Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson
Robinson in 2009
7th President of Ireland
In office
3 December 1990 – 12 September 1997
Preceded by Patrick Hillery
Succeeded by Mary McAleese
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
In office
12 September 1997 – 12 September 2002
Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Preceded by José Ayala Lasso
Succeeded by Sérgio Vieira de Mello
In office
5 November 1969 – 5 July 1989
Preceded by William Bedell Stanford
Succeeded by Carmencita Hederman
Constituency University of Dublin
Personal details
Born 21 May 1944 (1944-05-21) (age 67)
Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Political party Independent (1969–1977, 1981–present)[1]
Other political
Labour Party (1977–1981)
Spouse(s) Nicholas Robinson
Children 3
Alma mater Trinity College, Dublin
Harvard Law School
Profession Barrister

Mary Therese Winifred Robinson (née Bourke) (Irish: Máire Mhic Róibín;[2] born 21 May 1944) served as the seventh, and first female, President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997 to 2002. She first rose to prominence as an academic, barrister, campaigner and member of the Irish Senate (1969–1989). She defeated Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan and Fine Gael's Austin Currie in the 1990 presidential election becoming, as an Independent candidate nominated by the Labour Party, the Workers' Party and independent senators, the first elected president in the office's history not to have had the support of Fianna Fáil.[3]

She is widely regarded as a transformative figure in the presidency of Ireland, who revitalised and liberalised a previously conservative, low-profile political office. She resigned the presidency two months ahead of the end of her term of office to take up her post in the United Nations. Robinson has been Honorary President of Oxfam International since 2002 and of the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation EIUC since 2005, she is Chair of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and is also a founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. Robinson is also one of the European members of the Trilateral Commission.

She serves on many boards including as chair of the GAVI Alliance (until 2010).[4] Robinson’s newest project is Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative, which fosters equitable trade and decent work, promotes the right to health and more humane migration policies, works to strengthen women's leadership and encourage corporate responsibility. The organisation also supports capacity building and good governance in developing countries. She is Chancellor of the University of Dublin. Since 2004, she has also been Professor of Practice in International Affairs at Columbia University, where she teaches international human rights. Robinson also visits other colleges and universities where she lectures on human rights. Mary also sits on the Board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an organisation which supports good governance and great leadership in Africa, and is a member of the Foundation’s Ibrahim Prize Committee.

In 2004, she received Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award for her work in promoting human rights.



Born Mary Therese Winifred Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo, in 1944, she is the daughter of two medical doctors.[5] Her father was Dr. Aubrey Bourke of Ballina, County Mayo, while her mother was from Donegal, Dr. Tessa Bourke (née O'Donnell) of Carndonagh, Inishowen. The Hiberno-Norman Bourkes have been in Mayo since the thirteenth century. Her family had links with many diverse political strands in Ireland. One ancestor was a leading activist in the Irish National Land League of Mayo and the Irish Republican Brotherhood; an uncle, Sir Paget John Bourke, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after a career as a judge in the Colonial Service; while another relative was a Roman Catholic nun. Some branches of the family were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland while others were Roman Catholics. More distant relatives included William Liath de Burgh, Tiobóid mac Walter Ciotach Bourke, and Charles Bourke. Robinson was therefore born into a family that was a historical mix of rebels against and servants of the Crown.

Mary Bourke attended Mount Anville Secondary School in Dublin[citation needed] and studied law at Trinity College, Dublin and Harvard Law School.[6] In her twenties, she was appointed Reid Professor of Law in the college, considered to be a prestigious appointment made to accomplished lawyers.[7] Subsequent holders of the title have included her successor as Irish president Mary McAleese, Professor John F. Larkin Q.C., Irish Human Rights Commissioner and prominent pro-choice activist Senator Ivana Bacik.

In 1970 she married Nicholas Robinson. Despite the fact that her family had close links to the Church of Ireland, her marriage to a Protestant student caused a rift with her parents, who did not attend her wedding, although the rift was eventually overcome in subsequent months.[8] Together they have three children. Her son Aubrey, a photographer and film-maker who is "committed to social justice", received media attention when he participated in a protest by the Occupy movement in 2011.[9]

