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Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson is also the name of an English poet, see Mary Robinson (poet)

Mary Robinson (born 21 May 1944) was the first female President of Ireland, serving from 1990 to 1997, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997 to 2002. She first rose to prominence as an academic, barrister, campaigner and member of the Irish senate (1969-1989). She defeated Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan in the 1990 presidential election becoming, as a candidate of the Labour Party, the first elected non-Fianna Fáil president in the office's history. She is credited by many as having revitalised and liberalised a previously conservative political office. She resigned the presidency four months ahead of the end of her term of office to take up her post in the United Nations.

President of Ireland
Rank: 7th
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


Born Mary Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo in 1944, Robinson was the daughter of two medical doctors. The Hiberno-Norman Bourkes have been in Mayo since the thirteenth century. Like many who came to Ireland with the Norman invasion, it was said of the Bourkes that they ended up "more Irish than the Irish themselves". Her family had links with many diverse political strands in Ireland. One ancestor was a leading activist in the Mayo Land League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood; an uncle, Sir Paget John Bourke , was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after a career as a judge in the Colonial Service; while another relative was a catholic nun. Some branches of the family were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland while others were Roman Catholics. Robinson was therefore born into a family that was a historical mix of rebels against the Crown and servants of the queen.

Though catholic, Mary Bourke received the permission of the then catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, DD to study in Trinity College, Dublin; at the time catholics were forbidden by church rules from studying in Trinity, founded by Queen Elizabeth I and once a Protestant, Unionist bastion, unless they had the permission of their catholic bishop. In her twenties, she was appointed Reid Professor of Law in the college, considered to be a prestigious appointment made to accomplished lawyers. Subsequent holders of the title have included her successor as Irish president Mary McAleese, Irish Human Rights Commissioner and anti-abortion campaigner Professor William Binchy, and, the current holder of the position, abortion rights campaigner Ivana Bacik.)

In 1970 she married her husband Nicholas Robinson. Despite the fact that her family has close links to the Church of Ireland, her marriage as a catholic to a Church of Ireland student caused a rift with her parents, although the rift was eventually overcome in subsequent years.

Career in the senate

Robinson's early political career included election to Dublin City Council in 1979, where she served until 1983. However she first hit national headlines as one of Trinity College's three members of Seanad Éireann (the Irish senate) to which she was first elected, as an independent candidate, in 1969. From this body she campaigned on a wide range of liberal issues, including the right of women to sit on juries, the then requirement that all women upon marriage resign from the civil service and to the right to the legal availability of contraception. This latter campaign won her many enemies. Used condoms and other items were regularly sent in the post to the senator by conservative critics and a false rumour was spread that a chain of pharmacies that had the name 'Robinson' in the title was owned by her family (and so therefore that her promotion of contraception was an attempt to benefit members of her family). So unpopular was her campaign among fellow politicians that when she introduced the first bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception into the senate, no other member would agree to 'second' the initiative and so it could not be further discussed. As a senator she served on the following parliamentary committees:

  • Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation (1973- 89)
    • Chairman of its Social Affairs Sub-Committee (1977-87)
    • Chairman of its Legal Affairs Committee (1987-89)
  • Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown (1983-1985)

For many years Robinson also worked as legal advisor for the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform with future Trinity College senator David Norris. Coincidentally, just as Mary McAleese replaced Mary Robinson as Reid Professor of Law in Trinity, and would succeed her to the Irish presidency, so Robinson replaced McAleese in the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.

One of the Civic Offices (nicknamed the 'Bunkers') which Dublin Corporation controversially built on the site of what had been one of the world's best preserved viking sites. Robinson was one of the leaders of the unsuccessful campaign to save the site.
One of the Civic Offices (nicknamed the 'Bunkers') which Dublin Corporation controversially built on the site of what had been one of the world's best preserved viking sites. Robinson was one of the leaders of the unsuccessful campaign to save the site.

Robinson initially served in the Irish upper house as an independent senator, but in the mid 1970s she joined the Labour Party. Subsequently she attempted to be elected to Dáil Éireann (the lower house) but her efforts were unsuccessful, as were her efforts to be elected to Dublin Corporation. Robinson, along with hundreds of thousands of other 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 was ultimately bulldozed and concreted over, to build the controversial Civic Offices.

