After serving her country and the United Nations, she stayed involved in her work by educating people worldwide about human rights, racism, equality, and climate change. She is currently affiliated with The Elders, The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice and World Justice Project.
Before She Became a Robinson: Early Years
In 1944, Dr. Aubrey Bourke and Dr. Tessa Bourke gave birth to a baby girl, whom they named Mary Therese Winifred Bourke. Mary Bourke came from a well-respected family of doctors from Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland.
The Bourke clan has been native to County Mayo since the 13th century. Because of strong family history in Mayo, her family is often considered one of the most influential families in all of Ireland, and their lineage can be traced to the Crown and rebels alike.
In accordance with her strong Roman Catholic background, she attended the Mount Anville Secondary School, an all-female boarding school. After graduating from secondary school, she went on to study law at Trinity College, Dublin.
Her passion to make a difference inspired her to pursue her master’s degree at Harvard Law School. In her early 20s, after much hard work, she received the opportunity to become the youngest Professor of Law at Trinity College.
Life after Marrying Nicholas Robinson
Early in her career, Mary Bourke became the youngest member (25 years old) of Seanad Éireann, a major accomplishment in the history of Ireland. She married Nicholas Robinson, an Irish author and historian, in 1970. Because of Nicholas Robinson’s religious background, it proved difficult for her parents to attend their wedding; she and her parents later reconciled a few months after the marriage.
In 1979, Mary Robinson was elected to the Dublin City Council, where she campaigned for controversial issues, such as those regarding women’s rights and contraceptives. While such “liberal” issues were immediately disregarded by other Senate members, she was not deterred from pushing and pushing until her voice was heard and discussed. Since most Irish laws were passed on by earlier generations, she took it upon herself to ensure that Irish laws regarding proper justice, moral duties and even gender inequality were properly re-assessed.
Since her career began in 1969, Mary Robinson has always found new ways to contribute to the community. In 1973, she served on the Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation, where she stayed until 2011. She also joined the Labour Party in the mid-70s after identifying an independent Senator for many years.
In 1977, Mary Robinson became the Chairman of Social Affairs Sub–Committee, where she served until 1987. While serving this position, she was also appointed to the joint committee on Marital Breakdowns from 1983 to 1985. After addressing Social Affairs and finishing her term in 1987, she was offered the opportunity to become the Chairman of Legal Affairs Committee; she served this position for 2 years.
When Fine Gael proposed to work with the Labour Party as a coalition government in 1982, the leaders of the Labour Party requested the right to choose the next Attorney General. While most of the party expected Mary Robinson to assume the position, the party’s leader backed a different candidate, John Rogers, who was a newly–appointed senior counsel with much less political experience. Robinson then resigned due to rising tensions within coalition party, stating that the coalition violated the Anglo–Irish Agreement.
Despite these problems, Mary Robinson continued serving until each of her “liberal” issues had been addressed. By the mid-1980s, most of the addressed issues had been approved, including the use of contraceptives and the rights of women to become active citizens in society.
In 1989, Mary Robinson decided against running in the elections; she changed her mind, however, when she was contacted one year later by Labour Party leader Dick Spring, who offered to support her presidential candidacy. Faced with an incredible and unexpected opportunity, she decided to run for the highest seat in Irish government.
Running for President
The 1990 Irish presidential election, decided between three candidates, was one of the most controversial elections since 1945. Early in the campaign, only two were believed to have chances of winning - Fine Gael’s Austin Currie, a Teachta Dála (TD), and Fianna Fáil’s Brian Lenihan, a Tánaiste (deputy Prime Minister).
Brian Lenihan was a strong favourite early on, due to his experience and strong political connections. Mary Robinson, meanwhile, was considered by many - even the majority of the Labour Party - as the wrong choice for the Labour Party’s candidate.
