Robinson, Mary (1944—)

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Robinson, Mary (1944—)

Human-rights lawyer and feminist who helped to advance the legal rights of Irish women and who was elected the first woman president of Ireland. Name variations: Mary Bourke. Born Marie Terese Winifred Bourke on May 21, 1944, in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland; only daughter and third child of Aubrey de Vere Bourke and Tess O'Donnell Bourke (both doctors); attended Miss Ruddy's School, Ballina, 1948–54, Convent of the Sacred Heart, Mount Anville, Dublin, 1954–61, finishing school in Paris, 1961–62; Law School, Trinity College Dublin, B.L., 1968; Harvard Law School, LL.M., 1969; married Nicholas Robinson, on December 12, 1970; children: Tessa (b. 1972); William (b. 1974); Aubrey (b. 1981).


Member of the Royal Irish Academy; Hon. Bencher, King's Inns, Dublin, and Middle Temple, London; honorary Professor of Law, Manchester University; honorary fellow, Trinity College, Dublin; honorary member, New York Bar Association; honorary doctorates of law from National University of Ireland and universities of Brown, Cambridge, Montpellier, Liverpool, St. Andrews, Melbourne, Columbia, Poznan, Toronto, Fordham, Queen's Belfast, Rennes, Coventry (1990–97); European Media Prize (1991); Special Humanitarian CARE Award (1993); International Human Rights Award (1993).

Elected to the Irish Senate (1969) and remained there until 1989; was Reid Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law at Trinity College (1969–75); lecturer in European Community Law (1975–90); introduced in senate first bill to legalize sale of contraceptives (1971); joined Irish Labour Party (1976); stoodunsuccessfully for the Dail (1977, 1981); was a member of Dublin City Council (1979–83); introduced first bill to provide for divorce (1980); was a member of the New Ireland Forum (1983–84); was a member of Advisory Commission of Inter-Rights (1984–90); resigned from the Labour Party (1985); was a member of International Commission of Jurists (1987–90); founder and director of Irish Centre for European Law (1989); was a member of Euro Avocats (1989–90); announced candidacy for president of Ireland (April 1990); elected president (November 7, 1990); decided not to seek re-election (March 12, 1997); appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (June 1997).

At first glance, there is little in Mary Robinson's background to explain her career as a socialist, radical human-rights lawyer. Both her parents were doctors, and the strong legal tradition in her father's family had its connections with the British imperial civil service. Her uncle, Paget Bourke, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957. She was born Marie Terese Winifred Bourke on May 21, 1944, in Ballina, County Mayo, the only daughter in a family of five. According to Olivia O'Leary and Helen Burke , Robinson often had to contend against the wishes and ambitions of her mother Tess O'Donnell Bourke . "She was the earth mother, the centre of everything," said Robinson. "She was very, very warm, dominant. She had very strong views on things, which could lead to clashes." Robinson also felt that she could at times be quite "snobbish" which only reinforced her daughter's commitment to equality. Said one of her brothers: Mary "wasn't a clothes horse, wasn't interested in make-up, wasn't interested in the finer things some girls are interested in and which my mother wanted to lavish on her only daughter." However, there were other clues to Mary Robinson's subsequent career in her family background. One of her great-uncles had been involved in the secret revolutionary organization the Irish Republican Brotherhood of the 1860s and 1870s. But of more immediate influence was learning from her father Aubrey Bourke's medical practice the harsh effects of rural poverty and emigration in Ballina and the surrounding countryside. Mayo was one of the poorest parts of Ireland and was particularly affected by emigration. Robinson's interest in the law was spurred by her grandfather H.C. Bourke, a prominent lawyer in Ballina to whom she was close. He was, she recalled, "a great fighter in court…. He would always come up with further arguments."

