This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Former Irish president gives personal perspective on global issues

  • “I was quite emotionally shaken to see these long lines of patient parents and very often the children dying in their arms because they couldn’t get to a feeding station in time.”

    Mary Robinson, on her 1992 visit to Somalia
Published: March 30, 2012

Human rights and the dignity of all people dominated Mary Robinson’s Distinguished Speakers Series address March 29 in the Center for the Arts Mainstage. The former president of Ireland firmly delivered her message of global social justice with the lilting cadences of her Irish brogue. Robinson was the Student Choice Speaker of UB’s Graduate Student Association.

Robinson, president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she first became interested in human rights as the lone girl in a family of five siblings. Her birth order put her squarely between two groups of brothers. After earning her law degree at Trinity College in Dublin, Robinson spent a year at Harvard University where she earned a master’s in law and absorbed the heady idealism of America in the late 1960s. Returning to Ireland, Robinson gradually found her way into political life and national prominence. After becoming Trinity College’s youngest professor at 25, she was elected to the Irish Senate, filling one of Trinity College’s traditional three seats. Whereas “elderly, male professors” had filled these seats before, Robinson was challenged by friends and admirers to seek the seat as a female contender bent on change.

At the time, Ireland was “very much dominated by the majority Catholic religion, understandably,” Robinson said. “But it was also reflected in the laws of the land—no divorce, no access to family planning, etc.” Indeed, she felt that Ireland needed to be “a more open and pluralist country,” and so introduced legislation to legalize family planning. At that point, married women could not obtain the contraceptive pill without a doctor’s attesting to the patient’s difficulty in regulating menstruation. “There were a huge number of Irish women with cycling problems,” Robinson remarked wryly.

To be suddenly denounced in pulpits and in Catholic newspaper editorials—even to receive hate mail—deeply affected Robinson and her husband. But she would not be deterred and resolved “to stand up to bullies.”

Notwithstanding her national profile, Robinson was surprised when asked by the Irish Labour Party to seek the Irish presidency. The Irish bookmakers, she joked, gave her candidacy exceedingly low odds. Yet she prevailed, becoming Ireland’s first female president and went on to make humanitarianism a hallmark of her administration.

In leading the country and devising progressive policy, Robinson said she was inspired by traditional Irish resilience both historically and while visiting many of the nation’s smaller communities that lacked access to subsidies, grants or other economic resources. “What I noted going around the country was the spirit of community and voluntary involvement, and that the Gaelic word ‘meitheal’ was used a lot. Meitheal is a hard word to translate, but it basically means ‘linked to the other,’” she said.

Both during and following her presidency, Robinson moved continually to expand her worldview by traveling to Somalia, Rwanda and other troubled lands. In 1992, Irish aid workers in Somalia requested that their president come to Somalia to draw attention to warlords’ fighting and how it was preventing food getting to stations in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Realizing she would have to ensure Irish governmental support for a presidential visit there, Robinson devised a crafty solution. “We arranged that Irish television would come with the aid agencies to my official residence, knowing that at a certain point the Irish aid agencies would ask me, ‘President, would you come to Somalia?’ and I would say, “Yes, the Irish government will agree.’”

The Somali visit was harrowing, Robinson recalled. “I was quite emotionally shaken to see these long lines of patient parents and very often the children dying in their arms because they couldn’t get to a feeding station in time.” In 1994, she became the first head of state to visit Rwanda following the genocide there. These visits helped Robinson establish an especially meaningful post-presidential career wherein she could continue her humanitarian efforts and harness her visibility and world prominence. She described her role as chair of the U.N. Commission for Human Rights, a position she held from 1997 to 2002. She related how she came to revere the unyielding persistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the commission that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. Referring to Roosevelt’s prodding of her fellow commissioners, Robinson observed that the former First Lady “was quite bossy, which is quite appropriate if you’re chairing a group of lawyers.”

Today, Robinson said, she carries with her a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting her special admiration for two under-recognized articles that express shared values and demonstrate that “dignity comes before human rights.” This is precisely what the Arab Spring revealed to the world, she said, namely, that the desire for human rights is not exclusive to Western societies.

Robinson underscored the importance of environmentalism, in particular, the need to connect issues of finite resources with poverty. She is now president of the Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice, and her conversations with women in underdeveloped countries “boil down to variations on access to water and freedom from violence,” she said. “Globalization must work for all of the world’s countries.”

Noting her membership in the Group of Elders that includes former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Robinson described how these world leaders “come together and discuss issues and country problems and more global issues. We are also trying to encourage the idea of a global village.”

In closing, Robinson acknowledged social media’s power to do good. “From now on, we will have more and more communication though social media. All will not be positive, but there is a great potential for positive messaging. It seems to me we’ve never needed so much to bridge the divide [both in the U.S. and worldwide]. There needs to be a willingness to solve problems together and even more so to solve problems globally.”