Mary Robinson - CC / Flickr
Mary Robinson - CC / Flickr

No sooner have the Irish ratified the Treaty of Lisbon than a campaign starts to try to get an Irish citizen nominated to be President of the European Council – Mary Robinson, former Irish President. If you back her candidacy you can join the Facebook group here – there are more than 1300 members as I write, not bad for a few days of work. More on the issue of a woman for at least one of the three top jobs can be found at Eurosocialist’s blog here.

I’m absolutely in favour of the need for more women in EU top jobs, and Blair’s candidacy makes me rather nervous – Blair at the European Council and Barroso in the Commission will produce only one winner, and it will not be the Portuguese…

But is Mary Robinson the right candidate? She has the right background and standing, and a large number of Irish people I follow on Twitter from across the political spectrum seem to like the idea of her candidacy. Can someone maybe enlighten me as to the reasons why she’s actually good?


  1. Fergus O'Rourke


    Erskine Childers and Cearbhaill O Dalaigh spring to mind, albeit in each of their cases the excuse was of a different order. My point is partly that “the system” was not put into crisis in any sense by a premature departure.

    “Bitterness” I don’t remember. What I remember is politically motivated grumbling, from the quarters that McAleese sprang from, the same quarters that were so discombobulated by everything positive that Mary Robinson did to Irish public life.

    Are you really, seriously, suggesting that a 7-year term is like a prison sentence with no scope for parole or early release ? It isn’t, you know: it’s intended as a maximum (Brian Cowen, please – PLEASE – note !). If she had gotten itchy feet after, say, four years, I (despite my reservations about her) would have been indulgent, even if she only went back to teaching. But she left a mere handful of weeks early, to take up a very significant international position, the offer of which was regarded by Irish public opinion as a matter of pride, not just to her, but to the state itself.

  2. Fergus, who else left early? I can’t recall.

    That’s not the point. She didn’t, as you full well know, campaign on a platform of pure ceremony. And by the way, there was bitterness at her quitting early. That was why Pres. McAleese specifically stressed that she would serve a full term. Why would she do that if it wasn’t an issue?

  3. Fergus O'Rourke

    Jason may have a point with his second paragraph.

    The first paragraph, though, is ridiculous. Mrs Robinson was elected for a 7-year term, and served 6 years 11 months. Is Jason really suggesting that it made any sense to refuse a major international role for the sake of a few weeks in a job of almost purely ceremonial nature ?

    It’s not as if her departure sparked a crisis of any kind. She wasn’t the first President to leave before the end of her term, and the transition to a new President was smoothly effected, to no-one’s surprise.

  4. She resigned the presidency early to take up the UN job. It’s the highest office in the land, and if it is interfering with one’s career plans then one should not seek it.

    By Equal moarl value, I mean that politics is about elected officials making hard choices: i.e. I have €50 million to spend either on Aids research or Cancer research. Either decision is good, but either decision will cause anger from the cause that does not receive the money. She has never had to defend those decisions, only holding office where talk is cheap. I’m sorry, but this continent needs a doer.

  5. french derek

    Jason, why do you think it is that so many Irish don’t like Mary Robinson? Did she do – or not do – something of which we foreigners are unaware?

    I’m not sure what you mean by “decisions of equal moral value”. Could you explain this for me, please? However, it has to be noted that the President of the Council of Ministers is more of a Chairman’s role, less a decision-making role. Decision-making will remain the prerogative of the Council itself (can you imagine any national head of state giving that up?).

    Above all, though, the President will be the international “face” of the EU – the focal point for the collection of matters needing Council (or Commission) action. However, I recognise that a good Chairman would also nudge the Council towards “moral” decisions: which is why your response would be helpful.

  6. Have never understood her appeal. She was our first female president, which was an extraordinary achievement and the harbinger of liberal reform in Ireland, but it’s quite rare to find an Irish person who actually likes her. That and she’s never held a job that involves actually making decisions of equal moral value. Sorry, but I remain to be convinced.

  7. Hey Jon, its great you’re debating this, there is a reason this campaign is making real waves, and I think it answers one of the outstanding questions that was left after her impressive Post President – CV . Will she stand up to bullies?

    Mary Robinson before she was President of Ireland was exceptionally brave if you consider what she did and the kind of ireland and culture of the time that she operated in.