The Bourkes were comfortably well-off. They lived in an imposing house in the center of the town and employed a nanny and servants. Mary attended a small private school run by Miss Claire Ruddy and then went to convent boarding school at Mount Anville in Dublin. She was so impressed by the nuns' commitment to the principles of social justice that she briefly considered becoming a nun. Her academic performance at Mount Anville was creditable, and her mother encouraged her to study law at university. First, however, Mary spent a formative year at finishing school in Paris in 1961–62. She saw films which would never have reached Ireland, she visited art galleries, and she read widely, "everything from Kafka to Camus…. I was a compulsive reader. Being in an intellectual environment was so nice, so different." In Paris, she learned how to question things, especially the role of the Catholic Church which in Ireland could be authoritarian and oppressive. She also became aware of gender differences in Paris. After her return to Ballina, she spent a year at home working for her entrance to Trinity College, Dublin, where she had decided to study law. The changes brought about by her year in France resulted in communication problems with her parents, but she nonetheless remained on good terms with them.

The Trinity Law School serviced Irish professional legal bodies and also the British Colonial Service (as members of her own family had done). Though the school was not known for its liberalism, the winds of change which were blowing through Irish society in the early 1960s were beginning to make themselves felt at Trinity. Robinson's intellectual commitment stood out from the majority of undergraduates who enjoyed a more social existence. One of her acquaintances, Nicholas Robinson, took a more light-hearted view of his legal studies and was also a talented cartoonist. In her second year, Mary won a prestigious scholarship which gave her a measure of financial independence. She attended college debating societies but was greatly irked by the fact that two of the most prominent societies, the Historical and the Philosophical, excluded women. She became auditor of the Law Society and editor of the student law review, Justice. The subject of her inaugural paper for the Law Society was a prescient one in terms of her career: "Law, Morality and the need to separate Church and State." She was advised by a number of people not to deliver it.

Robinson graduated with a first-class degree in law in 1967, then won a scholarship to Harvard Law School. Harvard was a formative

experience. "I had a law degree, but I hadn't really been encouraged to think," she said. "I benefited from a kind of Harvard arrogance. You have the right to question. The fact that you're young doesn't stop you from having thoughts and developing them." The people she met at Harvard "were much more prepared to accept responsibility, to seek and want involvement…. Everything was up for examination." She arrived in the middle of nationwide demonstrations on Vietnam and civil rights which led to debates within Harvard on the teaching of law and the lack of equal participation. Lecturers included such distinguished lawyers as Abram Chayes, Alan Dershowitz, Archibald Cox and Paul Freund. Bourke also attended economics lectures by John Kenneth Galbraith. She earned her first-class master's degree in 1968 and returned to Ireland, where she became a part-time law tutor at Trinity and an apprentice barrister on the Irish western circuit.

The more we are ready to branch out and fulfill ourselves in the life of the country, the more doors will open in the face of quiet ability.

—Mary Robinson

In summer 1969, Robinson decided to stand for the senate, the upper house of the Irish Parliament, as one of the candidates for the three Trinity College senate seats. The Trinity electorate was aging, male, conservative and Protestant; Robinson was young, female, liberal and Catholic. Although she confounded expectations by winning a seat, there were factors working in her favor: she was appointed to the five-year Reid Professorship in Law at Trinity which strengthened her academic credentials; the troubles in Northern Ireland had erupted and were prompting a reassessment of the nature of Irish society; and the Irish women's movement was just getting underway. One of her most active supporters was Nicholas Robinson, whom she married in December 1970. Though her parents did not attend the wedding, this was not, as has been reported, because he was Protestant; there was, in fact, a long tradition of mixed marriages within the Bourke family. Rather, her parents were unimpressed by his dilettante attitude toward the law and his interest in art and cartoons. Their daughter was also aware that "over-love and possessiveness was a large part of it." The rift was soon healed.

After her senate election, Robinson told an interviewer that the best way for a woman to overcome prejudice was "not to emphasize that you are a woman but to show that you can do a job efficiently and well." But women's issues soon dominated her political and legal career. She was particularly critical of the constitutional ban on divorce and the criminal laws against contraceptives. In 1971, she was one of the cosponsors of a senate bill to change the contraception laws. The first legislative attempt of its kind, the bill aroused a storm of controversy. Robinson and the other co-sponsors were denounced from the pulpits of Catholic churches throughout Ireland, and her parents walked out of their own local church in Ballina after one such castigation. The bill was refused a first reading, but when a second bill was introduced in November 1973 it passed the first stage and instigated the first ever parliamentary debate on the subject. By this time, however, the legal position had changed completely when the Supreme Court overturned the 1935 law banning the sale and import of contraceptives as a violation of marital privacy. Robinson acted for the appellant, Mary McGee .