In 1982, the Labour Party entered into a coalition government with Fine Gael. When Peter Sutherland was appointed the Republic of Ireland's European Commissioner, Labour demanded the choice of the next attorney-general. Many expected Robinson to be the choice, but the party leader instead picked an unknown, new senior counsel called John Rogers. Shortly afterwards, Robinson 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 argued that the majority Unionist community in Northern Ireland deserved to be consulted as part of the deal.

Robinson remained in the Seanad for four more years, although at his point many of the issues she had campaigned for had been tackled. Contraception was legal though still restricted, women were on juries, and the marriage bar on women in the civil service was many years gone. To the surprise of many, she decided not to seek re-election to the senate in 1989. One year later, however, Labour 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. However as she read the briefing notes, she began to realise that the programme was aimed at her. After some consideration, she agreed to become the first Labour nominee for the presidency and the first woman candidate in what was only the second presidential election to be contested by three candidates since 1945.

Presidential candidacy

Few, even in the Labour Party, gave Robinson much chance of winning the presidency, not least because of an internal party row over her nomination. Senior partisans of the political left had championed the cause of an elderly former minister and hero to the left, Dr. Noel Browne. For his opponents on the left Browne was a brilliant but erratic maverick who had throughout his career fallen out with most of his colleagues, effectively once brought down a government, and been thrown out of a succession of political parties (even ones he had himself founded), from Clann na Poblachta to Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Socialist Labour Party. While Browne was regarded by many as unelectable, Robinson proved a success. Months before her rivals had even been chosen, she toured the country, creating a favourable impression with a thought out concept of how the office of president might be revitalised.

Robinson's campaign was boosted by a lack of organisation in the main opposition party: Fine Gael. Fine Gael, having gambled that former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald would run as its candidate (even though he had insisted for two years that he would not run for office) then approached another senior figure, Peter Barry, who had previously been willing to run but had run out of patience and was no longer interested. The party ultimately nominated Austin Currie, a respected new TD (MP) and former minister in Brian Faulkner's power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland from 1973-1974. Currie had little experience in Republic of Ireland politics and was widely seen as the party's last choice, nominated only when no-one else was available. Fianna Fáil chose Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Brian Lenihan. Lenihan was popular and widely seen as funny and intelligent. Like Robinson he had himself delivered liberal policy reform (abolished censorship in the 1960s, for example), and he was seen as a near certainty to win the presidency. The only question asked was whether Robinson would beat Currie and come second.

However Lenihan had an important politically fatal flaw in his credibility. Widely believed to be a man of great ability, Lenihan had played down his ability in favour of his lightweight, comic side, as "The Clown Prince of Politics" in the words of one journalist friend. He was often sent out to national television studios to tell a disbelieving electorate of 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 House1. During Lenihan's presidential campaign a crisis emerged when he confirmed to a post-graduate student, Jim Duffy, researching the presidency, that he had played a role in a controversial effort in 1982 by the then opposition Fianna Fáil to pressurise outgoing President Hillery into refusing a parliamentary dissolution to then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald; Hillery had furiously rejected the pressure. Lenihan had denied his role in the affair for eight years, including in May 1990, in an interview with Duffy. Then, mid-campaign, he changed his story, and then pressure from his party on Duffy not to reveal the information backfired, leading to the relevant 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 of the campaign, Lenihan 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.


Robinson was inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland on 3rd December 1990. She proved a remarkably popular 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 an office that had a low profile 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 John Bruton, Mary Harney, Nick Robinson (husband), President Robinson, Bertie Ahern, then Labour Leader Ruairi Quinn and three members of the collective vice-presidency, the ; Senator Liam Cosgrave, Chief Justice Liam Hamilton and Seamus Patterson
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, at one stage 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 previous fifty-two years, only one address to the Oireachtas (parliament) had taken place, by Eamon de Valera in 1966, 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.


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 Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th 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 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 's throne, signs her Declaration of Office, using 's quill.
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 from 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)

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 at the time, providing for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

In 2002 she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her outstanding work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.


  1. One 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. 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 material

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, 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 an interview with Mary Robinson.

Last updated: 08-16-2005 01:44:15