Career in Seanad Éireann

Robinson's early political career included election to Dublin City Council in 1979, where she served until 1983. However she first hit national headlines as one of University of Dublin's three members of Seanad Éireann to which she was first elected, as an independent candidate, in 1969.[10] From this body she campaigned on a wide range of liberal issues, including the right of women to sit on juries, the then requirement that all women upon marriage resign from the civil service, and the right to the legal availability of contraception. This latter campaign won her many enemies. Condoms and other items were regularly sent in the post to the senator by conservative critics and a false rumour was spread that the chain of pharmacies Hayes, Conyngham Robinson was owned by her family (and so therefore that her promotion of contraception was an attempt to benefit members of her family). So unpopular was her campaign among fellow politicians that when she introduced the first bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception into the senate, no other member would agree to 'second' the initiative and so it could not be further discussed. As a senator she served on the following parliamentary committees:

  • Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation (1973–2011 **Chairman of its Social Affairs Sub-Committee (1977–87)
    • Chairman of its Legal Affairs Committee (1987–89)
  • Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown (1983–1985)
One of the Civic Offices (nicknamed the 'Bunkers').
Dublin Corporation controversially built them on what had been one of the world's best preserved Viking sites, at Wood Quay. Robinson gave legal support to the leaders of the unsuccessful campaign to save the site.

For many years Robinson also worked as legal advisor for the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform with future Trinity College senator David Norris. Coincidentally, just as Mary McAleese replaced Mary Robinson as Reid Professor of Law in Trinity, and would succeed her to the Irish presidency, so Robinson replaced McAleese in the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.

Robinson initially served in the Irish upper house as an independent senator, but in the mid 1970s she joined the Labour Party. Subsequently she attempted to be elected to Dáil Éireann (the lower house) but her efforts were unsuccessful, as were her efforts to be elected to Dublin Corporation.[11] Robinson, along with hundreds of thousands of other Irish people, clashed with Dublin Corporation when it planned to built its new administrative headquarters on Wood Quay, one of Europe's best preserved Viking sites. Though Robinson and people who in the past might not have espoused her causes, fought a determined battle, Wood Quay was ultimately bulldozed and concreted over, to build the controversial Civic Offices.

In 1982, the Labour Party entered into a coalition government with Fine Gael. When Peter Sutherland was appointed the Republic of Ireland's European Commissioner, Labour demanded the choice of the next Attorney General. Many expected Robinson to be the choice, but the party leader instead picked an unknown, new senior counsel called John Rogers. Shortly afterwards, Robinson resigned from the party in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement that the coalition under Garret FitzGerald had signed with the British Government of Margaret Thatcher. Robinson argued that unionist politicians in Northern Ireland should have been consulted as part of the deal, despite their reluctance to share power.

Robinson remained in the Seanad for four more years, although at this point many of the issues she had campaigned for had been tackled. Contraception had been legalised although heavily restricted, women were on juries, and the marriage bar on women in the civil service had been revoked. To the surprise of many, she decided not to seek re-election to the senate in 1989. One year later, however, Labour approached her about the Irish presidency, for which an election was to be held. She thought she was being asked her legal advice about the type of policy programme party leader Dick Spring was proposing. However, as she read the briefing notes, she began to realise that the programme was aimed at her. After some consideration, she agreed to become the first Labour nominee for the presidency and the first woman candidate in what was only the second presidential election to be contested by three candidates since 1945.

Presidential candidacy

Beating Noel Browne for the nomination

Trinity College Dublin
Robinson served as Reid Professor of Law in the University, as well as being one of its three elected senators in Seanad Éireann for twenty years.

Few, even in the Labour Party, gave Robinson much chance of winning the presidency, not least because of an internal party row over her nomination. With the Labour Party the first name for a possible candidate was an elderly former minister for Health, and hero to the left, Noel Browne. Browne was a household name for having done more than anybody else in Ireland for tackling Tuberculosis in the 1950s. However Browne's relationship with the Labour Party had been stormy. He was critical of its ties with Fine Gael and had co-founded the short lived Socialist Labour Party in 1977 after leaving the Labour Party. Although he was supported by left wing members within Labour such as Michael D. Higgins, he had little or no contact with Dick Spring and therefore had to live in hope of being nominated without the endorsement of the party leadership. The possibility that Browne might be nominated raised the possibility of an internal argument within the party. The fact that Browne was enthusiastic for candidacy, in a contest where Labour never before contested, now acted as pressure for Labour to find a candidate. Spring did not feel that he could control Browne for the duration of the election, given Browne's history of defying party policy to such a degree that Browne had to leave several political parties. In these circumstances the decision to propose Robinson proved to be politically inspired. Robinson had an advantage in being the first candidate nominated for the election (and the first female), in that she could cover more meetings, public addresses and interviews. However she refused to be drawn on specifics in case she would alienate possible support. Robinson also received the backing of the Irish Times newspaper, and this proved hugely advantageous.