The landmark McGee case proved to Robinson and other lawyers that the law could be used as a major instrument of reform. She was also aware, after Ireland joined the European Community in 1973, that recourse could be had at the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Robinson stressed this point to the Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM) when it sought her advice, although she herself had considerable reservations about the stridency and some of the publicity-seeking activities of the IWLM. She reinforced her belief in the law over the next 17 years, during which she acted in a series of landmark cases: the abolition of all-male, ratepaying juries in 1976; the 1979 Airey case on the right to free legal aid in civil cases (of which Robinson was particularly proud); the 1980 Murphy case on equal tax treatment for married couples; the McDonald case, also in 1980, ensuring proper provision of local authority accommodation for families of Travelers who were being evicted; and three key judgements in 1988—the Hyland case on equal provision of social welfare payments to married people, the Norris case on gay rights, and the Telecom Eireann case in which Robinson represented women workers demanding equal pay for equal work. In 1989, she was defense counsel in the SPUC v. Grogan case on the provision of abortion information. Despite these legal and legislative achievements, Robinson was never entirely comfortable in either the senate or the Law Library (where most barristers were based). Both institutions were male-dominated, with a "boys at the bar" culture that changed very slowly.

In 1976, Robinson joined the Labour Party, but this was also to prove an uncomfortable relationship. The party was largely based in the trade-union movement and among the rank and file there was a distrust of middle-class intellectuals like Robinson. There were also personality problems. Robinson's inherent shyness, which she struggled for years to overcome, often made her seem cold, distant and aloof. In the 1977 general election, she decided to stand for the lower house of the Irish Parliament, the Dail, and was selected as one of the four Labour candidates for the Dublin constituency of Rathmines West. However, the campaign was dogged by divisions within the Labour Party at the local and national level, and she lost by 400 votes. She stood again as a Labour candidate in the 1981 election, this time for the largely working-class constituency of Dublin West. She lost more comprehensively this time: Travelers were unpopular in the constituency and her involvement in the McDonald Travelers judgment the previous year worked against her. Some women voters also disapproved of the fact that she had just had a baby (her third child Aubrey), who accompanied her for part of the election campaign. However, Robinson continued to be re-elected to the senate. In 1984, she had high hopes that she would be nominated as attorney general to the coalition government in which Labour was a partner, but the job went to someone else, to her bitter disappointment. This increased her disenchantment with the party and its leader, Dick Spring. At the end of 1985, she resigned from the Labour Party because of her disagreement with the new Anglo-Irish agreement on Northern Ireland, which she felt had ignored the views of the Northern Ireland unionists.

Robinson had also made her views clear during the two referendum campaigns on abortion and divorce which convulsed the country between 1983 and 1986. She predicted that the insertion of a pro-life clause in the Irish constitution in 1983 would lead to pregnant women being pursued in the courts, a prediction borne out in the notorious "X" and "C" cases in the 1990s. In 1986, Robinson was unimpressed by the government's ill-prepared and apathetic handling of the referendum proposing an end to the ban on divorce, which was defeated. (The referendum would eventually be passed on November 25, 1995.) In 1989, after 20 years, Robinson decided not to seek re-election to the senate. Rather, she and her husband intended to build up the Irish Centre for European Law at Trinity. Then, in February 1990, they received a visit from a senior Labour party member, John Rogers, who had been appointed attorney general over Robinson in 1984.

Rogers wanted Robinson to consider standing as the Labour candidate in the Irish presidential election. The Irish president, who is the head of state, is elected every seven years by popular vote, but there had been no presidential election since 1974. The Labour leader, Dick Spring, was determined that in 1990 there would be no agreed candidate and that an election should be held. After discussion with other party members as to the kind of candidate they wanted, Robinson's name quickly emerged. She was extremely surprised by the proposal but, at her husband's urging, considered it seriously. In April, they met Spring and other Labour leaders, and she agreed to accept the Labour nomination but only if she could remain independent. She did not wish to rejoin the Labour Party and told Spring that she would be more valuable as a candidate if she maintained her autonomy. Spring reluctantly agreed; he later conceded that her instincts on this were correct. Robinson quickly gathered around her a trusted campaign team of whom the most important was Bride Rosney , her closest friend and confidante since the 1970s. Journalist Eoghan Harris, an unofficial member of her team because of his controversial, polemical reputation, played a key role in the early stages of the campaign. Harris emphasized the need for Robinson to build a broad platform of support outside her core Labour/liberal constituency and the need to tackle media preconceptions and criticisms of her head on. These points became the basis of the Robinson campaign strategy. With the help of her advisers, Robinson also changed her appearance, sporting an elegant new wardrobe and a new hairstyle.

