Mary Robinson

former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Mary Robinson (Irish: Máire Mhic Róibín;[1] born 21 May 1944) was the first female President of Ireland, serving from 1990 to 1997. She had been an academic, barrister, and member of the Irish senate from 1969 to 1989.

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson in March 2014
President of Ireland
In office
3 December 1990 – 12 September 1997
TaoiseachCharles Haughey
Albert Reynolds
John Bruton
Bertie Ahern
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
Preceded byWilliam Bedell Stanford
Succeeded byCarmencita Hederman
ConstituencyDublin University
Personal details
Born (1944-05-21) 21 May 1944 (age 80)
Ballina, County Mayo
Political partyIndependent (1969–1977, 1981–present)[1]
Other political
Labour Party (1977–1981)
Spouse(s)Nicholas Robinson
Alma materTrinity College, Dublin
Harvard Law School

She defeated Fianna Fáil's Brian Lenihan and Fine Gael's Austin Currie in the 1990 presidential election, the first time Fianna Fáil had lost a presidential election.[2]

She resigned the presidency four months ahead of the end of her term of office to begin a five-year term in the United Nations, as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2002 Robinson became Honorary President of Oxfam International. She signed the Yogyakarta Principles in meeting of International Commission of Jurist and from 2008 to 2010 she was the predident of the International Commission of Jurists.

In 2018 Robinson became embroiled in the "proof of life" controversy surrounding "The Missing Princess"[3](Latifa) the imprisoned daughter of the current Dubai ruler, Sheikh Maktoum. She had attended a lunch in Dubai, hosted by Latifa's step mother, Princess Haya the then, junior wife of Maktoum, in which Robinson appeared in staged photographs with Princess Latifa and publicly claimed that Latifa was being cared for by her loving family. In February 2021 Robinson retracted her former statement in a BBC Panorama broadcast,[3] claiming that herself and Haya had both been misled and had been spun convincing and elaborate lies about Princess Latifa's alleged medical 'bipolar' history and condition.[3]



Born Mary Therese Winifred Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo in 1944, Mary Robinson was the daughter of two medical doctors.[4] The Bourke family has been in Mayo since the thirteenth century. One ancestor was a leading activist in the Irish National Land League in 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 Roman Catholic nun.

Robinson got the permission of the then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid to study in Trinity College, Dublin (TCD); at the time Roman Catholics were forbidden by church rules from studying in TCD without special permission, called a dispensation. TCD once did not allow Catholics to study. In her twenties, she was appointed Professor of Law in the college.

Career in Seanad Éireann


She was elected one of Trinity College's three members of Seanad Éireann in 1969.

She fought:

  • for the right of women to sit on juries,
  • to allow women to stay in the civil service after they married,
  • for the legal availability of contraception.

She was also on several Senate/Oireachtas committees:

  • Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation (1973–1989)
    • Chairman of its Social Affairs Sub-Committee (1977–1987)
    • Chairman of its Legal Affairs Committee (1987–1989)
  • Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown (1983–1985)
One of the Civic Offices (nicknamed the 'Bunkers').
Dublin Corporation controversially built them on what had been one of the world's best preserved Viking sites, at Wood Quay. Robinson gave legal support to the leaders of the unsuccessful campaign to save the site.

In 1982, the Labour Party entered into a coalition government with Fine Gael. Many expected Robinson to be the attorney-general, but the Labour party leader instead picked an unknown, new senior counsel called John Rogers. Shortly afterwards, Robinson resigned from the party in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement, she said that unionist politicians in Northern Ireland should have been consulted as part of the deal.

Robinson decided not to seek re-election to the senate in 1989. One year later she agreed to become the first Labour candidate 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 election


Candidates from other parties


The main opposition party, Fine Gael was no well organised. They gambled that former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald would run as its candidate (but for two years he had been saying no), then they asked Peter Barry, who had previously been willing to run but had run out of patience and was no longer interested. The party's third choice was the former civil rights campaigner Austin Currie, a new TD and former minister in Brian Faulkner's power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland from 1973-1974.

