In an interview with Aide Edemariam from The Guardian, Mary Robinson describes her life and work - as a child growing up in County Mayo, Ireland; as a young senator and later first female President of Ireland; as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; and as a member of The Elders and the founder of a new organisation campaigning for climate justice.
In 1993, three years into her presidency of Ireland, Mary Robinson paid a visit to west Belfast. The trip was controversial before she went – the Irish government didn't want her there, and neither did the British – but it became far more controversial when, in the course of her tour, she happened to shake the hand of a local politician, one Gerry Adams. The next day, "trying to be a good president, I washed the hair and waited for the hairdresser to arrive," Robinson told an RTÉ radio show recently. "And she was a good northern Protestant, and she didn't turn up." Robinson tried to fix it herself, but at her first engagement her efforts were scornfully dismissed: "You'd think she'd have got her hair done to come and see us!" When she got to the airport to give a final press conference, there was a hairdresser waiting – the Northern Irish security forces were so upset about the incident they'd organised one.
Robinson told the anecdote not in order to complain about being a woman in the public eye, judged on appearance alone, but as an example of unexpected thoughtfulness across political lines. Striking, too, is her sympathy with the woman who didn't arrive to do her job, and her understanding of the power of the simple gesture, both to entrench division, and to heal it: there are those who argue her handshake helped pave the way to the IRA ceasefire the next year. Certainly it was brave; some unionists may also have recognised that her characteristic commitment to a fair hearing worked both ways – in the early 1980s she resigned from the Labour party because she felt unionists had not been adequately consulted about the Anglo-Irish agreement. But in the week when the security forces who helped her then are finally answering to Stormont, rather than Westminster, the anecdote also underscores just how far Northern Ireland has travelled in the past 17 years.
And not just Northern Ireland. Robinson is 65 now, and has spent 13 years in New York, first as UN commissioner for human rights, then, after pressure from the Bush administration contributed to her resignation (they were unimpressed by her warnings that the "war on terror" would compromise human rights and saw her as so pro-Palestinian that the conservative National Review accused her of war crimes) as president of Realizing Rights, the advocacy organisation she founded in 2002. But she is moving back to Ireland this year. A rather bruised Ireland, granted, in the grip of recession and rumours of bankruptcy (the Celtic Tiger, she says forthrightly, was an episode of "sheer selfish stupidity"), but an Ireland whose moral place in the EU, whose liberalised laws and reputation as a modern state, she helped to shape.
We meet at Trinity College in central Dublin, in a bare office at the top of the arts faculty building. She looks tired, but is both gracious and completely controlled – she has the rare quality of seeming approachable, even good company, while also making it clear that certain lines are not to be crossed. Many in Ireland, used to the populist bonhomie of working-class male politicians such as Bertie Ahern, have always found her cool, even haughty. And it is true she is an extremely assured presence. Her sentences – full of world leaders, capital cities, global initiatives, sometimes too full of development and human rights jargon – unspool smoothly and clearly into the silence.
Robinson is obviously looking forward to coming home – not least because it will bring her closer to her four grandchildren – but she will not be retiring. Instead, she will be concentrating her efforts on trying to bring about what she calls "climate justice": trying to ensure that those most affected by global warming (generally those who had least to do with producing it) receive some redress. This is a natural progression of her work in New York: at the UN she widened the brief of the human rights commission to include, for example, security, but in the way that women tend to mean it, not men – security of food, safe water, healthcare, shelter. She was criticised at the time for fatally diluting her mandate but she's still having none of it. "I don't at all subscribe to the notion that you weaken human rights by making it relevant to globalisation and corporate responsibility," she says. "Human rights is about holding those with power to account for abuse of power."
Increasingly, however, she has understood that there is little point fighting on all these fronts if "the development of the poor communities that we were working with is being undermined by the impacts of climate change". She makes no bones about her disappointment in Copenhagen – "there wasn't the political leadership there should have been" – and argues that it was not just a specific failure, of one summit, but rather a kind of canary in the coalmine for the shape of the world to come. Partly this is for the obvious reason of not cutting emissions in time – "You know, you can fail to get a Doha agreement, and it may or may not be serious. The failure to get agreement in Copenhagen has put the whole world more at risk" – but partly because, coinciding with the economic crisis in the west, it was such a graphic illustration of a "huge shift in power and allegiances. We face a world where, increasingly, those with economic power don't have, traditionally, strong values in human rights." For the many millions of vulnerable people in the world it's a toxic combination, and she is aware that there isn't time to lose.
These vulnerable people do, however – as she means to point out forcefully in her climate justice work – have an unprecedented weapon in their armoury: they will "form the bulk of population growth, from the 7 billion we'll probably reach this year, to 9 billion-plus in 2050, in 40 years' time. And so for the first time, I think, in human history, the richer parts of the world are dependent for our future survival on what happens in the poorest parts. It's no longer about compassion and philanthropy – it is in our future self-interest to ensure that the poorest have access to low-carbon strategies."
The trouble is, of course, that their governments are generally too overburdened, indebted and distracted by the present to fight this particular fight, but after Copenhagen Robinson does not think governments are the way to go, if they ever were.
