An Interview with Mary Robinson

A 21st Century Ireland

“I am of Ireland; come dance with me in Ireland.” With those words Mary Teresa Winifred Robinson ended her inaugural address, December 3, 1990, as seventh president and first woman president of Ireland. She promised in that speech that the Ireland she represented would be "open, tolerant, inclusive."

The Constitution of Ireland provides that the president "shall take precedence over all other persons in the state." Yet under the parliamentary system of government inherited from the British, President Robinson is outside and above politics. Her role is principally symbolic, but her imagination, vision, and commitment have given it substance. And moral leadership comes from her personality, her history, and her interests.

Having been to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, ringed with concrete pillars to prevent car bomb attacks, and with metal detectors and handbag searchers inside, I was impressed that a single unarmed Garda checked visitors to Arus an Uachtarain (the presidential residence). A herd of Charollais cattle grazed nearby. A profusion of flowers bordered neat lawns. A candle shone in the upper-floor window of the kitchen in which Robinson starts her work day at 7 A.M. by making breakfast for her family. Reminiscent of the Irish tradition of a candle in the window on Christmas Eve to light Joseph and Mary to the inn, it is her way of inviting the Irish emigrant home.

Gary MacEoin: What made you think you could break into the all-male club of the presidency?

Mary Robinson: When first urged to run for election, I wasn't very enthusiastic. I thought it was outside what I had been involved in, mostly legal matters. Then I reflected that things in Ireland were changing, and that someone who in a broad sense personifies what was happening could help to shape the perceptions of the Irish people. And because the office of president is above and outside politics, it would be possible to do something different. So we campaigned very hard, and the breakthrough was not just for me but for women. It was a great boost for the confidence of women.

GM: What role do you see for Ireland in the twenty-first century? In particular, what expanded role for Irish women?

MR: Membership in the European Community, now the European Union, has helped Ireland to take its place as a European country with all the member states, including Britain. It has therefore helped the maturing of a good bilateral relationship with Britain, lifting part of the burden of history. It has enabled Ireland to re-find its sense of participation—cultural, political, social—at the European level. I think that also opens up possibilities for Ireland as a European country to look outward—to look particularly, for example, at countries to which a lot of Irish people emigrated, to our links—our human links—with the United States, with Canada, with Australia, with New Zealand. And to look also, because of our history, at our links to the developing countries. All of this has, of course, a bearing on the entire population, but it is an opportunity with special potential for women. It is a time when Irish women can link—as they are linking—through networks. They can do this through having an outward-looking attitude to what's happening to women in other countries, and by being affected by a broader debate.

GM: How is Irish membership of the European Union affecting social policy on such issues as homosexuality, divorce, abortion?

MR: Thanks to the European Union, we have a much more open climate of discussion and debate, as you can see in the media. It means that we are a more questioning society, perhaps more honestly prepared to address serious issues and problems, more open to the idea that different viewpoints should be heard and respected. At the same time, I don't think we in Ireland have to follow slavishly what other countries have done. Ireland has its own strengths—in family life, in the local community, in the concept of meitheal, a very traditional form of cooperation in rural Ireland. Three or four or five neighbors get together, exchanging labor, farm equipment, and so on. There are strong solidarity overtones. That tradition is being translated today into community self-development.

GM: And how do you see the role of emigration in these changes?

MR: We have long had emigration. But the nature of emigration has changed. With ferries to Britain and the continent, as well as air travel, emigration isn't the cut­off it used to be. In addition, some of our young people are being educated to levels beyond our present capacity to provide the jobs they are qualified to do. So they go abroad. Many want to come back, especially when they have children they would want to be raised in the Irish society and in the Irish educational system. The problem is obviously a top priority of successive Irish governments. It is a matter of creating enough quality jobs while preserving and protecting our environment and the natural asset of an island free from a lot of industrial pollution. I join in the sense of urgency about creating inward-investment jobs, appropriate development, while also fostering local indigenous small industry that can create a lot of jobs, the kind of community self-development that increases the involvement of people. I also think we have to be broader in our idea of what is work and what is a job.

GM: A recent report on sectarianism said that the depth of misunderstanding and lack of contact between the Republic and Northern Ireland is very large. Why is there such great reluctance in the Republic to become involved in the problems of the North?

MR: I think that was more true ten years ago. I have been pleased with the opening of all kinds of links in recent years, especially in 1995, thanks to the peace process. Links are developing between local authorities, between chambers of commerce. Women are networking. There are exchanges of young people, involvement of schools and youth groups. All this is creating more understanding on both sides of the border, as well as between the communities in Northern Ireland. One indicator is the number of groups from Northern Ireland who come to visit me at Arus an Uachtarain.

GM: What are Ireland's most serious ecological problems?