The Labour Party initially wanted Noel Browne as their candidate. However, due to the party’s conflicting ties with Fine Gael, Browne’s history of disregarding political policy to work in his favour, and Dick Spring’s recommendation of Mary Robinson (he firmly believed that her chances of winning were greater than most believed), her candidacy could not be stopped.
Becoming ireland’s first female President
In a dramatic chain of events, Lenihan’s stellar reputation was put into question after his attempt to pressure former President Hillery to reject a congressional disbanding to Taoiseach was made known to the public. With Lenihan’s image in shambles and his career on the verge of chaos, Robinson’s chances of winning increased inadvertently. When all votes were submitted and counted, Mary Robinson was officially proclaimed President of Ireland.
Mary Robinson instantly became one of Ireland’s most popular presidents almost instantly. She stated in her first inaugural speech that the time had come to create a new world where human rights, tolerance, pluralism, and openness – ideas considered “new and revolutionary” – create a strong foundation for their country. Her efforts to abolish the unjust laws of “old Ireland” and move gradually into a modernized, 21st-century Ireland are certainly her greatest legacies.
Meeting Political Giants
Robinson frequently paid respects to the Irish diaspora (Irish emigrants and Irish descendants), throughout her presidency. Compared to her predecessors, she was far more involved in the true implementation of regulations as she was able to use her constitutional powers without bending laws in the process.
In 1992, Mary Robinson became the first president to address the Oireachtas – she did so twice, in 1992 and again in 1995. For her amazing wit and charm, as well as her political expertise, she was the first Irish president to ever visit the Buckingham palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II.
Robinson would later meet a number of other strong figures, including the Dalai Lama, Gerry Adams (a former Irish Nationalist party representative) and the President of Sinn Féin. She also visited troubled, oppressed countries, such as Somalia in 1992 and Rwanda in 1997.
Resignation and work with United Nations
In the latter part of her presidency, she often visited African nations to spread knowledge regarding famine and genocide. As her presidency drew to a close in 1997, she received an offer she couldn’t refuse—the High Commissioner of Human Rights post in the United Nations. It was a difficult decision to make, but she certainly felt secure in her conviction.
On September 12th, 1997, Mary Robinson officially resigned from her presidency to become the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights. In her absence, the presidency was filled by the Presidential Commission, along with other sectors of the Irish Senate. She served as High Commissioner of Human Rights for 5 years.
During her time with the United Nations, she worked to ensure that human rights would become not an option, but a privilege. She devoted immeasurable time and effort to ensure such issues, which also include racism and equality, would be well-addressed. She even gave a lecture in Oxford regarding human rights, entitled “Realizing Human Rights,” only a few months after accepting the position.
Visiting Tibet and South Africa
In 1998, Mary Robinson became the first UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to visit Tibet. Controversy, however, would follow; in 2001, during the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance summit event (held in Durban, South Africa) both United States and Israeli representatives walked out of the event due to Robinson’s singling out of Israel regarding Zionism over racism. The United States also criticized her claim that the U.S.’s “War on Terror” violated human rights policies.
Resigning and Organizing Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative
Amidst enormous pressure from the United States, Mary Robinson stepped down from her position as UN High Commissioner of Human Rights in 2002. Despite her resignation, she never stopped fighting for the oppressed, the forgotten, and the hungry. Not only did she continue to fight for human rights, she also added climate change to her agenda. She founded an organization called “Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative,” which aims to promote and strengthen health, human migration policies and female empowerment in the workplace. Realizing Rights lasted 10 years, from 2002 to 2010.
Robinson continued to spread knowledge and awareness as she travelled to many countries around the world. In 2002, she was named Honorary President of Oxfam International. She also received a Sydney Peace Prize award for her work as UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.
In 2003, she received an Otto Hahn Peace medal for Realizing Rights. In 2004, she became a Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University.
In 2005, she became Honorary President of the European Inter–University Centre for Human Rights and Democratization; in the same year, she moved on to presenting Peace and Justice Distinguished lectures at the University of San Diego.
