Mary Robinson

Mary Therese Winifred Robinson (Irish: Máire Bean Mhic Róibín;[2] née Bourke; born 21 May 1944) is an Irish Independent politician who served as the seventh President of Ireland from December 1990 to September 1997, becoming the first woman to hold this office. She also served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002 and a Senator for the University of Dublin from 1969 to 1989. She first rose to prominence as an academic, barrister and campaigner. She defeated Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan and Fine Gael's Austin Currie in the 1990 presidential election, becoming the first Independent candidate nominated by the Labour Party, the Workers' Party and Independent Senators. She was the first elected President in the office's history not to have had the support of Fianna Fáil.[3]

Mary Robinson
7th President of Ireland
In office
3 December 1990  12 September 1997
Preceded byPatrick Hillery
Succeeded byMary McAleese
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
In office
12 September 1997  12 September 2002
Secretary-GeneralKofi Annan
Preceded byJosé Ayala Lasso
Succeeded bySérgio Vieira de Mello
In office
5 November 1969  5 July 1989
ConstituencyUniversity of Dublin
Personal details
Mary Therese Winifred Bourke

(1944-05-21) 21 May 1944
Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland
Political partyIndependent
(Before 1977, 1981–present)
Other political
Labour Party (1977–1981)
  • Aubrey Bourke
  • Tessa Bourke
Alma mater

She is widely regarded as a transformative figure for Ireland, and for the Irish presidency, revitalising and liberalising 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. During her UN tenure she visited Tibet (1998), the first High Commissioner to do so; she criticised Ireland's immigrant policy; and criticised the use of capital punishment in the United States. She extended her intended single four-year term by a year to preside over the World Conference against Racism 2001 in Durban, South Africa; the conference proved controversial. Under continuing pressure from the United States, Robinson resigned her post in September 2002.

After leaving the United Nations in 2002, Robinson formed Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative,[4] which came to a planned end at the end of 2010. Its core activities were 1) fostering equitable trade and decent work, 2) promoting the right to health and more humane migration policies, and 3) working to strengthen women's leadership and encourage corporate social responsibility. The organisation also supported capacity building and good governance in developing countries. Robinson returned to live in Ireland at the end of 2010, and has set up The Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice,[5] which aims to be 'a centre for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those many victims of climate change who are usually forgotten - the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world.'

Robinson is Chairman of the Institute for Human Rights and Business[6] and served as Chancellor of the University of Dublin from 1998 until 2019. 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. Robinson 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. Robinson is also a B Team Leader, alongside Richard Branson, Jochen Zeitz and a group of leaders from business and civil society as part of The B Team.[7] Robinson is an Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender at the University of Pretoria.[8] Robinson served as Oxfam's honorary president from 2002 until she stepped down in 2012 and is honorary president 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 was a member of the European members of the Trilateral Commission.

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.[9] Her father was Dr. Aubrey Bourke, of Ballina, while her mother was Dr. Tessa Bourke (née O'Donnell), of Carndonagh, Inishowen, County Donegal. The Hiberno-Norman Bourkes have lived 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 Catholic nun. Some branches of the family were members of the Anglican Church of Ireland while others were 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 British Crown.

Mary Bourke attended Mount Anville Secondary School in Dublin[10] and studied law at Trinity College Dublin (where she was elected a scholar in 1965, the same year as David Norris) graduating in 1967 with first class honours,[11] King's Inns and Harvard Law School.[12] She was called to the Irish Bar in 1967 and while still in her twenties, she was called to the Inner Bar as Senior Counsel, and was appointed Reid Professor of Law in the college.[13] A subsequent holder of that title was her successor as Irish President, Mary McAleese. An outspoken critic of some Catholic church teachings, she gave an acceptance speech in 1969, for a law-review position, in which she advocated removing the prohibition of divorce in the Irish Constitution, eliminating the ban on the use of contraceptives, decriminalising homosexuality and suicide.[14]

In 1970, she married Nicholas Robinson, with whom she had a relationship since they were fellow law students and who was then practising as a solicitor.[15] Despite the fact that her family had close links to the Church of Ireland, her marriage to a Protestant caused a rift with her parents, who did not attend her wedding. The rift was eventually overcome in subsequent months.[15] Together they have three children. Her son Aubrey, a photographer and film-maker who is "committed to social justice", received media attention in 2011, when he participated in Occupy Dame Street.[16]