Candidates from other parties

Robinson's campaign was boosted by a lack of organisation in the main opposition party: Fine Gael. Fine Gael, having gambled that former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald would run as its candidate (even though he had insisted for two years that he would not run for office) then approached another senior figure, Peter Barry, who had previously been willing to run but had run out of patience and was no longer interested. The party ultimately nominated the former civil rights campaigner Austin Currie, a respected new TD and former minister in Brian Faulkner's power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland from 1973–74. Currie had little experience in the politics of the Republic and was widely seen as the party's last choice, nominated only when no-one else was available. Fianna Fáil chose Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Brian Lenihan. Lenihan was popular and widely seen as humorous and intelligent. Like Robinson he had himself delivered liberal policy reform (abolished censorship in the 1960s, for example), and he was seen as a near certainty to win the presidency. The only question asked was whether Robinson would beat Currie and come second.

However, as the campaign proceeded, it became apparent that Lenihan's victory was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that Robinson was a serious contender. Crucial to her appeal was the deep unpopularity of the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey and the rising popularity of the Labour Party leader Dick Spring. Notwithstanding, Fianna Fáil knew they could count on Lenihan to mount a barnstorming campaign in the last few weeks.

Election campaign

The head start that Robinson attained in the nomination process, and the fact that the Fine Gael candidate was from Northern Ireland, resulted in Robinson attaining second place in the polls. Given that Fine Gael normally received 25% of the election result, and were reduced to third place this was an achievement in itself. She also obtained the backing of the Workers' Party of Ireland which was strong in Dublin and was considered crucial to getting working class votes. Robinson had proved superior media skills to both alternative candidates, and only now had to compete with the Fianna Fáil party election machine.

At this point a transfer pact was decided upon between Fine Gael and Labour, as both parties were normally preferred partners for each other in general elections. However the Fine Gael candidate felt shortchanged by this deal as the media was more interested in the Robinson campaign, and privately he did not like Robinson. Currie later remarked that Lenihan was his personal friend, and that he felt personally sick at being asked to endorse somebody he did not like, for the sake of beating Lenihan. The possibility of transfers increased Robinson's chances if only Lenihan could be further weakened.

It emerged during the campaign that what Lenihan had told friends and insiders in private flatly contradicted his public statements on a controversial effort in 1982 by the then opposition Fianna Fáil to pressure President Hillery into refusing a parliamentary dissolution to then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald; Hillery had resolutely rejected the pressure.

Lenihan denied he had pressured the President but then a tape was produced of an 'on the record' interview he had given to a postgraduate student the previous May in which he frankly discussed attempting to apply pressure. Lenihan claimed that "on mature recollection" he hadn't pressured the President and had been confused in his interview with the student. But the government threatened to fall over the issue.

Within days, the "unbeatable candidate" was dismissed as Tánaiste and Minister for Defence. Lenihan's integrity for the highest office in the land was seriously questioned. Lenihan's role in the event in 1982, seemed to imply that he could be instructed by Haughey in his duties, and that in effect electing Lenihan was in effect empowering the controversial Haughey. In a pointless effort to weaken Robinson a government minister and Haughey ally, Pádraig Flynn launched a controversial personal attack on Mary Robinson "as a wife and mother" and "having a new-found interest in her family".[12] Flynn, even more controversially, also joked privately that Robinson would "turn the Áras into the Red Cow Inn". Flynn's tirade was itself attacked in response as "disgraceful" on live radio by Michael McDowell, a senior member of the Progressive Democrats, then in coalition with Fianna Fáil and up to that point supporting Lenihan's campaign.[13] When Robinson met McDowell later in a restaurant, she quipped, "with enemies like McDowell, who needs friends?" Flynn's attack was a fatal blow to Lenihan's campaign, causing many female supporters of Lenihan to vote for Robinson in a gesture of support.

Lenihan's supported evaporated, and Haughey concluded that the election was as good as lost. Haughey distanced himself from Lenihan, as he did not want any share in the blame. This had unintended consequences, as disquiet with the Fianna Fáil organisation concerning Haughey's leadership increased dramatically. An episode of an RTÉ current affairs television program featured Fianna Fáil members in Roscommon openly attacking Haughey's leadership and character. Many canvassers now restarted the campaign to get Lenihan elected. However, Lenihan's personal confidence was shattered and although he recovered somewhat in the polls towards the end of the campaign, it was insufficient. Lenihan won the first count with 44% of the first-preference votes — Robinson attaining 39%.[14] However, transfers from Austin Currie proved critical and the majority of these went as expected against Fianna Fáil. Lenihan became the first Fianna Fáil presidential candidate in the history of the office to lose a presidential election. Robinson now became President, the first woman to hold the office, and the first candidate to be second on first preference votes to win the presidency.

