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 Irish identity changed?
Mary Robinson: I would say that the traditional Catholic Ireland that I grew up in was very much focused on the male hierarchical structure starting with the church itself. But women on the whole didn’t work outside the home, and women couldn’t serve on juries. There were all kinds of discriminations, and many of those I went into public life early to tackle. So I was trying to change those circumstances from a very early stage. I think it was a combination of an inner sense of justice, and that sense that women had just as much potential, and that I had the same potential as my brothers which, in fact, my parents very much encouraged.