Fianna Fáil chose Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, Brian Lenihan. Lenihan was popular and widely seen as humorous and intelligent. Like Robinson he had made liberal policy reforms. In the 1960s he abolished censorship, for example. He was seen as a near certainty to win the presidency. The only question asked was whether Robinson would beat Currie and come second.

But Taoiseach Charles Haughey of Fianna Fáil was not popular, and the Labour Party leader Dick Spring was becoming more popular.

Election Campaign


During the campaign people found out that what Lenihan had told friends in private showed he had lied in public about the 1982 dissolution of Dáil Éireann.

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 where he talked about trying to apply pressure. Lenihan claimed that "on mature recollection" he had not pressured the President and had been confused in his interview with the student. But the government threatened to fall over the issue.

Lenihan was dismissed as Tánaiste and Minister for Defence.[5]

Lenihan still managed to win the first count. In the Single Transferable Vote system Austin Currie was eliminated and his second choice votes were counted. Most were for Robinson. Lenihan became the first Fianna Fáil presidential candidate in the history of the office to lose a presidential election. Robinson now became President.



Robinson was a popular president, before he died in 2002 Brian Lenihan said that she was a better president than he ever could have been. She often visited Britain, and became the first Irish president to visit Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. She welcomed visits by senior British royals, most notably the Prince of Wales to Áras an Uachtaráin. On one trip to Belfast she met with the local MP, Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin. Foreign Minister Dick Spring, who was leader of the Labour Party, privately advised her not to meet Adams. However the Government did not formally advise her not to meet with him, so she felt it would be wrong,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 parties, including David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Charles Haughey died not like her, even stopping her from delivering the important BBC Dimbleby Lecture. Haughey's successors as Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds (Fianna Fáil: 1992-94), John Bruton (Fine Gael: 1994-97) and Bertie Ahern (Fianna Fáil:1997- ) never hid their admiration of her work. Bruton and Ahern both tried to get her the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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 with the approval of Irish political parties in order to take up the post. Newspaper reports say that she had been asked by Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan to become a public campaigner

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, and criticised the United States' use of capital punishment. 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, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, as Secretary-General. Robinson's posting as High Commissioner ended in 2002.

Trinity College


Mrs Robinson is the twenty fourth, and first female, Chancellor of University of Dublin.

The Elders


On 18 July 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nelson Mandela, his wife Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu convened a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and honesty to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. Nelson Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on his 89th birthday.

Archbishop Tutu will serve as the Chair of The Elders. The founding members of this group also include Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus.

The Elders will be independently funded by a group of Founders, including Richard Branson, Peter Gabriel, Ray Chambers; Michael Chambers; Bridgeway Foundation; Pam Omidyar, Humanity United; Amy Robbins; Shashi Ruia, Dick Tarlow; andThe United Nations Foundation.

As president she signed two very important Bills that she had fought for throughout her political career

  1. A Bill to fully liberalise the law on the availability of contraceptives,
  2. A law fully decriminalising homosexuality and unlike Britain and much of the world at the time, providing for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. And from 6 to 9 November 2006 she took part in the international meeting for the Yogyakarta Principles in Indonesia.


  1. Robinson stood as an independent presidential candidate but received support from the Labour Party and the Workers' Party.
  2. "Elections Ireland: Presidential Elections".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Panorama - The Missing Princess, retrieved 2021-02-17
  5. The Progressive Democrats threatened to quit the government. They told Haughey an ultimatum: either hold an inquiry into the pressure placed on President Hillery, or dismiss Lenihan. Haughey dismissed Lenihan.

Additional 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
  • 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

Other source material


Media coverage in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, The Examiner (now renamed the Irish Examiner), The Star, The Irish Mirror, The Irish Sun, 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 [2] the text of her Romanes Lecture in November 1997). Some background came via an interview with Mrs. Robinson.

The Korea Liberator: [3] Archived 2008-02-07 at the Wayback Machine Criticism of Robinson's failure to speak out while North Korea deliberately starved two million of its people to death, largely during her tenure (warning: graphic image).

Other websites