Mary Robinson brings an unusually progressive aspect to Ireland's presidency


DUBLIN, Ireland -- If the role of this country's president is largely symbolic, Mary Robinson presents the face of a new Ireland.

The election of the 46-year-old mother, lawyer and liberal six months ago marked a watershed in Irish politics, a clear shift from a Roman Catholic Church-dominated society toward a more pluralistic one.

She is Ireland's:

* First female president.

* First president to openly favor divorce and contraception and oppose discrimination against homosexuals.

* First president who is not a member of Fianna Fail, the republican party that has dominated modern Irish politics.

* First president to have unionist representatives from Northern Ireland at her inauguration.

Her tenure already has had an impact. Since she has been in office, the major parties have become less conservative and more attentive to social issues.

The Fianna Fail-led coalition government is now busy reviewing the laws on marital breakdown and homosexuality. It has already eased restrictions on contraception.

The possibility of ending the constitutional ban on divorce, roundly rejected in a 1986 referendum, is suddenly back on the political agenda.

"Arguably, none of these things would have happened were it not for the Robinson election," Emily O'Reilly, political correspondent of the Irish Press, wrote in "Candidate," her newly published book on the presidential campaign.

Brendan O'Leary, senior lecturer in political science at the London School of Economics, said a vote for Mrs. Robinson was a vote for modernity, accountability and liberal Catholicism.

"The most significant thing you can say is that Robinson has allowed people to speak about formerly taboo subjects in an easier way.

"Her election has allowed [Prime Minister Charles J.] Haughey, who is probably more liberal than is commonly estimated, to say to Fianna Fail, 'Look, we have to move toward this new agenda if we are to survive as the biggest party in Irish politics,' " Mr. O'Leary said.

In electing her, voters were, in the words of an Irish Times editorial, "committing Ireland to a vision of the country as one which can be open, tolerant, pluralist and generous."

Her own reaction to becoming president?

"My election was on the exact first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Something has crumbled away in Ireland, too."

She defeated former Deputy Prime Minister Brian Lenihan, the ++ veteran Fianna Fail candidate.

Mrs. Robinson is from a protected and privileged middle-class background -- both her parents were doctors -- in a country that has more than its share of hardship and poverty.

She made her name as a leftist, activist civil rights lawyer, frequently clashing with the influential Catholic church hierarchy. Her interest in individual rights and freedoms was sparked during a postgraduate spell at Harvard in the late '60s.

She returned home to become the youngest law professor at her Dublin alma mater, Trinity College. In 1969 she was elected to the Senate, where she quickly introduced the first attempt to legalize the import and sale of contraceptives in Ireland.

She challenged discrimination against women serving on juries and questioned the equality of the welfare system.

Later, she won a European Court of Human Rights ruling that Ireland's anti-gay laws were in violation of the Human Rights Convention, which, until she was elected, the government studiously ignored.

On the explosive issue of cross-border relations, she advocated repeal of Ireland's 1937 constitutional claim to the territory of British-ruled Northern Ireland and rejected the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which affords Dublin a voice in the affairs of the north. She felt the agreement was unfair to the north's unionists -- who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom -- and who were not consulted.

High as her activist profile was, few viewed her as presidential material until the minority Labor Party started to look for a candidate who could turn the presidency into a meaningful institution while boosting the party's own election appeal.

Mrs. Robinson had been a member of the Labor Party for several years but had parted company with it over policy differences. She chose to run her presidential campaign as an independent, but she accepted Labor Party nomination and welcomed open support from the leftist Workers Party.

Initially, she was the outsider, facing an almost certain drubbing by Mr. Lenihan. Her fortunes started to change when the second major party, Fine Gael, fielded a remarkably weak candidate. She moved quickly into strong second place.

Political scandal then hit the Lenihan camp. Mr. Lenihan was sacked as deputy prime minister, but he persisted with his presidential campaign, banking on a combination of loyalty and sympathy from the party faithful.

His setback put Mrs. Robinson on her way to astounding victory.

She sought to promote herself not as a leftist-activist but as a concerned social democrat. Replacing the image of a cold, calculating lawyer with cool compassion, she merrily toured the country to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel's "And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson."

She deliberately ran a fast-paced, highly mobile and energetic campaign in contrast to the more measured efforts of Mr. Lenihan, who was recovering from a liver transplant.

She struck a presidential image, dressing in designer clothes and skirting the divisive questions of divorce and abortion -- dubbed locally "the distortion issue" -- by saying that as president she would put aside her personal opinions and abide by the majority view.

To offset her record of social conflict with the church, she emphasized her Catholic upbringing and continuing faith.

Mr. Lenihan won the first ballot with 44.1 percent of the votes against Mrs. Robinson's 38.9 percent. His lead was not enough for outright victory.

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