The campaign was launched on May 1, 1990. Although she was the first woman ever to stand as a candidate for the Irish presidency, Robinson received comparatively little press coverage concerning her nomination and the initial stages of her campaign. However, she began campaigning months before any of the other candidates, who waited until autumn, and by then she had a head start. She did months of solid canvassing in the villages and towns of rural Ireland and paid particular attention to local press and radio. The aim was to reassure conservative rural voters that she was not a dangerous radical. Much more reluctantly, Robinson also agreed to expose her family to the public gaze in a feature for the celebrity magazine Hello, the first time this had been done in an Irish election although it has since become standard practice. Many political observers believed that Robinson's shyness and reserve would make canvassing particularly difficult for her. This was true in the early stages of her campaign but the warmth of the welcome she received eased her stiffness considerably. It was also true that once she sensed she could win, she was determined to change her personal style if this ensured victory. Tensions developed between her campaign team and the Labour Party election team but they were kept under control. Once the other candidates entered the field that October, the campaign became more intense, and Robinson began to make mistakes, notably when she gave a floundering explanation about her support for gay rights and access to condoms. In the end these mistakes did not matter, particularly when her chief rival, the Fianna Fail candidate Brian Lenihan, was forced to resign from the government because of a political scandal. The week before the election, a member of Lenihan's campaign team made a pointed personal attack on Robinson and her family in a radio interview which provoked widespread criticism and a backlash. Robinson won the election on November 7 by 86,557 votes and won 25 out of a total of 41 constituencies, including every one of the Dublin constituencies. In her acceptance speech, she paid tribute to the women of Ireland who "instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system."

At her inauguration on December 3, 1990, guests from women's organizations, from social welfare organizations, and from Northern Ireland were particularly prominent, which set the tone for her presidency. Her first months did not go smoothly, however. The president's residence, Áras an Uachtaráin (generally known as the Áras), was an 18th-century house badly in need of refurbishment. The reorganization of the staff also created ill will. But these were minor irritations compared to Robinson's strained relations with the prime minister, Charles Haughey. Haughey's style was strongly presidential and apart from his annoyance at the defeat of his candidate, Brian Lenihan, he was aware that Robinson's election had changed the presidency irrevocably. For much of its history since 1938, the presidency had been the preserve of retired politicians, all men. The president's powers were limited but important, particularly (1) discretion in refusing a dissolution of the Dail; (2) the appointment of a council of state to advise the president; and (3) referral of a bill to the Supreme Court for a decision on its constitutionality. The president could not leave the country without the government's permission, but the government also had to keep the president "generally informed" about its policies. Robinson found that invitations to her for various events would be withdrawn or else would be forwarded to her from Haughey's department with the words "not appropriate for the president" written on them. She was refused permission to travel to England to give the prestigious Dimbleby Lectures on BBC television. In summer 1991, Haughey arrived at the Áras with legal opinions from a senior lawyer as to her powers and functions under the constitution but since constitutional law was Robinson's own bailiwick, she easily saw through this challenge. Haughey left office in January 1992, and Robinson's relations with her three subsequent prime ministers, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, and Bertie Aherne, were for the most part excellent.

Robinson fulfilled her election promise to welcome groups to the Áras from all walks of life, from every sector of the community, in both parts of Ireland. Most of her entertainment budget, which was increased by the government, went on tea and cakes for the thousands of visitors each year representing Travelers, the homeless, the physically and mentally handicapped, the unemployed, community groups, women's groups, gay and lesbian groups, among others. She also paid six visits to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. But she had a keen instinct for the importance of the formal and ceremonial side of her office and felt she had to bring a sense of the office to the people she visited and who visited her in order to show that she valued their work. "It was a President they wanted, not a community worker," she once observed.

