11-07-1990

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson

MARY ROBINSON the first woman elected President of the Republic of Ireland, born; For many years Robinson worked as legal advisor for the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform with future Trinity College senator David Norris.

In one of her roles as president, the signing into laws of Bills passed by the Oireachtas she was called upon to sign two significant Bills that she had fought for throughout her political career: a Bill to fully liberalize the law on the availability of contraceptives and a law fully decriminalizing homosexuality. And unlike Britain and much of the world at the time, it provided for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.

Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on September 12, 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 headhunted 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 organization and internationally, refocusing its appeal.

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 criticized the Irish system of permits for non EU immigrants as similar to “bonded labor” and criticized 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, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, as Secretary-General. Robinson’s posting as High Commissioner ended in 2002. Mrs Robinson is the twenty fourth, and first female, Chancellor of University of Dublin “Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson, Jesus taught you more than you could know.”