Robinson became the first Labour Party candidate, the first woman and the first non-Fianna Fáil candidate in the history of contested presidential elections to win the presidency. Famously, RTÉ broadcast her victory speech live rather than the Angelus. Her first television interview as President Elect was on the RTÉ children's television show The Den with Ray D'Arcy, Zig and Zag (puppets) and Dustin the Turkey.[15]


Mary Robinson, flanked by defeated Fianna Fáil candidate Brian Lenihan (left) and Taoiseach Charles Haughey (right) on 9 November 1990.

Robinson was inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland on 3 December 1990. She proved a remarkably popular president, earning the praise of Lenihan himself, who before his death five years later, said that she was a better president than he ever could have been[citation needed]. She took an office that had a reputation as being little more than a retirement position for prominent politicians and breathed new life into the role. Robinson brought to the presidency legal knowledge, deep intellect and political experience. She reached out to the Irish 'diaspora' (the vast number of Irish emigrants and people of Irish descent). She also changed the face of Anglo-Irish relations, visiting Britain and became the first Irish president to meet Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. She welcomed visits by senior British royals, most notably the Prince of Wales to her official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin.

Her political profile changed also. Charles Haughey, Taoiseach when she was elected (and who had had to dismiss her rival, Brian Lenihan when the Progressive Democrats, the smaller party in government, threatened to leave the government unless he was sacked) had a diffident relationship with her[citation needed], at one stage preventing her from delivering the prestigious BBC Dimbleby Lecture. Haughey's successors, Albert Reynolds (Fianna Fáil: 1992–94), John Bruton (Fine Gael: 1994–97) and Bertie Ahern (Fianna Fáil:1997–2008) never hid their admiration of her work[citation needed], with Bruton's and Ahern's governments actively campaigning[citation needed] to get her the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights post when she sought it.

In the previous 52 years, only one address to the Oireachtas (parliament) had taken place, by Éamon de Valera in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Robinson delivered two such Addresses, though they were thought too long and intellectually obscure[by whom?] and not judged a success.[citation needed] She was also invited to chair a committee to review the workings of the United Nations, but declined[citation needed] when asked to by the Irish government, who feared that her involvement might make it difficult for it to oppose the proposals that would result. Controversially, on one trip to Belfast she met with the local MP, Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin.

Foreign Minister Dick Spring, who was leader of the Labour Party, advised her not to meet Adams, whose party was linked with the Provisional IRA. However the Government refused to formally advise her not to meet with him. She felt it would be wrong, in the absence of such formal advice, for her as head of state not to meet the local member of parliament during her visit, and was photographed publicly shaking his hand. During her various visits to Northern Ireland, she in fact regularly met politicians of all hues, including David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

To the surprise of her critics, who had seen her as embodying liberalism that the Catholic Church disapproved of, she had a close working relationship with the Church. She visited Irish nuns and priests abroad regularly, and became the first president to host an Áras reception for the Christian Brothers. When on a working trip to Rome, she requested, and was granted, an audience with Pope John Paul II. The outfit she wore was condemned by a controversial young priest, Fr. David O'Hanlon, in The Irish Times for supposedly breaking Vatican dress codes on her visit; the Vatican denied that she had — the Vatican dress codes had been changed early in John Paul's pontificate — an analysis echoed by Ireland's Roman Catholic Bishops who distanced themselves from Fr. O' Hanlon's comments.[16]


She invited groups not normally invited to presidential residences to visit her in Áras an Uachtaráin; from the Christian Brothers, a large religious order who ran schools throughout Ireland but had never had its leaders invited to the Áras, to G.L.E.N., the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. She visited Irish nuns and priests abroad, Irish famine relief charities, attended international sports events, met the Pope and, to the fury of the People's Republic of China, met the 14th Dalai Lama. She famously put a special symbolic light in her kitchen window in Áras an Uachtaráin which was visible to the public as it overlooked the principal public view of the building, as a sign of remembering Irish emigrants around the world. (Placing a light in a darkened window to guide the way of strangers was an old Irish folk custom.) Robinson's symbolic light became an acclaimed symbol of an Ireland thinking about its sons and daughters around the world. Famously, she visited Rwanda where she brought world attention to the suffering in that state in the aftermath of its civil war. After her visit, she spoke at a press conference, where she became visibly emotional. As a lawyer trained to be rational, she was furious at her emotion, but it moved everyone who saw it. One media critic who had slated her presidential ideas in 1990, journalist and Sunday Tribune editor Vincent Browne passed her a note at the end of the press conference saying simply "you were magnificent."[citation needed]