Robinson was anxious to further Anglo-Irish relations and to help improve relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. She considered it an anomaly that while Irish government ministers met their British counterparts on an almost daily basis, there had been no formal meeting between the respective heads of state, the British monarch and the Irish president, since Irish independence in 1921. In the three years after her election Robinson had informal meetings with individual members of the British royal family. In May 1993, she became the first Irish president to meet a British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, at Buckingham Palace, and in 1996 she paid the first formal state visit to Britain as a guest of the queen. These moves were widely welcomed, but her attempts to establish better relations with Northern Ireland proved more difficult. Robinson's presidency coincided with the beginning of the long process to try to secure agreement between the two divided communities in Northern Ireland, nationalist and unionist, after over 20 years of bitter sectarian strife which had cost thousands of lives. Her sympathy for the unionists after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement had led to her departure from the Labour Party, but unionist friendliness towards her evaporated rapidly in June 1993 when Robinson accepted an invitation to west Belfast to meet community representatives. West Belfast was one of the core areas of IRA support and in meeting community representatives she was bound to meet members of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein. The British government was furious and asked the Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds, to stop her. Although the Irish foreign minister, Dick Spring, had reservations about Robinson's Belfast visit, Reynolds regarded it as a key step in his moves to bring the IRA and Sinn Fein toward a cease-fire. Robinson shook hands with the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, an action which provoked a vitriolic reaction from sections of the British and Irish press. Neither then nor subsequently did Robinson express any regret for her gesture. Adams stated later that her visit marked the first breach in the isolation of his community.

Robinson traveled more widely than any of her predecessors. When visiting Britain, America, Canada, South America, Australia and New Zealand, she was anxious to meet the people of the far-flung Irish diaspora. She had mentioned the diaspora in her inaugural speech in 1990 and "Cherishing the Diaspora" was the subject of her first presidential address to both houses of the Irish Parliament in February 1995. Although the address received a lukewarm response in Ireland, it was more enthusiastically received by emigrant communities abroad. One of the most potent images of Robinson's presidency was the light she kept burning in one of the windows of the Áras as a symbol of the diaspora. But she was also taking an increasing interest in other areas. In October 1992, despite concerns about her security, she visited Somalia which was devastated by famine and civil war. In 1994, she was the first head of state to go to Rwanda after the horrendous genocide there. In both countries, she was critical of the United Nations' response and said so in a number of speeches at the UN. The main lesson she had learned was that political crises could not be solved by short-term responses alone, and that aid agencies needed to be more aware of the political aspects of situations like Somalia and Rwanda. She was also the first head of state to visit the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Her active interest in the UN prompted speculation that she would like a UN post, and she was mentioned as a possible secretary-general. This raised the question of whether she would seek a second term as president. Her family believed she had achieved all she could in the post, and she herself considered that she could not remain a fresh voice for another seven years. On March 12, 1997, Robinson announced that she would not seek another term but expressed her interest in seeking the UN post of High Commissioner for Human Rights. With the support of the Irish government, she was appointed to that post. Her last engagement as president was on September 12, 1997. Later that day, she flew to Geneva to take up her new position. The morale of her new staff was at rock bottom and her office was facing immense challenges in countries like Rwanda and Algeria. But they were challenges Robinson was determined to meet.


Finlay, Fergus. Mary Robinson: A President with a Purpose. Dublin: O'Brien Press, 1990.

Horgan, John. Mary Robinson: An Independent Voice. Dublin: O'Brien Press, 1997.

Irish Times. Dublin, March 13, 1997.

O'Leary, Olivia, and Helen Burke. Mary Robinson: An Authorised Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.

O'Reilly, Emily. Candidate: The Truth behind the Presidential Campaign. Dublin: Attic Press, 1991.

O'Sullivan, Michael. Mary Robinson: The Life and Times of an Irish Liberal. Dublin: Blackwater Press, 1993.

Siggins, Lorna. Mary Robinson: The Woman Who Took Power in the Park. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1997.

related media:

"President—Mary Robinson 1990–1997," television documentary by Radio Telifis Eireann (RTE), broadcast on October 8, 1997.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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Robinson, Mary (1944—)

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