MR: The first thing to recognize is how fortunate we are to be an island off the west coast of Europe, and therefore helped by the prevailing winds to escape the effects of acid rain and other problems. We were also lucky not to have had the same kind of industrial revolution and industry as some other countries. Our problem now is to create employment, but to do it in ways that value our environment. We must encourage energy conservation and sustainable development. Young people are the ones who are most environmentally conscious in Ireland, so that to some extent they are educating their parents. They are tackling issues of waste disposal and so on. The schools help, because they put a lot of stress on environmental awareness. We need more emphasis on linking jobs and economic progress with environmental issues, and not allowing environmentally damaging industries to be brought into the country simply to provide employment. It's not easy to balance. We are attracting high-tech computer software companies that provide jobs matching the improved educational qualities and skills we have. I think that is the way to go.

GM: What books have been most helpful to you as a leader?

MR: I'm a very wide reader. I read serious books and I read airplane, forgettable books. I never have fewer than four or five books beside my bed at night. I particularly enjoy reading about people who have gone through a personal growth. I was influenced at an early age by Gandhi, and I have read many biographies of him. I have been greatly influenced in the last twenty years by Mandela. It is amazing that he has managed to keep such a balance, that he came out of prison after such a long time as a rounded, holistic person who could reach difficult accommodations with generosity. People I admire have two qualities: a kind of simplicity, and generosity of spirit. It seems to me that the more impressive people are in what they have done, the simpler they tend to be in how they talk to you, or in what they say or write.

GM: What leaders do you most admire?

MR: I've touched on [Gandhi and Mandela]. Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, would be another, partly because of his ability to communicate very thoughtful comments on modern society. These are always worth hearing. He has also a great ability to touch people through his plays and to make them think and reflect.

GM: Ireland has just commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine. Can we talk a little about its continuing role in the Irish psyche?

MR: It is a period of our history that we need to know in great detail in order to understand its continuing impact on us as a people. Its causes were complex. We can't apportion blame simplistically but rather [must] understand that blame has to be shared in different areas and levels of society. It was the very poorest of the poor, the small tenants and cottiers, who really suffered. Others were less affected. But most of all I welcomed the commemoration because it was a moment to look into our past and realize the courage and resilience of those who survived.

One lesson it can teach us is that there are no inevitable victims, that, for example, those who today go through a similar trauma—whether it's in Rwanda or Somalia or even Bosnia—have a right to a future. When we look back 150 years and see that a million people were forced into exile and another million starved to death in this small island, we must remember that we're not just talking numbers or statistics. Every one of them was a human being with hopes and aspirations that were cut off. It is people who go through suffering that have an empathy for the suffering of others. Many people today in the developed countries are so far removed from poverty and suffering and starvation that they lack empathy for the sufferings of others. That's where this commemoration of the Great Famine helps the Irish people to link with and have a genuine sympathy for the suffering of the victims of contemporary famine and starvation and displacement.

GM: No doubt it is in that spirit you have visited Somalia and Rwanda and pleaded for starving Somalians at the United Nations. And I understand that you have decided to go back to Rwanda a second time.

MR: One of the hopes I had when I was elected was that the president of Ireland could reach out in humanitarian concern to represent that part of the commitment of the Irish people. As a people, I think, we do have undeniable generosity. Irish aid agencies are working in the most difficult areas. You understand that the presidency is an office without political power and not involved in policymaking. So this is a modest witness of a humanitarian sort. What it can do is present the head of state as a witness, and I have welcomed opportunities to do that.

As regards Rwanda, where I was in October 1994, I expressed my concern and my anguish at the United Nations, and I wrote to the heads of states of other countries urging the need to take seriously the commitment made in the Genocide Convention of 1948, because when a genocidal killing occurs, as happened in Rwanda, it is not just an internal domestic matter. The Genocide Convention shows that the world cares enough to make a commitment to investigate, to bring to trial, to break the impunity of those who carry out such acts. I focused on the need to harness resources: the forensic scientists, the scientific evidence, the skills in prosecution, the skills of under­ standing, the promotion of human rights. Most developed countries have a lot of resources in that area.

What concerns me is that the situation has been deteriorating and there has not been a harnessing of that kind of expertise nor a commitment to really honoring the human rights pledges made in the Genocide Convention. As I am not involved in policy, I have to speak rather indirectly on these issues. My way to do that is to go as a witness, to see and let others see through what I see, so that it all comes back into the policy field in a more direct way.

GM: Of all the things you are doing, which do you regard as your top priorities?

MR: I felt when I was elected that the most important task on this island was to extend the hand of friendship right across the board to the people of Northern Ireland, to have the beginnings of a real peace process. In consequence, although I have no role in intergovernmental talks or political discussions, that would be my very top priority. I have already been talking to you about the links, the little ways of encouraging and supporting that kind of thing, of being in touch. After that, my priority would be to reach out in that broader humanitarian way at every opportunity that arises. When I go later this morning to open a very small unemployment center at Donnycarney, it is to help the small, the marginalized, the vulnerable, by being interested in what they are doing. You know, by being present, by valuing for them their kind of activity. So, I suppose, there's plenty to do.

[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

Gary MacEoin is the author of numerous books, most recently The People's Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz and Why He Matters (Crossroad ).

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