Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland

Mary Robinson: Early life in Mayo

The daughter of two medical doctors, Mary was born into a family that have roots in Mayo since the thirteenth century. Her Bourke ancestry features relatives from both sides of the Irish-anglo divide that shaped our country. One ancestor was an acitivist in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish National Land League, while more recently another was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Her family tree is therefore made up of people of different religions and these factors and more contributed to the understanding and willingness to work with people of different beliefs, particularly during her time transforming the role of the Irish President.

Mary Robinson in the Seanad

Mary began her political career, and indeed first hit national headlines, when she was elected to the Seanad in 1969 as an independent candidate. During her time here she campaigned for womens rights, homosexual rights and making contraception legally available. She remained in the Seanad for almost 20 years during which time she joined and later resigned from the Labour Party.

With the majority of her goals achieved during her time in the Seanad she did not run for re-election in 1989 and a year later the Labour party chose her ahead of Noel Browne to run in the Presidential election.

Presidential campaign

Robinson was an appealing candidate for the people of Ireland but her campaign was greatly aided by disorganisation within Fine Gael meaning their last choice, Austin Currie ran for election, and the dismissal of Brian Lenihan, her other main contender in the race, from Fianna Fail. Mary used her public speaking and people skills to good use and did not stoop to using personal attacks similar to those she received in the campaign. All of these factors swung the election in her favour and she made her first television interview as President Elect on the childrens TV show 'The Den'.

Mary Robinson as President of Ireland

On December 3rd 1990 Mary Robinson became the first woman, the first non-Fianna Fail candidate and the first Labour candidate to become President of Ireland. She was the seventh President of the country and is acknowledged as rejuvinating the role. She helped improve Anglo-Irish relations, campaigned for gay rights, met with religious orders, improved awareness of human right issues worldwide and met with both sides of the Northern Ireland divide.

Her commitment and efforts were often staggering but the gesture she is perhaps best remembered for was simple, though no less important. Mary placed a special light in her kitchen window at Aras an Uachtarain that could be seen by the public. It became a symbol for a country thinking about those who had emigrated, especially during the 80s and forged a connection between Ireland and its diaspora.

Mary Robinson as UN High Commissioner and beyond

Robinson resigned as President with the approval of Irish political parties shortly before her term was completed to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on September 12, 1997. She was picked specifically for the role as she was seen as someone who would take action and not just stick to the administrative side. She became the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Tibet, campaigned against capital punishment in the United States and spoke out against the war on terror, and also presided over the 2001 World Conference against Racism in South Africa.

In 2002 she left the role after increasing pressure from the United States, having already been granted a year extension on her term. Since then she has received several awards from human rights groups. In 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. She is also a member of a group of world leaders including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, known as the Elders who meet to contribute their knowledge on world issues.