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Here’s to you Mrs Robinson


SISTER ACT Human Rights Campaigner Graca Machel, wife of the late Nelson Mandela, enjoys a lighter moment with Mary Robinson during her visit to Ballina, where she delivered the second Mary Robinson Centre International Human Rights lecture. Pic: Henry Wills

Former President delivers hometown lecture 25 years on from becoming President

Anne-Marie Flynn

It will be 25 years this Thursday since Mary Robinson was inaugurated as the first female President of Ireland. During a press briefing, prior to hosting the Mary Robinson Centre’s International Human Rights Lecture in Ballina last Saturday, the woman who blazed a trail for ‘Mná na hEireann’ smiles as she recalls her arrival on the Presidential stage.
“It was a day I’ll never forget, of course”, she says. “That sense of making a promise to the Irish people, and not being sure that I would be able to fulfil it.”
Such a remarkable admission serves to highlight the distance that existed then between the ‘hidebound’ office of the Presidency and the Irish people, and the huge challenge that Robinson faced to bridge the gap and make the office a more open one.
“I had run a campaign on a more active presidency, but now I realised that I was going to have to do it! And it wasn’t at all obvious exactly how. It was one thing to fight the campaign; it was another to actually fight the convention of the President being above everybody, and not being in touch with people locally. I remember my first event the following day - I didn’t make a speech, because I wasn’t yet comfortable that I could do that.”
Robinson recalls how three months into her role, the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, arrived to the Áras to admonish her for ‘doing too much’. “At that stage, however, I was confident. I knew what I was doing.  But I didn’t know on the 3rd of December”, she smiles.
A quarter of a century later, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is visiting her home town of Ballina to host what is fast becoming an event of significant international importance. The level of demand for this year’s lecture necessitated a late change of venue from St Muredach’s Cathedral to St Patrick’s Church, and Robinson beams as she addresses an audience of nearly a thousand people from near and far.

“I’m very proud of my home town and county”, she says. “I’ve always felt very rooted here, and this shows that we can organise incredibly important events here.” Indeed, Ballina can look forward to hosting many more such high-profile events once the Centre officially opens in 2017.
It is fitting that the guest speaker is her ‘sister and beloved friend’, leading human rights activist Graça Machel, who has worked tirelessly across Africa to support and promote the rights of women and children. Machel, a former Minister for Education in Mozambique, and wife of the late Nelson Mandela is, along with Robinson, one of the founding members of The Elders, a group of leaders convened in 2007 to contribute their wisdom and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems.
In a powerful address, Machel presents an alternative version of Africa than that to which we are usually exposed - one that counters perceptions of it as ‘needy’ in the western world, and instead, points to the levels of creativity and transformation that exist within the continent. She profiles the strong female leaders who have contributed to Africa’s political, social and economic development and notes also the level of gender representation achieved in parliament in countries like Rwanda (63 percent), South Africa (42 percent) and Mozambique (39 percent).
But she insists that there is much yet to do on a global level. There is steeliness in her voice as Machel speaks of the ‘painfully slow pace’, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  was signed in 1948, “of recognising that this person, who is a woman, is a complete human being, with human rights”. “Women have moved from obscurity to visibility”, she proclaims. “But we have yet to gain the influence and capacity needed to assert action that will benefit not just women, but men and women, the human family and human dignity as a whole.”

Robinson is attending the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) this week, and is optimistic of a commitment from all participants to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. She and Machel speak of the impact of climate change on human rights, and how it disproportionately affects developing countries and women. Drought can mean a girl having to sacrifice education to travel further for fresh water for her family. Crop damage can be critical, and both women warn that if the current trend is not reversed, floods caused by global warming will lead to huge levels of displacement and a long-term refugee crisis for Europe. “We can do this”, says Robinson. We must. Because every child born today will live through our decisions. They will either thank us or say ‘how could you?’”
The Mary Robinson Centre, she maintains, is an exciting opportunity to place “an institutional focus, long after I’m gone, on the issues of human rights gender and justice”. If Saturday is anything to go by, that work has clearly already begun in earnest.