Browne's comments matched the attitudes of Irish people on Robinson's achievements as president between 1990 and 1997. By half way through her term of office her popularity rating reached an unheard of 93%.[17]

In one of her roles as president, the signing into laws of Bills passed by the Oireachtas she was called upon to sign two very significant Bills that she had fought for throughout her political career. A Bill to fully liberalise the law on the availability of contraceptives, and a law fully decriminalising homosexuality and unlike Britain and much of the world at the time, providing for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and LGBT people alike.

Resignation as President

Robinson resigned the presidency before her term of office was complete to take up a new role with the United Nations. Upon her resignation as president the role of president (acting head of state) was transferred to the Presidential Commission (which comprised the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad) from 12 September to 11 November 1997, when the new president Mary McAleese was sworn in.

High Commissioner for Human Rights

Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 12 September 1997, resigning the Presidency a few weeks early with the approval of Irish political parties in order to take up the post. Media reports suggested that she had been head-hunted for the post by Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan to assume an advocacy as opposed to administrative role, in other words to become a public campaigner outlining principles rather than the previous implementational and consensus-building model. The belief was that the post had ceased to be seen as the voice of general principles and had become largely bureaucratic. Robinson's role was to set the human rights agenda within the organisation and internationally, refocusing its appeal.

Robinson meeting families in Somalia, 2011.

In November 1997, still new to her post, Robinson delivered the Romanes Lecture in Oxford on the topic of "Realizing Human Rights"; she spoke of the "daunting challenge" ahead of her, and how she intended to set about her task. She concluded the lecture with words 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 quell it or cut it down with the toughest of blades."

Robinson was the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Tibet, making her trip in 1998. During her tenure she criticised the Irish system of permits for non-EU immigrants as similar to "bonded labour" and criticised the United States' use of capital punishment. Though she had initially announced her intention to serve a single four-year period, she extended the term by a year following an appeal from Annan, allowing her to preside over the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, as Secretary-General. Robinson's posting as High Commissioner ended in 2002, after sustained pressure from the United States led her to declare she was no longer able to continue her work.[18] Robinson had criticised the US for violating human rights in its war on terrorism and the World Conference against Racism was widely condemned in the US for its perceived anti-semitism. Michael Rubin even went so far as to suggest that she be tried for war crimes for presiding over "an intellectual pogrom against Jews and Israel."[19] United States Congressman Tom Lantos faulted her for neglecting "to provide the leadership to keep the conference on track" and accused her of shouldering "much of the responsibility for the debacle."[20] On 9 November 2006 in Yogyakarta, she attended the international Conference, then she became one of 29 signators of the Yogyakarta Principles, adopted for protection of LGBT rights by International Human Rights Law.

The Elders

On 18 July 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu convened a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. Nelson Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday.

Archbishop Tutu will serve as the Chair of The Elders. The founding members of this group also include Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing and Muhammad Yunus.

"This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken," Mandela commented. "Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair."

The Elders will be independently funded by a group of Founders, including Richard Branson, Peter Gabriel, Ray Chambers; Michael Chambers; Bridgeway Foundation; Pam Omidyar, Humanity United; Amy Robbins; Shashi Ruia, Dick Tarlow; and the United Nations Foundation.

She is a member of the Club of Madrid.[21]

University of Dublin

Robinson is the twenty fourth, and first female, Chancellor of University of Dublin (i.e. Trinity College). She represented the University in the Senate for over twenty years and held the Reid Chair in Law.

Post president period

In 1991, Mary Robinson was awarded honorary doctorates by Brown University and the University of Cambridge.

In 1997 she was one of the two winners of the North-South Prize.[22]

In 2002 she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her outstanding work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and in 2003 the prestigious Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold of the United Nations Association of Germany in Berlin.

In 2004, Mary Robinson was awarded an Honorary Degree by McGill University.[23]

In March 2005, Robinson gave a lecture entitled "Human Rights and Ethical Globalization" at the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series.

In May 2005 she was awarded the first "Outspoken" award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).

In October 2006 she was awarded the Social Science Principes de Asturias Prize. The jury commended her for "offering her non-conformist, brave and far-reaching voice to those who cannot speak for themselves or can barely be heard." In the same month she was the keynote speaker at The Future of International Criminal Justice Symposium hosted by the Penn State Dickinson School of Law, where she spoke on "The Rule of Law and International Human Rights in Challenging Times".