The answer, for her, is "civil society": "I mean churches, I mean business, I mean trade unions, I mean the normal environmental groups, development groups, human rights groups, youth groups – as never before we have to build up the pressure." It's a big, frustratingly vague notion – which, she knows well, has often been touted as the solution to intractable problems, not least in Northern Ireland, where it had distinctly limited success – but she seems hopeful, nevertheless.
Robinson likes to trace her profound sense of fairness, and her belief in the possibility of social change, back to when she was a child in Ballina, County Mayo, and visiting her paternal grandfather, who lived down the road. A retired lawyer, he still had "a passion for law – in the sense of the small guy, the tenant against the landlord, etcetera. My grandfather was of the age and disposition where he had no idea how to talk to a child. So he talked to me as if I was an adult, and I loved it. I felt so important."
Her parents were both doctors, although her mother gave up medicine when she had five children in quick succession, of whom Mary was the third ("that was my interest in human rights, being wedged between four brothers"). Robinson insists her mother never expressed regret about this, but "it led me to understand that the real key is to have choices. And that there really isn't the necessary range of choices for women." She went to a convent school, and was happy there, but higher education – finishing school in Paris, a law degree at Trinity Dublin, then a master's at Harvard during the Vietnam war – shook all the assumptions she had grown up with.
When she became auditor of the law society in Dublin in 1967, her inaugural address was on law and morality in Ireland and took on every sacred cow: contraception, women's rights, abortion, gay rights, "including the status of children", she says, "which is just being, finally, addressed now." Two years later, aged 25 and already Trinity's youngest law professor, she ran for a seat in the Irish senate. Her first bill as a mini-skirted young senator aimed to overturn the ban on the import, distribution and sale of contraceptives. Condoms were posted through her letterbox, and in her home village the bishop denounced her from the pulpit. Her parents, despite being doctors and thus presumably apprised of the individual effects of bans on abortion and contraception, believed in the teachings of the Catholic church and were upset by her attempts to change the law; they were even more upset when she announced she was to marry Nick Robinson, a Protestant lawyer who went on to become a political cartoonist. Although this has been described as a religious objection, she recently corrected this impression in an interview with Irish television presenter Gay Byrne: her parents were, she said, "engaged in over-love" – she was their only girl, good at school; nobody, let alone a man known to have had lots of girlfriends, was good enough, and they declined to come to the wedding. In the event the estrangement lasted only three months – the marriage has now lasted for 40 years – but it simply underlined, again, her stubbornness, and her willingness to stand up for what she felt was right.
Which is not a recipe for popularity. When she ran for seats in the lower house, she failed. She came second in the presidential election, winning only when votes from the third-place candidate were transferred. But there were reports of people dancing in the streets when she won, and she, most of all, knew what she had done: "I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system." Famously, she lit a lamp in her window, as a welcoming sign to the vast Irish diaspora; deliberately – there was no lack of steel in her campaign, and she quickly showed a willingness to exploit the gaffes of often incompetent rivals – she made herself less private and austere, acquiring suits by Irish designers, trying, above all, to be more open and approachable, more, she told Byrne, like her own warm, gregarious mother. "And the more I did that, the more I got back an extraordinary response." Her approval ratings climbed to 90% and stayed there.
What she quickly realised then, and has honed carefully, ever since, is that there is a real need for a moral authority outside the compromise and horse-trading of conventional politics; she knows, too, that it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to get right.
Furthermore, when Nelson Mandela asked her to join the Elders, a group of 12 eminent leaders chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who, rather sweetly, they call "the Arch") she says she felt it was "quite an arrogant idea". But when "we went to our first planning meeting in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela – Madiba – joined us – that put an end to my doubts, because he was so strong, and he looked around and said, 'It's your task to listen very carefully, be humble. Don't go into a place thinking you know more than the people there.'"
Finding a way to empower civil society is all the more important, she thinks, because the world's largest democracy seems, at the moment, so fragile. "Obama's trying to provide [leadership], but I think that the American political system is becoming dysfunctional, and that's really, really worrying." (Also wobbly, though without quite the same impact on the rest of the world, is Northern Ireland: delicate power-sharing between arch-rivals like the DUP and Sinn Féin is a great achievement, she says, but it makes it "difficult to position those who want to hold that to account … it's not a straightforward democratic process at the moment. It's a tentative post-conflict process.")
She is very aware that something like moral authority was claimed by the neo-con project and its bid to export democracy by force, and that "moral authority" is what is claimed by systems, such as religion, that subjugate women in the developing world. "We made a very strong statement on that," she says.
Finally, she knows that know it is an ever-changing, delicate thing. "When I was president it was two kinds of things – one was to change the role of the office, to develop its potential under the constitution, and then try to exert it. And when I was serving as high commissioner, it was another kind of moral authority, because of the absence of an enforcement mechanism. It was going to where the victims were suffering violations and speaking from their perspective. And now I find it again with the Elders. And the reason why I'm so honoured and passionate to do it is because I feel a terrible sense of urgency. I really do."