Mary Robinson became the first female President of Ireland in 1990, following one of the more notable elections of the office’s history. She served six years, resigning the post early, choosing not to seek a second term, instead taking a job as a humans rights commissioner with the UN.
Her term had no stand-out incidents of note, nothing that really can be considered crucial to the nation’s history (beyond the fact of her actual election I mean). I can think of no real “moment” I can comment on as I have with others.
There is something I can comment on in a more general manner, which is the figure of 93%.
Mary Robinson is, without doubt, the most popular President in Irish history. Of the eight men and women who have held the office, no one holds a torch to her in that regard. At one point in her six years in office, she had an approval rating from the Irish people of 93%.
No one, before or after has ever come close to matching that figure. Robinson was, and is, a truly beloved figure in Irish history. Here, I’ll briefly look at why.
She was a woman. She reached out and connected with the women of Ireland, so under-represented in the Irish political system, then and now.
She was a peacemaker, involved actively in the workings of the process in the north, meeting Gerry Adams along with unionist leaders when some deemed it politically unwise.
She reached out abroad, directly to the Irish Diaspora, the famous candle in the window of the Aras lighting the way home. She met with Queen Elizabeth in London, with Prince Charles in Dublin, events that seem so trivial with hindsight but were momentous in their symbolism at the time. She met with the Dalai Lama, ignoring the warnings of China.
She was/is a humanitarian. She was one of the first heads of state to visit Rwanda in the aftermath of its famine and civil war, her emotional reaction to it perfectly capturing the horror of the situation there.
She was a liberaliser. She signed into law bills for the provision of contraception, for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, for modern ages of consent.
She was a unifying figure. She met and worked with groups as varied and contrasting as the Christian Brothers and Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. Her electoral rival, Brian Lenihan, admitted she was a far better President then he ever could have been. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail both campaigned for her to receive the High Commissioner of human rights job with the United Nations. She worked well with different governments, courting little controversy, understanding the legal aspects of her role.
She kept going, taking on further posts following her term as President.
She become one of the great symbols of the modern Ireland. I was little more than two at the time, so perhaps the memory is little more than a repeat in a later year, but I can still vaguely see in the vision in my head, watching the opening words of her acceptance speech in our old living room: “Citizens of Ireland, Mna na hEireann agus fir na hEireann.”
What does this teach us about the Presidency? That it is an office with great potential. The holders have a chance to make a truly remarkable impact on the island of Ireland, as the head of state, the first among equals. It is an office not lightly taken up. Any future holder has much to live up to.
I can end with no better words then those of Vincent Browne, at one time a fierce critic of Robinson, who, upon viewing her reaction to the suffering in Africa could only pass her a piece of paper with three words written on it: “You were magnificent.”
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