In 2007, she joined the Arab Democracy Foundation as a founding member of its Board of Trustees.

In January 2009, Robinson was appointed as head of the International Commission of Jurists.[24]

In September 2009, she was awarded the 2009 Inamori Ethics Prize by Case Western Reserve University where she gave a lecture entitled "New Challenges to Human Rights in the 21st Century" at Severance Hall in Cleveland, OH. In the same month, she was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Bath at the 1100th anniversary celebration of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, where she gave a lecture entitled "Realising rights: the role of religion in human rights in the future".[25]

On 29 September 2010, at a ceremony in Dublin, Mary Robinson received a knighthood from the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem. As a former Head of State and in recognition of her significant contribution towards human rights she was awarded the honour of Dame Grand Cross of Merit.

World Justice Project

Mary Robinson serves as an Honorary Co-Chair for the World Justice Project. The World Justice Project works to lead a global, multidisciplinary effort to strengthen the Rule of Law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity.


Robinson currently serves on the Eminent Advisory Board[26] of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA), which has been used as a platform to promote her messages on issues such as the Famine in the Horn of Africa.[27][28]

Presidential Medal of Freedom

Robinson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.

In July 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States.[29][30] In presenting the award to Robinson, U.S. President Barack Obama said "Mary Robinson learned early on what it takes to make sure all voices are heard. As a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland, Mary Robinson was the first woman elected President of Ireland, before being appointed U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. When she traveled abroad as President, she would place a light in her window that would draw people of Irish descent to pass by below. Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world."[31]

Amnesty International congratulated Mary Robinson on being named as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "Mary Robinson has long defended the rights of the underdog and has never shirked from speaking truth to power,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International. "As an outspoken, passionate and forceful advocate for human rights and human dignity in all regions of the world, Mary Robinson has helped countless individuals from Sierra Leone to Rwanda to the Balkans to Somalia and to the Middle East," she continued.[32] Nelson Mandela [33] and Graca Machel[33] also congratulated Robinson on her acceptance of the award.

The award was criticised by some American and European Jewish groups, while other groups offered support for the award. Parties opposed to the award included AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the European Jewish Congress, and John R. Bolton.[34] John R. Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, stated that those in the administration who recommended her either ignored her anti-Israel history, or missed it entirely.[35] On the other hand, a group of Israeli human rights organizations including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom, B'Tselem, Gisha, Hamoked, Physicians for Human Rights and Yesh Din, stated "as leaders of a sector within Israeli civil society that monitors and often criticizes government and military policy for violating human rights, we do not see such actions as plausible reason for denying Mrs. Robinson the award."[34] In response to the protests by some Jewish groups and commentators, Robinson said she was “surprised and dismayed” and that "this is old, recycled, untrue stuff,” “I have been very critical of the Palestinian side. My conduct continues to be on the side of tackling anti-Semitism and discrimination,” Robinson said.[36] "There's a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community. They bully people who try to address the severe situation in Gaza and the West Bank. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gets the same criticism," Robinson also said.[37] In an open letter to Robinson, Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, rejected Robinson's claim at being misunderstood or bullied by those who criticize her role in Durban. He said that she failed to confront purveyors of anti-Israel rhetoric. "You may not have been the chief culprit of the Durban debacle, but you will always be its preeminent symbol", he added.[34] When asked about the opposition to the award by AIPAC and other Jewish groups, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs replied "Mary Robinson was the first female President of Ireland, and she is somebody whom we are honoring as a prominent crusader of women's rights in Ireland and throughout the world."[38]

United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi,[39] United States Senate Assistant Majoriy Leader Dick Durbin,[40] and some other legislators[41] welcomed the presenting of the award to Robinson."[42] Forty-five Republican Congressmen sent a letter to President Obama raised issue with the presentation citing "her failed, biased record as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights".[34]

In a letter to President Obama, Nancy Rubin, a former American ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission, welcomed the award and praised Robinson as a "dedicated crusader for human rights for all people".[43] Oxfam confederation also expressed its strong support for Robinson.[44][45] The Council of Women World Leaders,[46] the Champalimaud Foundation,[47] and the ImagineNations Group [48] welcomed the presentation of the Medal of Freedom to Robinson.