    Mary Cut her teeth in the ‘feminist’ movement in Ireland which was actually more about reproductive rights, jobs and juries than burning bras, It was illegal to have condoms in Ireland, later you could only have them if you were a married couple, and finally it was fully liberalized. She was one of the leaders of the campaign for freeing up Ireland, if you look at womens rights, contraception and gay rights, there you will find that Mary was one of the pioneers of the movement to fight for these things. Ireland back then could best be described as a Christian Iran. the power of the catholic church was pervasive and ruined many a a normal career let alone a political career who defied its ‘wisdom’.

    Nonetheless Mary was elected Senator for the bones of about 20 years, she took the Labour Party whip but later resigned from the Party due to the Anglo-Irish Agreement not having involved the Protestant – Unionist in the negotiations, saying there could not be a settlement without including them. Obviously that wasnt too popular down south, cos in the mid 80’s ireland would have been fairly anti- british and protestant in sentiment. People may have tried to then paint her not only as a baby killing communist, but now she was something worse, a unionist lover! Of course she showed that to be utter nonsense, when as President on a visit up north, she was the first Senior Politician to shake Gerry Adams hand publicly with press and tv present, which again led to an uproar, looks like she upset the bigots on both sides by being fair and having a vision that everyone needs to talk if a solution is to be found. So it wasn’t just on womens/gay/human rights but on conflict and bigotry that mary was unafraid to make a stand for what was right. all this happening when ireland was not the open liberal european country it is today, but back when it was an isolated, nationalist and deeply conservative run down island.

    Mary as President – she had tensions at times with the governments she served in, but despite that she became ever more popular with the people, honestly even her original detractors and opponents were all won over by her competence, dignity and her passion for humanity. Disadvantaged groups brought to the Aras, the light for the diaspora, and of course her brave foreign visits, like the first head of state to visit Rwanda , who highlighted the terrible atrocities that had happened by holding a press conference out there. go back and watch that public press conference she called, i dont think there was a dry eye in Ireland, nor was a people ever prouder of their leader, the women ended up with +90% approval ratings before she left office, and even the political parties that were opposed to her, all came out in support of her run for UNHCR with completely opposite parties in govt (dem Left, Labour & FG Govt changed in 1997 into the FF & PD Govt) both equally working hard to get her the job. there are many things to talk about, but she is widely recognised as the best president that we have had and it is universally accepted she took the role and really forged it into something else, revitalising the presidency.

    Her background was law, indeed she was Reid Professor of Law in Trinity College, which is unquestionably the best university in Ireland (indeed one of the best in the world – ps I have never been a student there, so this isn’t a self indulgent back patting exercise) and that position is arguably one of the most important law positions in the country outside the judiciary. former reid professor of law was Mary McAleese (Current President) and current Reid Professor is Senator Ivana Bacik, who before being senator was already a national figure.

    The reality is that Mary is a courageous fighter for the oppressed and forgotten, we saw her role as UNHCR when she clashed with the US, and again how she made her point, openly and dignified about why she would not serve again, which in many ways was probably more embarassing for the US than anything else she could have done. this is probably why the govts of the EU, used to horse trading rather than principled politics are reluctant to adopt someone like her. She is simply too good and would outshine them, which as we know most politicians egos cannot abide being outshone!

    There is no doubt in my mind that having one of the 12 Elders as a Leader of this New Post Lisbon EU, might actually see us start to deliver on our alleged aims to progress human rights and combat climate change and poverty.across the world. compare that to the guy who despite his ‘conviction politics’ didnt even have the conviction to be the religion he wanted to be when in office, the guy who looked for opt outs from the charter of fundamental rights, and helped george bush bomb the cradle of civilisation back into the stone age for some well connected private contractors to make massive profits.

    The Choice couldn’t be more stark.

    It is with complete faith in her ability that I give my total support for her candidacy, my friends Donal and Claire set up the facebook page and i was one of the first people invited, I in turn invited my approx 900 facebook friends to sign up, looking at the page now it has over 5,500 fans, compared that to Blair’s facebook page, it is up much longer, his candidacy has been floated since last march/april and the he has recently received official support from the Irish Prime Minister, it has not even broken 250 yet.

    It would seem clear what the choice should be.
    will the EU take heed or was all the ‘Lisbon = more democracy’ stuff just guff.

  8. Two good deeds recommended for citizens all over the European Union: Sign the Stop Blair petition and show support for Mary Robinson, whose work experience is impressive and whose visions are at one with the EU’s founding values.

  9. Jon, there’s an interview with Mary Robinson in openDemocracy (from 2003) that I’d urge you to read. She clearly has a perspective on what the EU is about and what it can do. She’ll also have had plenty of experience from her work in international institutions in dealing with government leaders, so I trust that she will be smart in dealing with ‘bullies like Sarkozy’ who, mind, is one of the 27 people who has to support her nomination, if it (hopefully) will ever come that far.