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 Senator, in 1969.[17] 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. She was denounced from the pulpit of Ballina Cathedral for her campaigning for family planning rights for women in Ireland, causing distress to her parents.[18] Condoms and other items were regularly sent in the post to the Senator by conservative critics, and a false rumour was spread that the Hayes, Conyngham & Robinson chain of pharmacies 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 Seanad, although two other members 'seconded' the initiative, political leaders did not put it on the agenda for discussion. As a Senator she served on the following parliamentary committees:

  • Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation (1973–1989)
    • Chairman of its Social Affairs Sub-Committee (1977–87)
    • Chairman of its Legal Affairs Committee (1987–89)
  • Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown (1983–1985)

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, ran for election to Dáil Éireann (the lower house) but her efforts were unsuccessful, as were her efforts to be elected to Dublin Corporation.[19] Robinson, along with hundreds of thousands of other Irish people, clashed with Dublin Corporation when it planned to build 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 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 senior counsel John Rogers. Rogers was a very close friend of the then leader of the Labour Party, Dick Spring. Rogers and Spring had shared rooms when they had been undergraduates at Trinity College Dublin. Shortly afterward, Robinson resigned from the party in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement that the coalition led by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had signed with the British Government of Prime Minister 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 Seanad in 1989. One year later, however, Labour approached her about running for President in that year's election. 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 to the nomination

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 a hero to the left, Noel Browne. Browne was a household name for having done more than anybody else in Ireland in tackling tuberculosis during 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 the candidacy in an election which Labour had never previously contested now acted as pressure for Labour to find a candidate. Spring did not feel that he would be able to control Browne for the duration of the election, given Browne's history of defying party policy to such a degree that he had 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 Fine Gael, the official opposition party. Fine Gael had previously 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. When it was apparent that FitzGerald would not budge from his refusal, Fine Gael 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 to 1974. 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. In three decades in politics, Lenihan had become very popular, and was widely seen as humorous and intelligent. Like Robinson he had himself delivered liberal policy reform (abolished censorship in the 1960s, for example).

When the campaign began, Lenihan 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 Cork 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 Garret FitzGerald, the Taoiseach at the time; 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. However, the issue nearly brought down the government.

Under pressure from the junior coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, Haughey sacked the "unbeatable candidate" as Tánaiste and Minister for Defense. 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 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".[20] 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 and up to that point supporting Lenihan's campaign.[21] 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 support 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 programme 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%.[22] However, transfers from 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 and Dustin the Turkey.[23]


Robinson was inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland on 3 December 1990. She proved a remarkably popular President, earning the praise of Brian Lenihan himself who, before his death five years later, said that she was a better President than he ever could have been. 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 large number of Irish emigrants and people of Irish descent). She also changed the face of Anglo-Irish relations, when she was the first serving Irish President to visit the United Kingdom and meet Queen Elizabeth II, at Buckingham Palace.[24] She welcomed visits by senior members of the British royal family, most notably Charles, 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, at one stage preventing her from delivering the prestigious BBC Dimbleby Lecture.

In the previous 52 years, only one address to the Oireachtas (parliament) had taken place, by President Éamon de Valera in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Robinson delivered two such addresses. She was also invited to chair a committee to review the workings of the United Nations, but declined when asked to by the Government of Ireland, 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 Gerry Adams, the MP for Belfast West and 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.[25]

In one of her roles as President, the signing into law 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 Bill fully decriminalising homosexuality, and which unlike legislation in much of the world at the time, provided for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and LGBT people alike.[26]


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, against pressure from the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, not to do so, was the only head of state to meet the 14th Dalai Lama during his tour of Europe.[27] She 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. 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 many 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."

Browne's comments matched the attitudes of Irish people on Robinson's achievements as President, between 1990 and 1997. By halfway through her term of office her popularity rating reached an unprecedented 93 per cent.[28]

Resignation as President

On 24 July 1997, Robinson announced her intention to resign as President of Ireland. The Irish Government stated that her announcement "was not unexpected" and wished her "every success".[29] She resigned by addressing a message to the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and her resignation took effect from 1 p.m. on Friday, 12 September 1997.[30] She resigned in order to take up appointment as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.[31] Upon her resignation as President, the role of President of Ireland was transferred to the Presidential Commission (which comprised the Chief Justice of Ireland, the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann and the Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann) 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 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 an 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.

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.

