Mary Robinson became President 25 years ago

Mary Robinson became President 25 years ago

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Dec 3, 2015: 25 years since MARY ROBINSON was inaugurated as President of Ireland, writes Cathal Coyle

This month celebrates the 25th anniversary of Mary Robinson’s inauguration as the seventh President of Ireland, on 3rd December, 1990.

It was hugely symbolic for Irish society as she was the first female Irish President; another milestone was that she was the first person elected to the position that wasn’t nominated by the Fianna Fáil party. Mary Robinson had a background as a lawyer and a politician before being elected President.

Born Mary Bourke in 1944 in Ballina, County Mayo, she was educated at Trinity College and King’s Inns in Dublin, and at Harvard University in the United States. In 1969 at the age of 25, she became Ireland’s youngest Law professor when she was appointed the Reid Professor of Constitutional Law at Trinity College, Dublin.

She later lectured in European Community law from 1975 to 1990. In 1988 she established the Irish Centre for European Law (with her husband Nick) at Trinity College.

As a politician, she sat in the upper chamber of parliament – Seanad Éireann – for the Trinity College constituency from 1969 to 1989, initially as an independent – although she was a member of the Labour Party for several years during the late 70s and early 80s.

She quickly gained a reputation as a strong advocate for human rights, one such campaign sought to eliminate discrimination against women in Irish society. She was also elected to Dublin City Council in 1979, and served there until 1983. She was nominated by the Labour Party, and supported by the Green Party, the Workers’ Party and independent senators, to seek election to become Ireland’s first female president.

The three-way battle to succeed Patrick Hillery (who had served two terms as the President of Ireland since December 1976) was intriguing. Mary Robinson finished first in the election, with almost 39% of the first preference vote, ahead of Austin Currie (nominated by Fine Gael) and Brian Lenihan (nominated by Fianna Fáil). The final count raised her total to 52% and she was duly elected, in what was a watershed moment for Irish politics and society.

Quite famously, RTÉ broadcast her election victory speech live rather than the Angelus.

As President, Mary Robinson did much to communicate a more modern image of Ireland and greatly raised the profile of the office of President. Strongly committed to human rights, she used her influence to draw attention to global humanitarian issues. In 1992, she was the first head of state to visit Somalia after it suffered from civil war and famine; she was also the first to visit Rwanda after the genocide in that country in 1994. When she visited Queen Elizabeth in London in 1993, it was the first such meeting between the heads of state of the two countries.

She also reached out to the Irish diaspora and famously put a symbolic light in the kitchen window in Áras an Uachtaráin, (the candle in the window is an old Irish custom) to remember those Irish emigrants around the world. She resigned from the office of President on 12 September, 1997, a few months before her term expired, to take up the appointment of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She was succeeded as President of Ireland by another female President, Mary McAleese, who served two terms.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson was the first to visit China and she also helped to improve the monitoring of human rights in Kosovo. She held this post until 2002, after pressure from the United States led her to declare that she wasn’t able to continue her work. She had previously criticised the U.S. Government for its perceived violation of human rights in its war on terrorism.

After leaving her post at the United Nations, Mary Robinson founded the non-governmental organisation Realising Rights: The Ethical Globalisation Initiative. Its central concerns included equitable international trade, access to health care, migration, women’s leadership, and corporate responsibility.

She was also a founding member of the Council of Women World Leaders, served as honorary president of Oxfam International and was a member of the Club of Madrid (which promotes democracy).

Mary Robinson has received many honours from various organisations since she was elected the first female chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin in 1998.

Six years later, Amnesty International awarded her its ‘Ambassador of Conscience’ award for her Human Rights work.

Her other major honours to date include the prestigious U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honour bestowed by the United States – presented to her by President Barack Obama in July 2009. In recent times, the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, based in Dublin, is a centre for education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.