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The Shy Professor Who Helped Bring Ireland Into the Modern Era : Politics: Mary Robinson, as president, is more symbol than power broker. But she is a singular force for greater pluralism and tolerance.

June 30, 1991|Jonathan A. Knee | Jonathan A. Knee, a Washington attorney, was a student of Mary Robinson's at Trinity College, Ireland

WASHINGTON — Last year's election of a feminist activist and civil-rights lawyer to the largely ceremonial presidency of Ireland was dismissed by many as an incidental result of a scandal that disgraced her opponent days before the election. This month, the first stage of negotiations that could end British rule of Northern Ireland began. The talks, which went forward only after the Irish government indicated "flexibility" on the question of removing its territorial claim over Northern Ireland from the Irish constitution, are the latest evidence that Mary Robinson's victory signaled the birth of a new, socially tolerant and politically sophisticated Ireland.

In her personal, professional and political life, Robinson symbolizes the rejection of values frequently associated with the Catholic Church that have kept Ireland politically and economically isolated from Europe, generally, and Northern Ireland, specifically. At 25, Robinson became both the youngest professor of law at Trinity College in Dublin and the youngest member of the upper house of the Irish Parliament. She married a Protestant--her parents refused to attend the wedding--and has described the "patriarchal, male-dominated presence of the Catholic Church" as the single most oppressive force subjugating women in Ireland today.

Extremely serious, intensely private and occasionally awkward, Robinson is an unlikely political maverick. She is much more comfortable making a technical legal argument than appealing to public emotion.

Robinson's most widely publicized cases dealt with the legal rights of Irish women. She attacked laws eliminating inheritance rights of illegitimate children, barring women from sitting on juries and providing women legislators with fewer pension benefits than their male counterparts.

Robinson has also had a significant impact on a far broader range of issues of social justice: One of her cases forced Ireland to establish a national system of civil legal aid. It also established Robinson's place in Irish folklore. Robinson is notoriously indifferent to personal appearance. On the way to argue the case, her client, Josie Airey, noticed that Robinson's hem had fallen and mended it in the taxi.

During the 20 years since Ireland entered the European Community and rescinded the clause of its constitution that reserved a "special position" for the Catholic Church, Robinson has patiently and persistently nudged the Irish Establishment to move closer to Europe on matters of social policy. Her strategy has been to use every means necessary--though most frequently lawsuits--to keep these issues on the national agenda.

Typical was Robinson's challenge to the constitutionality of an 1861 law providing that "anyone convicted of the abominable crime of buggery . . . shall be kept in penal servitude for life." After working her way through the Irish courts, Robinson lost in the Irish Supreme Court in 1983. The chief judge's opinion held that the state is entitled "to discourage conduct which is morally wrong and harmful to a way of life and to values which the state wishes to protect." Robinson eventually won in the European Court of Human Rights, which hears cases only after all national remedies have been exhausted, in 1988. Late last year the government finally agreed to introduce legislation to comply with that court's judgment.

Although considered a leader of progressive forces in Ireland, Robinson has always managed to remain above the fray. During the 1983 campaign against a constitutional amendment banning abortion, she provided the intellectual foundation for the anti-amendment movement. Her 2 1/2-hour challenge to the amendment on the Senate floor was decidedly legalistic. Relying on a ruling by the European Commission on Human Rights, for example, she claimed that the amendment, by equating the right to life of the fetus with that of the mother, put Ireland in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although the anti-abortion amendment passed by more than 2-1, it was the first time that forces fighting unswerving political deference to the church hierarchy were able to organize and plan strategy.

In 1985, the better organized progressive forces were able to enact contraception legislation permitting condoms and spermicide to be bought without a prescription, and, for the first time since the founding of the Irish state, the Catholic Church suffered a major political defeat on a matter of public morality. Robinson had been the first to introduce such legislation--15 years earlier. Ironically, during the legislative debate on this historic bill, Robinson was busy elsewhere.

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