In 2001, Robinson chaired the Asia Regional Preparatory Meeting for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related intolerances, which was held in Tehran, Iran.[32] At this meeting, the representatives of neither the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish group, nor the Baha'i International Community were permitted to attend.[33] Robinson wore a headscarf at the meeting, because the Iranians enforced an edict that all women attending the conference must wear a headscarf. Women who did not wear the headscarf were criticized, and Robinson said that it "played into the hands of religious conservatives."[34][35]

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. The conference drew widespread criticism, as did Robinson. Former US Congressman Tom Lantos said, "To many of us present at the events at Durban, it is clear that much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who, in her role as secretary-general of the conference, failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track."[36]

Robinson's period 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.[37] 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 in a tongue-in-cheek article that she be tried for war crimes for presiding over "an intellectual pogrom against Jews and Israel."[38] 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 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. Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday.

"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."

Mary Robinson has been active in The Elders' work, participating in a broad range of the group's initiatives. She has travelled with Elders delegations to Cote d'Ivoire, the Korean Peninsula, Ethiopia, India, South Sudan and the Middle East.[39] In August 2014, she was joined by fellow Elder Jimmy Carter during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, to pen an article in Foreign Policy, pressing for the inclusion of recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political actor, noting the recent unity deal between Hamas and Fatah when the former agreed with the Palestinian Authority to denounce violence, recognize Israel and adhere to past agreements. Robinson and Carter called on the UN Security Council to act on what they described as the inhumane conditions in Gaza, and mandate an end to the siege.[40]

On 16 October 2014, Mary Robinson attended the One Young World Summit in Dublin. During a session with fellow Elder Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson encouraged 1,300 young leaders from 191 countries to lead on intergenerational issues such as climate change and the need for action to take place now, not tomorrow.[41][42][43] Mary Robinson was also the key note speaker at the One Young World Opening Ceremony where she highlighted the need to empower young people to participate in decision-making processes that shape their future.[44][45]

It was announced on 1 November 2018 that Robinson had been appointed as the Chair of The Elders, succeeding Kofi Annan who had died earlier in the year.[46]

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 Seanad, for over twenty years and held the Reid Chair in Law.

Post president period


In September 2012, Robinson's memoir Everybody Matters was published with Hodder & Stoughton.[47]

Archive and Tax Avoidance Controversy

In October 2016, it was revealed in the media that Robinson was planning to donate her archive to Mayo County Council, as part of the development of The Mary Robinson Centre, and had applied to have the archive designated under the Taxes Consolidation Act, 1997, potentially resulting in a personal tax credit to her worth over €2m, arising from the donation of her personal papers. The house proposed to be used for the centre was to be purchased from the brother of Mary Robinson for €665,000.[48]

The website of the Mary Robinson Centre lists the contents of the proposed archive (valued at €2.5m) as including: "2,000 books on law and Human Rights 3,800 periodicals; A Master File of the President's engagements from December 1990 to September 1997; The symbolic light in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin from her Presidency; Robinson's personal diaries from 1967 to 1990 and from 1998 to 2001; 325 Archive Cartons..Scrap Books, Cassette Tapes." These papers relate to Robinson's almost 50-year career, spanning her time as a senator and barrister in the 1970s and 80s, her personal papers relating to the presidency and significant papers from the post-presidential period of her career, most notably her time with the United Nations as High Commissioner for Human Rights.[49]

The project as a whole was condemned as an "expensive vanity project" by historian Diarmuid Ferriter.[48] A member of the fund raising committee for the Centre argued that "Ballina is the same distance to Dublin as Dublin is to Ballina."[50] Chief Executive of Mayo County Council, Peter Hynes (who is also on the board of the Mary Robinson Centre) stated that Robinson had a "legacy as a politician" and that the centre is designed to bring significant academic, tourism, education and economic opportunities to Ballina and the West. Hynes also commented that "The west coast town (of Ballina) has considerable pride in her outstanding career and on-going global leadership and sees the proposed centre as a living institution which will focus global attention and, working in collaboration with the National University of Ireland, Galway, will continue the conversation on topics of fundamental importance."[51]

The size of the potential tax windfall available to Robinson, was particularly controversial given her avowed socialist political stance and that she was the Presidential candidate and a member of the Labour Party, which describes itself as ".. a democratic socialist party and, through its membership of the Party of European Socialists and Socialist International, is part of the international socialist movement working for equality and to empower citizens, consumers and workers in a world increasingly dominated by big business, greed and selfishness."[52]

Following the reporting of the potential €2m windfall, Robinson announced she would abandon the plan to "gift" the archive to Ballina and instead she said the papers would be "gifted to NUIG, with Mayo County Council having full access to any part of the collection which is required to support the mission of the centre in Ballina".[53] In addition she stated that she would now not avail of the tax credit for the donation.