  10. here’s the website for mobilisation :

  11. She seems to me like a pretty determined lady, ready to stand in front of anyone.

  12. 4500 on Facebook now…
    @Jon, I would have no doubts about her ability to stand up to anyone…

  13. french derek

    But Jon, I had hoped your blog would be the start of such a campaign? Why not?

    I shall try to spread the word – especially repeating some of the material Joe so helpfully provided – if I may? Let’s get it rolling. The citizens of Europe deserve better than Blair.

  14. @Joe – thanks for the additional points. I wonder how she is as a person though… will she stand up to bullies like Sarkozy? I hope so.

    @french derek (and others) – the problem is that you don’t actually have a vote, and neither does the European Parliament, as the position is appointed by QMV among the heads of state and government.

    But all of this leads me to wonder: could there be grounds for some good mobilisation to back Robinson?

  15. french derek

    All I can say is: spread this info as far and wide as possible.

    As I noted before, she has my vote already.

  16. Here’s what she’s been doing since being President of Ireland. Looks good enough for me to vote for her over any of the others I’ve seen mentioned…

    In 1997 Robinson became United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 1998 she became the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Tibet. She criticised the Irish system of permits for non-EU immigrants as similar to “bonded labour” and criticised the United States’ use of capital punishment. She presided over the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, as Secretary-General. Robinson’s posting as High Commissioner ended in 2002, after sustained pressure from the United States led her to declare she was no longer able to continue her work.  Robinson had criticised the US for violating human rights in its war on terrorism.

    Mary Robinson has been Honorary President of Oxfam International since 2002, she is Chair of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and is also a founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. Robinson is also one of the European members of the Trilateral Commission and Vice-President of the Club of Madrid.

    She serves on many boards including as chair of the GAVI Alliance. Robinson’s newest project is Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative, which fosters equitable trade and decent work, promotes the right to health and more humane migration policies, works to strengthen women’s leadership and encourage corporate responsibility. The organisation also supports capacity building and good governance in developing countries.

    In 2004, she received Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award for her work in promoting human rights.

    In 2007, Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu convened a group of world leaders, including Mary Robinson, to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. Nelson Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday.

    Robinson is the twenty fourth, and first female, Chancellor of University of Dublin (Trinity College).
    In 1997 she was one of the two winners of the North-South Prize.
    In 2002 she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize for her outstanding work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and in 2003 the prestigious Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold of the United Nations Association of Germany in Berlin.
    In May 2005 she was awarded the first “Outspoken” award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).
    In October 2006 she was awarded the Social Science Principes de Asturias Prize.
    In January 2009, Robinson was appointed as head of the International Commission of Jurists.
    In September 2009, she was awarded the 2009 Inamori Ethics Prize by Case Western Reserve University.
    In July 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States presented to her by President Barack Obama.

  17. Fergus O'Rourke

    I’m one of your Irish Twitter friends. I am also someone who actually used shoe-leather to help my former lecturer (Robinson) to be elected as President.

    However, like you, I am waiting for someone to persuade me that she has the qualities for this particular job. So far, no-one has really tried.

  18. french derek

    She would certainly meet the requirements of a group representing smaller members. They want someone from a smaller nation, who is committed to the EU. For it to be a woman would please many also.

    My vote for her is based on none of these requirements. She has brought dignity and relevance to each of the jobs she has undertaken. And Mr Blair …….?

  19. For an outsider, Mary Robinson’s work in Ireland and the UN looks like an embodiment of the values the European Union is committed to, within the union and in its external action.

    Additional assessments would be most welcome.

    In comparison, Tony Blair weakened the treaty proposals through British “red lines” every step of the way and left the UK semi-detached from the European Union, with four major opt-outs from the Lisbon Treaty.

    Most notably, the lack of commitment to the EU’s values and citizens’ rights, as expressed through the opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

    Major policy areas without (full) British participation: the euro currency, the Schengen area of free travel and justice and home affairs.

    Which organisation would even contemplate high office for someone, who is not committed to its goals?

    Blair’s history of dividing Europe over Iraq is not to his credit.

    Add that the ones rumoured to favour Blair want to stretch the job description way beyond the outline agreed in the Lisbon Treaty.

    Yes, Mary Robinson and other qualified persons should be discussed, and the member states should aid the process by public proposals.

  20. too good to be true I’m afraid…

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