Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and more former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. Born Mary Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo (1944), the daughter of two physicians, she was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), King's Inns Dublin and Harvard Law School to which she won a fellowship in 1967.
A committed European, she also served on the International Commission of Jurists, the Advisory Committee of Interights, and on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees. The recipient of numerous honours and awards throughout the world, Mary Robinson is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the American Philosophical Society and, since 2002, has been Honorary President of Oxfam International. A founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, she serves on many boards including the Vaccine Fund, and chairs the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Currently based in New York, Mary Robinson is now leading Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative. Its mission is to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage.
Question: How has Ireland weathered the global recession and debt crisis?
Mary Robinson: I’m very aware, because I’m actually moving back to Ireland, but these are really difficult times indeed. We’ve had the property bubble, we’ve had the misjudgments, to say the least, and the pain, and the real sense, at the moment, of anger about the unfairness and the role of the banks and the role of the property dealers who were most caught up in that bubble.
I’m very glad to be going back to Ireland, I’m really very happy about it, because I want to connect again with an Ireland that has to actually find the courage and the motivation moving forward to try and engage our very bright young people, I’m going to be linked with the two universities in Dublin and really anybody who’s working on climate issues and we’re going to be working to promote the idea of climate justice. I’d like Ireland to be the go-to place on climate justice, a bridge between the developed world going into the renewable energies and necessarily having measures of mitigation, but also the need to transfer good, green technologies, low-carbon technologies, to the poorest so that they can develop, they have a right to development. And Ireland has a very good history and tradition of development aid. It began with priests and nuns pioneering in the poorest parts of the world, and some of them are still there. And then very good NGO’s and Irish Aid itself, the government program, is very well regarded, and I know, in developing countries, because it’s very focused on the poorest and most vulnerable, in a very sustainable way. So I want to try and help to work with those on the ground to rekindle, I think, a sense of real pride and purpose in Ireland on this issue of climate justice.
Question: Will Ireland be able to regain the competitive strength of the Celtic Tiger days?
Mary Robinson: I’ve no doubt it will take a bit of time, but we have a great advantage of size, we have a very bright population, there’s a lot of research that has gone on, and there is a sense of community again. Maybe during the Celtic Tiger, people got very selfish, and now we have more sense of community. I’m hearing that Irish Gaelic word "meitheal," meaning linked to the other, the spirit of "meitheal," "meitheal" communities. People in small towns and villages actually looking after those who are most hard hit and, you know, there’s a human element coming back in, in a community sense and I do hope that we will continue to put great emphasis on education and on our young people because that’s the way we will turn around fastest. But I have every confidence. We’ve been in hard times before, we just need to accept that there was a foolishness and a stupidity and a selfishness and that some people are feeling pain who didn’t have that responsibility, which is provoking a lot of anger, and we need to be as far as possible in how we move forward.
Recorded September 21, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown