Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland from 1990-1997, spoke in Chicago at the Union League Club on Monday, March 4th, 2013, and autographed copies of her autobiography “Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice.”
Robinson was the first woman elected President of Ireland, the first Labour Party candidate, and the first non Fianna Fail candidate to win in Ireland’s history. Long known for her championing of controversial causes, Robinson was awarded the United States’ highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama in July, 2009.
During her speech, Robinson said, “If you really feel strongly about something, you have to be prepared to pay the price.” She definitely paid the price. She received many death threats and much criticism for her stand against Ireland’s Catholic Church ban on access to birth control. Said Robinson, “I felt that areas of private morality should not be a part of law.” She added that, while it was not illegal to use a condom, it was against the law to buy or sell them in Ireland. When she proposed a law overturning that and allowing women access to contraception, no one would second it, and it was “the only bill to never get printed.” [I could relate to this unfairness, remembering a time when the Catholic city of Dubuque, Iowa, in 1963, had pharmacies that would not sell the pill and when one of my two doctors, OB/GYN doctors who delivered my son in 1968, would not prescribe the pill; he dodged the issue by letting his partner do the prescriptions for the pill.]
Robinson campaigned fearlessly to roll back the nation’s ban on divorce, to legalize family planning and to remove the legal ban on homosexuality that existed in the country at that time. As a young lawyer, she took on the case of a County Cork woman whose husband regularly beat her. When the woman complained to the local police, they turned a blind eye, but the abused woman approached Robinson to help her take the case to the Commission of Fundamental Rights in Strasbourg.
Robinson did and won. Nine years later, the law guaranteed that such abused women had legal recourse and, said Robinson, the win was instrumental in opening up all of Europe to such recourse for abused women. Said Robinson, “Because of the victory in the Strasbourg Court, every European country had to have some access to legal aid.”
Born May 21, 1944, the daughter of two doctors and the only girl amongst four brothers, Mary Therese Winifred Bourke of Ballina, County Mayo, first attended Mt. Anville Secondary School in Dublin and she commented, during her speech, that, even then, you could see the class distinctions, as the children from wealthy families went up the hill to their private school and passed the children going down the hill to the public school. Said Robinson, the two groups exchanged insults as they passed each other. In her career, Mary Robinson would attempt open up dialogue with all groups, not just the privileged. She said, “I wanted to take cases that would mater to poor people.”
After grammar school, Robinson attended the Protestant Trinity College in Dublin and then was a member of the Harvard Law Class of 1968. She described how she became energized by the times: “Martin Luther King had just been assassinated in Memphis. Then, Robert Kennedy was killed. Students were “criticizing an immoral war.” Robinson said this energy she experienced in the United States during that era infused her spirit, encouraging her to go forward, with her husband, Nick, at her side. The two met in school and married in 1970; Nick was Protestant. This difference in religion caused her staunchly Catholic parents to refuse to attend their wedding, although that rift was later healed.
Robinson said one of her greatest regrets was that her parents suffered as she was denounced from the pulpit of Balleena Cathedral for leading the charge on issues opposed by the Catholic Church. She fought for women to be allowed to serve on juries and also opposed the ban on women remaining in civil service positions after they married. One of her most famous and most controversial crusades was to make contraceptives legally available in Ireland so Irish women could have access to family planning.
When Robinson visited Belfast in Northern Ireland she shook hands with Gerry Adams, the Belfast local MP and President of Sinn Fein. However, her popularity through the years rose to an astounding 93% amongst Irish voters while in office, and today she is viewed as a transformative figure in Irish politics, taking the presidency of Ireland from a figurehead position to real activism.
Speaking frankly of the challenges she has faced (and overcome) Robinson said that, in her book, she has “tried to give the private moments beyond the public moments.” She has tried to describe the struggles, seemingly against all odds. Saying that she had “no difficulty in standing up to bullies” she also said that, especially in regard to access to contraception for family planning, “The law was an ass.” Robinson resigned in protest over Margaret Thatcher’s British Government pact with Gerald Fitzgerald, feeling that unionist politicians in Northern Ireland should have been consulted.
