The outsiders’ insider

Mary Robinson used her privileges well and took up the language of socialism to advance social democracy, not without mistakes made, her memoir reveals Review by Donncha O’Connell 


No one who writes a memoir reveals all of themselves. That would be mad. Many who write memoirs conceal too much of themselves. That is sad. Mary Robinson’s memoir, ‘Everybody Matters’, is neither mad nor sad.

It is a quite candid and reflective chronicle of high achievement by an outsiders’ insider. Speaking to your own record cannot be easy when your record speaks so eloquently for itself. Mary Robinson manages to do this in an accessible way that eschews the usual temptations of the memoir genre towards self-serving revisionism or bitter score-settling. There is some score-settling but it’s subtly done.

No doubt others will write more critically of her record but in ‘Everybody Matters’ she gives an account of herself that, although subjective, does admit to mistakes and reveals the human frailty that co-exists with iconic stature. It also expresses pride in a life of serious accomplishment that generously acknowledges the positive influence of others and warmly acknowledges the sustaining intimacy of close family and friends, particularly her husband Nick.

As the book is chronological one gets to appreciate the private-life vicissitudes that punctuate the unimaginably busy public life of an icon. There are touching accounts of the sudden death of her mother, the premature death of her brother, Aubrey, and the later loss, in 2001, of her beloved father. All of these upheavals took place at moments of acute pressure in her public life that must seriously have challenged her inner reserves of emotional resilience. Her relationship with her father is pivotal and something that provided a point of real connection later in life with women leaders from developing countries who spoke of the importance of affirming relationships with their own fathers.

But there is plenty of happiness too, and quite a bit of dancing that skirts closely – and, one suspects, unself-consciously – by her ever-dancing, ever-lyrical radio and TV caricatures. She is at her best in this memoir when she writes of her personal life. The courage that defined her career as a lawyer, politician and activist was also required at critical moments in her personal life whether it involved sticking stubbornly to career choices, taking public stances that embarrassed her parents and, indeed, choosing to marry Nick Robinson. In all of this she is totally understanding of her parents and reconciled to the conflicts that must have been painful at the time.

Although brilliant academically, Mary Robinson was always a worldly, as distinct from a public intellectual, more lighthouse than ‘lighthouse in a bog’. Her intellectualism was engaged and grounded, something perhaps connected to her training in the discipline of law. In ‘Everybody Matters’ she is modest about her achievements as a lawyer, which is somewhat incongruous as that aspect of her work had enormous impact and leaves an  ineradicable legacy.

There is an almost clichéd begrudgery in Ireland that entitles critics to diminish the achievements of someone as privileged as Mary Robinson, as if the very fact of her privilege negatives each of her achievements. This is particularly acute when those achievements are philanthropic. A fairer assessment might be to acknowledge that she used her privileges well and usually for the betterment of others. Behind all of this was an extraordinary work-rate and commitment to the clients and causes that she served.  There was also courage in abundance and indefatigable passion that sustained her ambition for justice.

Of course, there must also have been personal ambition but it was deployed to advance a much greater utopian agenda. She had the courage of her convictions because she actually had strong convictions. If she was fearful – and it appears that, on occasion, she was – she hid it well.

Mary Robinson has always been difficult to categorise politically. Explaining her decision, in 1976, to join the Labour Party she says: “I took up the language of socialism because I believed in social democracy”. Her only other option was probably Fine Gael but she found Labour’s social and economic policies more equitable and distributive.  She never seemed fully at home in Labour but, to be fair, that may tell us as much about Labour at the time as it does about Mary Robinson.

Although they were not always in agreement, she was probably closer to the civic republicanism of Garret FitzGerald than were most of Fine Gael, but less close to his version of social democracy than were some of Fine Gael. In relation to his social democracy, she was a stronger egalitarian than he was but they were firm friends.

On the so-called ‘national question’ she undoubtedly bore the influence of Conor Cruise-O’Brien, as did most people of her generation with an interest in Northern Ireland, whether they like to admit it or not. This became most evident in her decision, in 1985, to oppose the Hillsborough Agreement and leave the Labour Party by absenting herself from the Seanad chamber when it voted on the Agreement. With the benefit of hindsight that hardly seems like a wise decision, even if it was well-intentioned at the time, and she graciously acknowledges that the 1985 Agreement did break the mould of Anglo-Irish relations in a way that was, ultimately, successful in establishing peace on the island of Ireland and ‘re-constitutionalising’ Northern Ireland.

Mary Robinson has never been as radical as some of the ‘radicals’ who adore her. She seems more radical because she is a change agent ahead of her time. Her early commitment to European integration and, more recently, to climate justice are emblematic of this outpacing of the political curve. Independence would seem to be her defining political quality – more ‘my way’ than ‘third way’ – driven by a conscientiousness that would be difficult to accommodate in any political party. It was these qualities that made her a truly great President of Ireland.

The late Professor Kevin Boyle (who, strangely, is not mentioned in this book) once described Mary Robinson’s experience at the UN as starting with shock followed by frustration. Her five-year period as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 1997 to 2002, was crucial in establishing that office within the seemingly toxic pantheon that is the United Nations. She deserves real credit for this.

Her predecessor had served for three years and her successor survived a mere eleven months before being killed in a bomb attack in Baghdad. In her manifestation as High Commissioner for Human Rights, she was decidedly an outsider on the inside. To insiders, and certainly to some governments, this made her seem like an annoying dilettante but, to Robinson, it provided a platform for the kind of ‘witness’ that she sees as vital to the promotion and protection of human rights globally. Whatever about the frustrations she experienced there, Mary Robinson found the full range of her moral voice at the UN.

Her period of ‘thinking time’ after the UN, followed by the highly innovative Realising Rights initiative, is well described and provides a useful model of effective social entrepreneurship. It is in this period that she seems most forthright in her acknowledgement of the limits of a purely human-rights-based approach to problems.  Now focused on moral leadership as a sprightly (and occasionally dancing) ‘Elder’, she operates in the company of other hardcore utopians like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This phase of her life may yet be the most interesting. ‘Everybody Matters’ is a decent memoir but there is a much bigger biography to be written about Mary Robinson. Hopefully, it’s too soon to write it.


Donncha O’Connell is a lecturer in law at NUI Galway and editor of the Irish Human Rights Law Review, published biennially by Clarus Press