Mary Robinson: 'I feel a terrible sense of urgency'

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 di smissed: “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.

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