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Is Mary Robinson Centre more about ‘vanity’ than ‘legacy’?

On the Edge

On the Edge
Áine Ryan

EVEN before its doors are opened The Mary Robinson Centre in Ballina is causing controversy. Why, one might ask? Is it not a groundbreaking project modelled on those libraries that honour the legacies of former US presidents? Is it not another pioneering project – like the National Museum of Ireland: Country Life – nurtured and supported by our local authority, Mayo County Council? Is it not appropriate that the centre will be housed in her historic familial home overlooking the River Moy? Is it not wonderfully progressive that this will be a living centre – and not ‘some form of mausoleum’, as she originally balked at – which will include a museum, archive, research, educational and events venue?     

Human rights and climate justice
THE website explains that in addition to sharing the Mayo woman’s achievements as Ireland’s first female President, the centre will use her legacy ‘to inspire and foster personal leadership in the service of promoting human rights, gender equality, women’s leadership and climate justice in partnership with Mayo County Council and the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway)’.   
Along with the Jackie Clarke Library, this is a coup for the north Mayo capital, which has struggled throughout the Celtic Tiger crash and is often overshadowed by the tourism and heritage honeypot of Westport.
So, why has much of the commentariat been critical of the centre, some dubbing it a ‘vanity project’? In  a recent opinion piece in The Irish Times Professor Diarmaid Ferriter cites the fact that the archives of former presidents Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, Éamon de Valera and Patrick Hillery are housed in the University College Dublin (UCD) archive. He writes that: “All collections in the UCD archives are donated without payment of any kind.” Ferriter also notes that in 2011 the present incumbent, Michael D Higgins, donated the archive of his career to the National Library of Ireland, and also without payment.
On the other hand, the Mary Robinson archive, which has been accepted by the Government under the Section 1003 of the Taxes Consolidation Act, has been valued by Mealy Auctioneers at a value of €2.5 million, 80 percent of which can be written off as tax relief. In addition, the Department of Arts has allocated €2.175m and Mayo County Council a further €1.5m for the building. The Ireland Fund has also supported the project. Interestingly, a significant amount of the overall budget will be expended on the purchase of the old family home, now owned by her brother, solicitor, Adrian Bourke, for a reported price tag of around €650,000. This is thought to be the subject of ongoing negotiations.
According to Phoenix magazine the property deal – which includes a ‘strategic valuation premium recognising the disruption the acquisition will cause to current owners’ – is currently stalled. This, the magazine’s Goldhawk conjectures, may be related to the Revenue Commissioners’ valuation (as opposed to the private valuers) of the archive.

Rich archive
THE Mary Robinson Centre website lists the contents of the archive as including:
‘2,000 books on law and human rights (many of these presented to Mary Robinson and signed by the author); 3,800 periodicals, many of them with contributions by Robinson; 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 Mary’s Presidency; Robinson’s personal diaries from 1967 to 1990 and from 1998 to 2001; 325 archive cartons containing documents ranging from the Anglo Irish Agreement to women and equality’.
Iar Uachtaráin Mary Robinson breathed a new life into the role during her tenure between 1990 and 1997. The symbolism of the candle in the window of the Áras  welcoming home the diaspora resonated throughout the world, as did her progressive use of her role as titular Head of the Irish State. It has been replicated well by both her successors Mary McAleese and Michael D Higgins.
In his opinion piece in response to Ferriter’s article, Peter Hynes, the Chief Executive of Mayo County Council wrote in The Irish Times last week that the ‘centre is an important development for the west of Ireland and its location in Ballina’, the most appropriate and Robinson’s preferred setting.
Like Professor Ferriter, Mr Hynes lauds Mary Robinson’ legacy and high-standing on the global stage.
But should this afford a precedent for future presidents effectively selling back their archives to the State and thus costing and charging the citizens who honoured them as first citizens and primary public servants?

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