At age 25, fighting for rights of some of the most oppressed among us, (including a stand for gay rights) , Robinson was called “a curse upon the country” and further excoriated. She now regrets the fact that her husband (Nick, father of their three children) burned the threatening and insulting mail she received during her struggles for justice for others, including a regular barrage of condoms that were received while she was fighting for Ireland’s women’s access to family planning, a law that was changed 9 years after she began her campaign.
As one of 5 women senators amongst 60, signs were posted saying “The ladies may not wear pants” and Ms. Robinson added (Some of) to the front of the warning. [*I could relate to this story, and to all the challenges she faced on a much, much smaller scale. I remember the school board in 1969-70 trying to enforce an antiquated law against female schoolteachers wearing pants suits. I remember fighting 3 years to get our (Silvis, IL) Teachers’ Union recognized as the official bargaining agent for teachers in our district. I remember no lawyer being willing to touch a legal challenge against the entrenched Democratic bureaucracy in Rock Island, County, Illinois, in a voter fraud case in a small election for alderman more recently, in 2005.
A person of Irish descent myself (maiden name: Corcoran), I wondered if it was just in the genes for Irish women who see injustice to speak truth to power and try to right wrongs. It certainly rang true with me. The very words that Ms. Robinson used during her speech (“I wanted to take cases that would a difference”) were spoken to me by the attorneys (Nelson, Keys & Keys, Rock Island, IL) who did, eventually, agree to represent me in a small election challenge in Rock Island County, Illinois—the only law firm not afraid to take on the power structure.
I could also relate to the feeling of jubilant empowerment that my generation (which is Robinson’s) felt coming onto the political scene in America during the late sixties. It is true that the banding together of young people to protest the Vietnam War, which worked then, was a moment in history that made you feel that perhaps you could change the world. Today’s students, whom I taught in the last decade, do not necessarily feel that way, and the failure to have a cause to unify behind may be part of the reason that movements like the Occupy movement (which one of Ms. Robinson’s sons has been active in) do not seem to gain traction in the infertile soil of today’s wintry economic and political climate. (This is definitely not the sixties; I think we all recognize that fact.)
One symbolic act that Mary Robinson initiated to show her all-inclusive spirit was to have a special light crafted which went in the kitchen window of her official residence in Aras UN Uachlarian. The light, which was clearly visible from the road, was meant to shine forth to welcome all Irish peoples who scattered across the world (“Irish diaspora”), many of them because of the potato famine. She is currently involved with hunger, nutrition and climate justice and said, “We have to have more food security in Ireland.”
Near the end of her 7-year term, Kofi Annan of the United Nations approached Robinson to take over the difficult job of United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. It was said that, if you were popular while doing this job, you probably weren’t doing it right. The person filling the post was often viewed as a nuisance or as an unnecessary attack dog, and, in fact, in this post, which she accepted and filled 10 weeks prior to the end of her term as President of Ireland (a decision she regrets now), she traveled to such places as Chechnya to forge a resolution against the Russian Federation for human rights violations and to East Timor, and many places in Africa, such as the Congo. Said Robinson of her travels on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, “The important thing was to get their stories out and then take appropriate action. It was a great privilege and I did enjoy the work.” Her duties included such unpopular moves as criticizing the United States during the Bush/Cheney years for torture of prisoners in the U.S. war on terrorism.
Urging that all people “keep the civil dialogue, even if you disagree,” (which should be required reading for United States Congressmen) Robinson dodged a direct question from an audience member (with a distinct Irish accent) about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, saying it was “much more important to focus on the future” and pointing to the G8 summit meeting scheduled to be held in Northern Ireland in June. She said, “The Court of Strasbourg will be taking on issues of human abuse.”
Robinson is also a member of an elite group of world leaders called “The Elders formed in 2007 with members like Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela who, said Mandela, have this goal: “This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken. Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”
Robinson not only fought alongside G.L.E.N. (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) but fought (unsuccessfully) to prevent a large corporation from bulldozing one of the oldest and best-preserved Viking landing sites. A quotation associated with Robinson (from “The Golden Bough”):: “If fate has called you. The bough will come easily, and of its own accord. Otherwise, no matter how much strength you muster, you never will manage to cut it down with the toughest of blades.”