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission congratulated Robinson, saying she "helped advance recognition of the human rights of LGBT people in her capacity as President of Ireland and as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has been unwavering in her passionate call to end torture, persecution, and discrimination against LGBT people globally."[49]



Media coverage in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Examiner (now renamed the Irish Examiner), The Star, The Irish Mirror, The Irish Sun, Sunday Tribune, The Sunday Independent, The Sunday Times, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. Also briefing notes issued on various occasions (notably state, official or personal visits by Robinson abroad) supplied by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Buckingham Palace, Áras an Uachtaráin, the Holy See and the press offices of the United Nations (including[50] the text of her Romanes Lecture in November 1997). Some background came via an interview with Mrs. Robinson.

  1. ^ Robinson stood as an independent presidential candidate but received support from the Labour Party, the Workers' Party.
  2. ^ "Máire Mhic Róibín". Retrieved 29 December 2008. 
  3. ^ "Elections Ireland: Presidential Elections". Retrieved 29 December 2008. 
  4. ^ "Board members". GAVI Alliance website. GAVI Alliance. 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-13. 
  5. ^ "Mary Robinson". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 January 2009. 
  6. ^ "Chancellor's Biography". Trinity College, Dublin. Retrieved 10 August 2008. 
  7. ^ "Europe | Mary Robinson: Human rights champion". BBC News. 2002-03-18. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  8. ^ Mary Robinson: The Woman, the Politics and the Presidency by John Horgan (ISBN 978-0862785406), page 33
  9. ^ O'Connell, Edel (9 November 2011). "Child of Aras answers Ireland's call at Occupy Dame Street protest". Irish Independent. Retrieved 9 November 2011. 
  10. ^ "Professor Mary Robinson". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 21 June 2009. 
  11. ^ "Mary Robinson". Retrieved 21 June 2009. 
  12. ^ Shiel, Tom (22 December 2008). "Robinson has no hard feelings over Flynn jibe". The Irish Times. Retrieved 29 December 2008. 
  13. ^ McDowell, a former TD, had been a controversial figure in the government. Though with no seat in parliament, he was nevertheless projected as the party's "conscience", launching attacks on Fianna Fáil that caused considerable anger in Fianna Fáil. The PDs threatened to quit the government after the revelations about Lenihan. They gave Haughey an ultimatum: either hold an inquiry into the pressure placed on President Hillery, or dismiss Lenihan. Through professing loyalty to his "friend of thirty years" Haughey chose the latter option and dismissed Lenihan.
  14. ^ "1990 Presidential - Ireland First Preference Votes". Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ O'Hanlon also criticised Robinson for not making a state visit to the Vatican. That was revealed to be unjustified. She could only make a state visit if invited. No invitation had been issued. As the last state visit had been carried out by President Hillery in 1989, another state visit was not due for at least a decade.
  17. ^ "Chancellor's Distinguished Lecture Series". University of California, Riverside. 28 January 2005. Retrieved 17 January 2009. 
  18. ^ Burkeman, Oliver (31 July 2002). "America forced me out, says Robinson". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 October 2008. 
  19. ^ Rubin, Michael (20 May 2002). "Mary Robinson, War Criminal?". National Review. 
  20. ^ lantos, Tom (winter/spring 2002). "The Durban Debacle: An Insider's View of the UN World Conference Against Racism". Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. 
  21. ^ "Club of Madrid". Archived from the original on 26 May 2008. Retrieved 31 October 2008. 
  22. ^ "The North South Prize of Lisbon". North-South Centre. Council of Europe. Archived from the original on 15 February 2008. Retrieved 21 January 2008. 
  23. ^ "News: Honorary doctorates 2004 Spring Convocation". McGill University. 20 April 2004. Retrieved 11 November 2009. 
  24. ^ "Robinson to lead global jurists group". RTÉ News. 15 January 2009. Retrieved 17 January 2009. 
  25. ^ "Former Irish President becomes honorary graduate". University of Bath News. 17 September 2009. Retrieved 17 September 2009. 
  26. ^ "Eminent Advisory Board". 
  27. ^ "Famine in Somalia Ignites Parliamentary Action". 
  28. ^ "Mary Robinson shared her grave concern about spreading famine in Somalia". 
  29. ^ "President Obama Names Medal of Freedom Recipients". White House Office of the Press Secretary. 30 July 2009. 
  30. ^ "Pro-Israel groups attack US honour for Robinson". The Irish Times. 7 August 2009. Retrieved 12 August 2009. 
  31. ^ "''White House'': Remarks By The President At The Medal Of Freedom Ceremony". 2009-08-13. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  32. ^ "''Amnesty International'': Amnesty International congratulates Mary Robinson on Medal of Freedom". 2009-08-10. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  33. ^ a b Mandela and Graca Machel congratulate Mary Robinson on Medal of Freedom.pdf Realizing Rights: Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel congratulate Mary Robinson on Medal of Freedom[dead link]
  34. ^ a b c d "''Jerusalem Post'': Despite critics, White House honors Robinson". 2009-08-12. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  35. ^ Mary Robinson’s Medal of Freedom, WSJ, August 10, 2009
  36. ^ Landler, Mark (2009-08-06). "''New York Times'': Jewish Groups Say Obama’s Pick for Medal Has Anti-Israel Bias". Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  37. ^ "''Belfast Telegraph'': Former Irish president Mary Robinson 'bullied' by pro-Israel lobbyists". 2009-08-03. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  38. ^ "''White House'': Press Briefing By Press Secretary Robert Gibbs". 2009-08-05. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  39. ^ United States Speaker of the House: Pelosi Statement on Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients[dead link]
  41. ^ Congressman Michael E. McMahon: McMahon Congratulates Medal of Freedom Recipient Mary Robinson
  42. ^ "Congress of the United States". 11 August 2009. 
  43. ^ "Nancy Rubin — Open Letter to President Obama". Nancy Rubin. 12 August 2009. Retrieved 12 August 2009. 
  44. ^ "Israeli human rights groups back Robinson pick". JTA. 10 August 2009. Retrieved 12 August 2009. 
  45. ^ "Oxfam International congratulates Mary Robinson on US Presidential Medal of Freedom". Oxfam International. 11 August 2009. Retrieved 12 August 2009. 
  46. ^ "''Council of World Women Leaders'': 2009 US Presidential Medal of Freedom Awarded to H.E. President Mary Robinson". Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  47. ^ "''Champalimaud Foundation'': Mary Robinson Awarded 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom". Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  48. ^ Investing in Ireland. "''Business Week'': ImagineNations Group Congratulates Mary Robinson on Receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom". Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  49. ^ "''International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission'': USA: IGLHRC Congratulates Presidential Medal of Freedom Winners". 2009-08-13. Retrieved 2011-06-09. 
  50. ^ "DPI Press Kit". United Nations. 11 November 1997. Retrieved 31 October 2008. 

