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Mary Robinson: ‘It was lonely at the top’

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson in Dublin last April

MARY ROBINSON has spoken about her ‘lonely’ role as Head of State and standing up to former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey in a revealing interview with the BBC. 

Ireland’ first female president also outlined the most difficult decisions of her career during  last Sunday’s interview on BBC Radio 4.

Mrs Robinson is a respected and much-loved figure, yet she continues to remain somewhat of an enigma in Irish life.

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Speaking to broadcaster Kirsty Young on Sunday, Mrs Robinson spoke candidly about overcoming her shyness through debating, an unforgettable encounter with Charlie Haughey and disobeying her parents’ wishes to marry her husband Nick.

Moral leadership and discrimination against women were also discussed during the show.

Introducing her guest, Young called Mrs Robinson a “cool-headed pragmatist” who never shied away from controversial issues.

In the show Mrs Robinson admitted that at first she shied away from running for president, believing it to be largely ceremonial role.

It was her husband of 42 years, Nick who she met at Trinity College, Dublin, who urged her to look at the presidency seriously.

It was only after scrutinising the constitution with her legal eye that she realised “a president could do so much more”.

During the interview, Robinson opened up on some of the defining moments of her career.

She spoke about the opposition she encountered as the first female president of Ireland, including an encounter with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who she called “a bright man… who tried to reign me in”.

Mrs Robinson recounted a meeting with Haughey, who came armed with a ‘legal opinion’ in his hand. He argued that she was doing more in her role as president than the constitution allowed, but as a constitutional lawyer herself, she knew her position.

Once Haughey realised he was being outdone, he threw his legal opinion on the floor and said: “Ah that’s lawyers – you get what you pay for”.  “After that I didn’t have a problem”, Robinson joked.

Pivotal moments in her term as president included a historic trip to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen and her controversial hand shake with Gerry Adams were also discussed.

Mrs Robinson’s determination to challenge the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church, taking on issues such as contraception, divorce and sexuality was what she called “strong stuff” during the 1960s and 70s.

She spoke about being sent hate mail and being denounced from pulpits. When asked if she considered herself a ‘good Catholic’, Mrs Robinson answered that she was a ‘deeply spiritual’ person but was ‘very troubled’ by aspects of the authoritarian Catholic Church.

At one point during the interview she came close to tears as she retold the story of a trip to India as UN High Commissioner where a group of 80 Indian children sang We shall overcome to her.

Mrs Robinson also admitted it was a mistake to give up the presidency before her seven year tenure had ended, adding that she was under intense pressure from Kofi Annan to start her role as UN High Commissioner.

“Brutal” was how the former president described the transition to that demanding new role in 1997. She dealt with the stress by working herself even harder, and by Christmas of 1997 said she was  “exhausted” and “a wreck”.

When her older brother, a doctor, told her she was heading towards a breakdown she heeded his advice to review the way she was working.

She went on to excel in her role, traveling to Rwanda, South Africa, Colombia and Cambodia and in September 1998, she became the first High Commissioner to visit China.

As with all Young’s castaway guests, Mrs Robinson chose the discs she would bring to her desert island.

The time she spent in finishing school in Paris as a teenager was the inspiration for her choice of Edith Piaf’s Non, Je ne regrette rien and Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessun Dorma brought back memories of Ireland’s  World Cup bid in 1990, but her other choices had a more Irish feel.

Mrs Robinson chose a symphony by Joseph Haydn, performed by the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and described Luke Kelly’s famous Raglan Road as a song that represented ‘a deep love of Irish culture’.

Her final choice was The Parting Glass by Liam Clancy and Thomas Makem which she introduced with the expression “Bas in Eireann”, expressing her wish to die in Ireland.

“I couldn’t say no,” the 69 year old explained when she asked about the call she received in March 2013 asking her to act as Special Envoy for the Great Lakes District and Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I knew that problem for 19 years,” she added, referring to her first significant visit to Rwanda in 1994 to witness the aftermath of the genocide there.

Speaking about her future, Robinson said that she hoped she had already made a contribution, but didn’t sound like she was anywhere close to stopping, saying: “My agenda keeps moving on.”

The Co. Mayo native joked that Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson was not one of her musical choices, saying the song, which was played over and over again during her presidential campaign, had “lost its charm”.

The song may have, but Robinson herself certainly hasn’t.

The full interview can be heard at www.bbc.co.uk.

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