An Interview with Ireland's Mary Robinson
MacEoin, Gary, Commonweal
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.
* MacEOIN: What role do you see for Ireland in the twenty-first century? In particular, what expanded role for Irish women?
* ROBINSON: 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.
* MacEOIN: How is Irish membership of the European Union affecting social policy on such issues as homosexuality, divorce, abortion?
* ROBINSON: 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. …