Mary Robinson is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and inspiring presidents in the history of the state. Here we look back at her inaugural speech from 1990
On this day 29 years ago, politician, barrister and social justice campaigner Mary Robinson became the first woman to hold the office of President of Ireland.
Throughout her career as a senator, as President and in her subsequent humanitarian roles around the world, Robinson strived to make progress for marginalised communities. In the Seanad, she campaigned for a wide range of issues, including working rights for women, the legal availability of contraception and LGBTQ+ rights in Ireland. She was the subject of controversy for many years for her campaigns, yet she worked tirelessly.
As President, Robinson took a role that was traditionally seen as a 'cushy retirement' for ageing politicians and public figures, and she transformed it into a proactive and inspiring role at the helm of the country. Robinson served for seven years, and played a prominent role in the formation of more positive Anglo-Irish relations, as well as signing many transformative bills into law, including the decriminalisation of homosexuality and to make contraception readily available.
In 1997, Robinson resigned from her position to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the age of 53. After working in various human rights organisations all over the world, she took on her most recent challenge in 2018, being named as the new Chair of the Elders, succeeding Kofi Annan who had passed away months before, to work towards human rights and peace processes around the world.
With such a prolific career, her words of acceptance as the President of Ireland stand the test of time even now, 29 years later. Read her speech in full below:
Mary Robinson's acceptance speech as the first female President of Ireland
Exactly one year ago today the Berlin Wall came down. Five months later, at the invitation of the Labour Party, I applied to the people of Ireland for the job as President. They said: "Don't ring us, we'll ring you". In other words show us you are serious. The task ahead seemed daunting but straightforward enough in the quiet of my study. The tradition of easy-going elections - or indeed no elections - for the Presidency seemed to promise a fairly sedate seven months. In theory I would put a comprehensive and constructive case for a working Presidency before the people in a rational and responsible fashion, and on the basis of the policies put forward the Irish people would decide. The political soothsayers predicted the Irish people would give me a vote commensurate with that of the parties supporting me, in other words, third place. I began my campaign in May in places like Limerick, Allihies in West Cork, the Inishowen peninsula and the islands off the West coast, in a journey of joy and discovery, of myself, of my country, of the people of Ireland. Now seven months later I find that these places did not forget me. The people of Ireland did ring me, and you gave me the job, and I don't know whether to dance or to sing - and I have done both.
That seven months seems like seven years. There was nothing rational or reasonable about the campaign which developed into a barnstorming, no holds barred, battle between my ad hoc assembly of political activists, amateurs, idealists and romantic realists against the might, money and merciless onslaught of the greatest political party on this island. And we beat them.
Today is a day of victory and valediction. Even as I salute my supporters as Mary Robinson I must also bid them farewell as President-Elect. They are not just partisans, but patriots too. They know that as President of Ireland I must be a President for all the people. But more than that I want to be a President for all the people. Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage who stepped out from the faded flag of the civil war and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle rocked the system, and who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland.
Some say a politician's promises are worthless. We shall see. I mean to prove the cynics wrong. What I promised as a candidate I mean to deliver as President. Áras an Uachtaráin will, to the best of my ability, become a home as well as a house; a home for all those aspirations of equality and excellence which have no other home in public life. The first step in that process is to preserve and protect the building itself; and one of my first acts as President will be to consult with An Taoiseach, whose regard and respect for our arts and heritage I admire and acknowledge, and whom I know will give this aspect of affairs his best attention. But the material fabric is only the envelope of the enterprise, of that quest for equality and excellence of which I mean the Presidency to be the symbol.
I have a mandate for a changed approach within our Constitution. I spoke openly of change and I was elected on a platform of change. I was elected not by the parties of Ireland but by the people of Ireland, people of all parties. I will be a President for all the people, a symbol of reconciliation as well as renewal, not least in my commitment to pluralism and peace on this island. But I am not just a President of those here today but of those who cannot be here; and there will always be a light on in Áras an Uachtaráin for our exiles and our emigrants, those of whom the poet, Paul Durcan, so movingly wrote:
Yet I have no choice but to leave, to leave,
And yet there is nowhere I more yearn to live
Than in my own wild countryside,
Backside to the wind.
But as well as our emigrants abroad we have exiles at home; all those who are at home but homeless; the poor, the sick, the old, the unemployed, and above all, the women of Ireland who are still struggling on the long march to equality and equity. To all those who have no voice or whose voice is weak I say: take heart. There is hope. Look what you did in this election. You made history. As President, I hope we will make history together.
Dóchas linn Naomh Padraig - agus treise libh mná na hÉireann - a bhuail buille, ní amháin bhur son féin, ach ar son ceart an duine!
Featured image: president.ie via Twitter
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