Activities in non-governmental organizations

Roles in international organizations

In March 2013, Robinson was chosen to oversee the implementation of a peace deal to stabilize the troubled central African country of Congo. Appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Robinson was expected to play a key role in supporting implementation of the U.N.-drafted peace deal signed by 11 African countries in late February 2013.[63]

In July 2014, Ban Ki-moon made Robinson his special envoy for Climate Change to interact with global leaders ahead of the 2014 Climate Summit, in New York, at which the secretary-general said he hoped to forge political commitment to finalizing an agreement in 2015.[64] In March 2015, she voiced support for fossil fuel divestment commenting "it is almost a due diligence requirement to consider ending investment in dirty energy companies".[65]

In early 2016, Robinson was appointed by Erik Solheim, the Chairman of the Development Assistance Committee, to head a high-level panel on the future of the Development Assistance Committee.[66]

In May 2016, Ban Ki-moon appointed Robinson and Macharia Kamau, as special envoys of the Secretary-General on El Niño and Climate, tasking them with calling attention to the people around the world affected by severe El Niño-linked drought and climate impacts, and mobilising an integrated response that takes preparedness for future climatic events into account.[67]

In September 2016, Robinson was appointed by Ban Ki-moon to serve as member of the lead group of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement.[59]

In December 2018, Robinson was criticized by human rights organisations, Detained in Dubai and Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, for her statements regarding Dubai's Sheikha Latifa's disappearance and escape attempt. After meeting Princess Latifa at a family lunch on invitation of Dubai's royal family, Robinson described Latifa to the BBC as a "troubled young woman" who regretted an earlier video in which she alleged being confined and tortured in Dubai. Detained in Dubai head Radha Stirling expressed astonishment at the former UN commissioner for repeatedly reciting a single statement from Dubai's official version of the events, "loving care of her family", and for dismissing Latifa's alleged attempt to escape from Dubai in February 2018.[68]


Over the course of her career, Robinson has been awarded with numerous honors, including the following:

On 29 September 2010, at a ceremony in Dublin, Robinson received a damehood 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.

Honorary degrees

In 1991 and in 2001, Robinson was awarded honorary doctorates by Brown University, University of Cambridge and Lisbon Nova University. On 22 January 2000, she received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Law at Uppsala University, Sweden.[73] In 2004, she was awarded an Honorary Degree by McGill University.[74]

In 2009, Robinson 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".[75]

U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom

In July 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States.[76][77] 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."[78]

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.[79] Nelson Mandela[80] and Graca Machel[80] 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.[81] 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.[82] 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."[81] 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.[83] "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.[84] 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.[81] 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."[85]

United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi,[86] United States Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin,[87] and some other legislators[88] welcomed the presenting of the award to Robinson."[89] 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".[81]

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".[90] Oxfam confederation also expressed its strong support for Robinson.[91][92] The Council of Women World Leaders,[93] the Champalimaud Foundation,[94] and the ImagineNations Group[95] 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."[96]



Media coverage in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Examiner (now renamed the Irish Examiner), The Star, The Irish Mirror, The Irish Sun, The 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[97] the text of her Romanes Lecture in November 1997). Some background came via an interview with Robinson.


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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
  • Robinson, Mary (2013). Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice. New York: Walker Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8027-7964-9.
  • 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
  • Torild Skard, "Mary Robinson", Women of Power - Half a century of female presidents and prime ministers worldwide(Bristol: Policy Press, 2014) ISBN 978-1-44731-578-0
Preceded by
William Bedell Stanford
Independent Senator
for the University of Dublin

Succeeded by
as Labour Party Senator
Preceded by
as Independent Senator
Labour Party Senator
for the University of Dublin

Succeeded by
as Independent Senator
Preceded by
as Labour Party Senator
Independent Senator
for the 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
Preceded by
Kim Campbell
Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders
Succeeded by
Tarja Halonen
Academic offices
Preceded by
Frank O'Reilly
Chancellor of the University of Dublin
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