Ireland’s first female president answers questions about her life and work.
Mary Robinson made history as Ireland’s first female president, in office from 1990 – 1997. She has since devoted her life to human rights on a global scale, serving as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 – 2002, and founding, among other projects, Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. She is also a co-founder and past chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, and a member of the Elders, an independent group of international leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela.
Robinson was born Mary Bourke in Ballina, Co. Mayo in 1944, the daughter of two physicians and the only girl among five children. She studied law at Trinity College, Dublin; King’s Inns, Dublin and Harvard Law School. Her legal career, throughout which she was a member of the Trinity Law Faculty, was marked by a vision for achieving social change. In addition, she was a member of the Irish Senate from 1969 – 89.
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, Robinson now lives with her husband, Nick, in Dublin and Mayo. Her revealing and insightful memoir Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice was released in early March.
What is your current state of mind?
I am very happy to be back in Ireland and working on what I believe to be the greatest threat to human rights: the negative impact of climate change on poor communities and poor countries.
What brought you to write Everybody Matters?
I wanted to share my own experience and very much to encourage others to believe that not only does everybody matter, but everybody can make a difference.
Where did your sense of the importance of equality come from?
From a very early age I had a strong sense of wanting things to be fairer and being conscious that my family was quite privileged in comparison to others. I joke that that being the only girl among four brothers was an early introduction to human rights and fighting for equality!
Globally, what should we be paying attention to right now?
That climate change affects the poorest countries. At the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, we are looking at opportunities for affordable renewable energy for the 1.3 billion people who have no access to electricity and the 2.6 billion who still cook on open fires using coal, wood or animal dung, the the vast majority of whom are women. It is estimated that about four million people die from toxic fumes from indoor cooking of this kind every year, so it’s also a huge health issue.
How did your time as president of Ireland prepare you for addressing human rights on a global scale?
When I was elected, I said that I wanted, on behalf of the people of Ireland, to give leadership on human rights, but I had very little idea how I could do that. But then, as it happened, I was the first head of state to go to Somalia in 1992, and I was able to draw attention to the food crisis there. I was also the first head of state to go to Rwanda in 1994, and I went back in 1995 and again a third time for a Pan-African women’s conference. All of this gave me a sense of the need to address human rights and [provide] a moral leadership as I had been [providing] as President of Ireland.
You often quote lines from poetry and literature to convey larger ideas. Is there a quote or passage you always come back to?
I often come back to a poem by Seamus Heaney called “From the Republic of Conscience.” It’s a wonderful poem to explain what having a strong sense of human rights is about. In the ‘Republic of Conscience’ you loose all sense of privilege, and when you return you are a dual citizen; you are an ambassador, and no ambassador will ever be relieved.
I said that poem to myself on my last day as High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a memorial in the Cathedral in Geneva to mark the first sad anniversary of 9/11. What I was saying was, “today you are High Commissioner for Human Rights, tomorrow you are just Citizen Mary Robinson, but you are still an Ambassador of Conscience.”
You’ve spent a lot of time here. What do you like about the U.S.?
I feel very at home in the United States because I was privileged to take a Master in Law at Harvard, in the class of 1968. I always look back on that year as having been very significant in my development.
I spent eight years working with the UN from New York. It is a wonderful, cosmopolitan city and it suits me very well because the shops stay open late and early, and I’m a bad shopper and don’t plan ahead.
Where did the idea of keeping symbolic a light on in the Áras for the diaspora come from?
The idea of that light came from my mother, who used to put a candle in the window at Christmas signifying that no one should be without shelter and that if somebody knocked on the door they would be welcome. That was the idea of the light, to link with all of those who had to emigrate from Ireland in difficult times and to tell them that we still cared. I still have that light and treasure it.
Your election was a huge step forward for Irish women. Is there more to be done?
Yes. We still have a relatively small percentage of women in our parliament, and in other walks of life we also need to make progress.
What historical figure do you most identify with?
There are a number. My great living hero is Nelson Mandela. I also very much look to Eleanor Roosevelt, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Those who trample on the human rights of others. At the moment that would be what is happening in Syria and those responsible for that.
Best advice ever received?
My friend Eavan Boland said to me when I was going forward as High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Mary, if you become popular in that job, you’re not really doing a good job!”
Best advice ever given?
I tell young people to believe in themselves, particularly young women, and to have confidence.
Where do you go to think?
I do my best thinking walking around our grounds in the west of Ireland, by the lake, and I love to be there.
What don’t people understand about the Irish?
Because we live on a small island, I don’t think people understand how politically conscious we are and how much we know about the rest of the world.
What don’t people understand about you?
That I have a good sense of humor and like to tease and be teased and laugh.
What is your hidden talent?
An ability to relate to people at a deeper level.
Your favorite quality in others?
A willingness to listen.
What is on your bedside table?
Usually a book of poetry and a very readable novel.
Your perfect day?
A day spent with my children and grandchildren.
Best line in a piece of music?
I like Edith Piaf, whom I heard in Paris. I suppose it is “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
Your proudest moment?
When I was elected President.
What drives you?
A passion to make a difference and make life a bit fairer for those who suffer from inequality and injustice.
Your greatest fear?
That we won’t take climate change seriously and that our grandchildren will look back and say “how could they have been so selfish and so uncaring?”
What trait do you most deplore in others?
Any racism, anti-Semitism, Islama-phobia, any hatred of the other.
I can tend to be very impatient for no good reason, especially in restaurants if I’m sitting there for too long before getting attention.
Do you have a motto?
I think the essential motto is ‘Everybody Matters.’
What’s next for you?
Continuing to work for climate justice for so long as I have health and energy.
What are you like?
I’m a mother, a grandmother, a family person, very rooted, and yet I am very concerned about what is happening in poor countries and to poor people far away.
I am very preoccupied.
June Parker Beck says
I was very moved by this wonderful interview. I found it not only inspiring but comforting to know that Mary Robinson sets such a wonder example in her leadership in making a difference in the lives of those in need and giving hope to people in every walk of life. She is a very special lady.