Robinson was also the first recipient of the “Outspoken” award from the International Gay and Lesbian Commission for her contributions to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland. She later became a founding member, and chair of, the Council of Women World Leaders for her advocacy of women’s rights.
Joining The Elders and Founding the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice
In 2007, she joined an organization created by former world leaders, called “The Elders,” along with Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel. In her continuous effort to promote human rights and climate change awareness, more awards would follow. In 2009, she even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was formally commended by President Barack Obama for her work and dedication.
In 2010, Mary Robinson was officially knighted by the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem. In that same year, she founded the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ), an organization dedicated to thought leadership, advocacy and education, and social awareness regarding the poor and unfortunate, especially those impacted by climate change.
“Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice” and Michael O’Sullivan
In 2012, Mary Robinson published a book entitled “Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice,” in which she shares her dreams, accomplishments, and reasons for never giving up on her beliefs. The book "Mary Robinson: The Life and Times of an Irish Liberal," written by Michael O'Sullivan, also became one of the most popular references for those who are unfamiliar with her and/or her work.
Mary Robinson is an ideal example of a successful world leader. Even beyond politics, her selfless and caring personality has impacted many and made the world a better place. As long as injustice exists, she will always be on the front line, battling discrimination and racism one step at a time.
- 1969: Became a member of Seanad Éireann, (the Senate of Ireland)
- 1973: Served Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation (1973-2011)
- 1977: Appointed Chairman of Social Affairs Sub-Committee (1977-1987)
- 1979: Elected to Dublin City Council (1979-1983)
- 1983: Served on Joint Committee on Marital Breakdowns (1983-1985)
- 1987: Appointed Chairman of Legal Affairs Committee (1987-1989)
- 1990: First Female President of Ireland
- 1991: Became a member of Club de Madrid
- 1997: North-South Prize Awardee
- 1997: Delivered Lecture in Oxford entitled “Realizing Human Rights”
- 1997: Became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
- 2001: Appointed to the Chair of the Asia Regional Preparatory Meeting for the World Conference against Racism
- 2002: Sydney Peace Prize Awardee
- 2002: Oxfam International Honorary President
- 2002: Founded “Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative” (2002-2010)
- 2003: Otto Hahn Peace Medal Awardee
- 2004: Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Awardee
- 2005: Presented a lecture at the University of San Diego (held in Joan B. Kroc Institute) for Peace and Justice Distinguished Lecture Series
- 2005: First “Outspoken” Awardee by the International Gay and Lesbian Commission
- 2005: Named Honorary President of European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratization (EIUC)
- 2006: Social Science Principes de Asturias Prize Awardee
- 2006: Became a Keynote Speaker at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law
- 2007: Founding Member of the Arab Democracy Foundation
- 2009: Designated as the leader of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
- 2009: Inamori Ethics Prize of 2009 Awardee
- 2009: Presidential Medal of Freedom Awardee
- 2010: Knighted by the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem
- 2009: Honour of Dame Grand Cross of Merit Awardee
- 2009: Established The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice
- 2009: Became the Co-Chair of the World Justice Project
- 2012: Published a book entitled “Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice”
- 1991: Brown University Honorary Doctorate Recipient, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
- 1991: University of Cambridge Honorary Doctorate Recipient, The Old Schools, Trinity Lane, Cambridge, United Kingdom
- 2004: McGill University Honorary Degree Awardee, 845 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- 2004: Professor of Practice in International Affairs at Columbia University, 116 Street & Broadway, New York, New York, USA
- 2009: University of Bath Doctor of Laws Honorary Degree Recipient, 1 West North, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom
- Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice
- Arab Democracy Foundation
- International Commission of Jurists
- International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC)
- World Justice Project
- Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA)
- Amnesty International
- Club de Madrid
- European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC)
- International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
- Council of Women World Leaders
- The Elders
- Open Government Partnership
- International Expert Panel (IEP)