Fr Kevin Hegarty
MARY Robinson was elected to the Seanad in 1969. So began 47 years of public service at home and abroad. Let us look at that contribution in the light of the proposal to establish the Mary Robinson Centre in her home town of Ballina.
Most politicians are pragmatists. They praise and placate the electorate rather than challenge it. I believe there is a need for visionary leaders who stimulate our creativity, stretch our imaginations, highlight our cultural and social blind spots and inspire us to noble ideals.
Mary Robinson is one of that select group. For almost 50 years she has challenged our society to make human rights matter. She has done so as a senator and barrister between 1969 and 1989, as President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, as UN Human Rights Commissioner from 1997 to 2002 and now as UN special envoy on climate change.
When Mary Robinson first entered politics the status of women was low in Ireland. They could not sit on juries. They had no statutory right to equal pay. A married woman had no legal domicile other than her husbands. He received the children’s allowance money. He was the legal guardian of the children. Women had to resign from the civil service when they married.
Catholic sexual teaching pervaded our laws and constitution. Contraceptives were banned and the constitution prohibited divorce. Homosexuality was criminalised.
By the early 1970’s Irish women had begun to challenge these inequalities.
Mary Robinson was in the vanguard of the movement for reform. In the words of Eavan Boland, in a poem dedicated to Mary, she gave legal and political voice to the vision. She used the forum of the senate to highlight the need for change. As an innovative barrister she discerned the capacity of Irish and European law to effect social reform and she used it to significant effect.
By the last decade of the twentieth century, Ireland was inching its way to being more tolerant and open. It was fitting that Mary Robinson was President of this emerging Ireland.
Until her election to that office, the presidency was seen as the final political eminence for elderly male politicians. She revitalised the office.
As a constitutional lawyer, she was acutely aware of the restraints on the office. What she did was to unleash its symbolic power.
In her election campaign she travelled through an Ireland often hidden from the national media. It was a world of women’s groups, community associations, small farmers and fishermen, travellers, emigrants and islanders. She heard the hungers of modern Ireland.
In office she did not forget them. There were historic events during her presidency, like meeting with Queen Elizabeth, but what characterised her tenure were the visits to local communities and voluntary groups. She celebrated their work and gave state validation to their existence. Her visits to Somalia and Rwanda, both haunted by Civil War, ignited in her a desire to the international promotion of human rights. This she did as UN Commissioner for Human Rights for five years and now through the ‘Mary Robinson Foundation’.
She has identified ‘climate justice as the moral issue of our times’. Last week we got a further stark warning of this imperative.
The World Wildlife Foundation reported that global wild live populations are set to have fallen by more than two thirds on 1970 levels by the end of the century. It is a further indication of how crucial it is to change the way we live.
I believe that the proposal to establish the Mary Robinson Centre in Ballina is a positive one. It will house a library, an archive of her papers and a museum. However, the focus of the place will not solely be on the past. It is proposed that, through the centre, the concerns of her political life will be continued. It will promote the empowerment of women in leadership, international human rights, climate justice and environmental issues.
So the proposal is neither a ‘mausoleum’ or a vanity project. The historian Diarmúid Ferriter has argued that her archive should go to a Dublin institution. Even objective historians can suffer from a metropolitan mind set. The cost of the project has also attracted unfavourable notice. Oscar Wilde once defined a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
For once let us recognise a prophet in her own home place.