brian Lenihan, For the Record (Blackwater Press, 1991) ISBN 0861213629
  • Mary McQuillan, Mary Robinson: A President in Progress (Gill and Macmillan, 1994) ISBN 0717122514
  • Olivia O'Leary & Helen Burke, Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography (Lir/Hodder & Stoughton, 1998) ISBN 0340717386
  • Michael O'Sullivan, Mary Robinson: The Life and Times of an Irish Liberal (Blackwater Press, 1993) ISBN 086121448X
  • Lorna Siggins, The Woman Who Took Power in the Park: Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, 1990-1997 (Mainstream Publishing, 1997) ISBN 1851588051

Other source information

Media coverage in The Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Examiner (now renamed the Irish Examiner) the Star, The Irish Mirror, the Irish Sun, the Sunday Tribune, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday Times, the Times (of London), the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. Also briefing notes issued on various occasions (notably state, official or personal visits by Robinson abroad) supplied by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Buckingham Palace, Áras an Uachtaráin, the Holy See and the press offices of the United Nations. Some background came via a interview with Mary Robinson.

Preceded by:
Patrick Hillery
Presidents of Ireland
Succeeded by:
Mary McAleese

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