Further reading

  • Stephen Collins, Spring and the Labour Party (O'Brien Press, 1993) ISBN 0-86278-349-6
  • Eamon Delaney, An Accidental Diplomat: My Years in the Irish Foreign Service (1987–1995) (New Island Books, 2001) ISBN 1-902602-39-0
  • Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life (Gill and Macmillan, 1991) ISBN 0-7171-1600-X
  • Fergus Finlay, Mary Robinson: A President with a Purpose (O'Brien Press, 1991) ISBN 0-86278-257-0
  • Fergus Finlay. Snakes & Ladders (New Island Books, 1998) ISBN 1-874597-76-6
  • Jack Jones, In Your Opinion: Political and Social Trends in Ireland through the Eyes of the Electorate (Townhouse, 2001) ISBN 1-86059-149-3
  • Ray Kavanagh, The Rise and Fall of the Labour Party:1986-1999 (Blackwater Press 2001) ISBN 1-84131-528-1
  • Gabriel Kiely, Anne o'Donnell, Patricia Kennedy, Suzanne Quin (eds) Irish Social Policy in Context (University College Dublin Press, 1999) ISBN 1-900621-25-8
  • Brian Lenihan, For the Record (Blackwater Press, 1991) ISBN 0-86121-362-9
  • Mary McQuillan, Mary Robinson: A President in Progress (Gill and Macmillan, 1994) ISBN 0-7171-2251-4
  • Olivia O'Leary & Helen Burke, Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography (Lir/Hodder & Stoughton, 1998) ISBN 0-340-71738-6
  • Michael O'Sullivan, Mary Robinson: The Life and Times of an Irish Liberal (Blackwater Press, 1993) ISBN 0-86121-448-X
  • Lorna Siggins, The Woman Who Took Power in the Park: Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, 1990-1997 (Mainstream Publishing, 1997) ISBN 1-85158-805-1

External links

Preceded by
William Bedell Stanford
Independent Senator for University of Dublin
Succeeded by
as Labour Party Senator
Preceded by
as Independent Senator
Labour Party Senator for University of Dublin
Succeeded by
as Independent Senator
Preceded by
as Labour Party Senator
Independent Senator for University of Dublin
Succeeded by
Carmencita Hederman
Political offices
Preceded by
Patrick Hillery
President of Ireland
Succeeded by
Mary McAleese
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
José Ayala Lasso
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Succeeded by
Sérgio Vieira de Mello

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