Profile: Mary Robinson: Mary, quite contrary

The UN is charmed. Fintan O'Toole on an Irish fighter who could change the world
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Meeting the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, at Buckingham Palace on Thursday, the Queen must have been at least vaguely aware that she was coming face to face with the most potent argument for her own redundancy. Not only is Mrs Robinson an elected head of state who consistently enjoys approval ratings of more than 90 per cent in Irish opinion polls. Not only does she combine the republican credentials of a left-wing democrat with a regal aura of her very own. But there is a distinct possibility that she may yet become the head of an international organisation even more extensive than the Queen's Commonwealth. With the term of office of the current Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, due to end in a little over six months, Mary Robinson is increasingly spoken of as a likely successor.

In recent weeks, the idea has been floated by sources as diverse as the former British diplomat Sir Anthony Parsons on the one hand and the American radical weekly The Nation on the other. More significantly, Mrs Robinson's denials of interest have become markedly more muted. The timing of the vacancy is awkward for her - her own term of office as President does not end until November 1997 - but the difficulty is not insuperable. The more formidable obstacle of institutional inertia, which has ensured a second term for any UN Secretary-General who has wanted one, may be overcome by the widespread dissatisfaction with the organisation's catastrophic failures in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.

In the context, both the opportunity and the danger for Mary Robinson are obvious. As a woman, she could redress both the general exclusion of women from positions of leadership and the specific taint of sexism that clings to the UN after a series of complaints of sexual harassment. As a human rights lawyer of international standing, she could return the organisation to its moral centre. And as a citizen of a European ex-colony she could help to bridge the gap between the developed and developing worlds.

Precisely because she could symbolise so much, though, the danger is that she could be chosen merely as a symbol, an image of change to adorn an unaltered reality.

In his recent book The UN for Beginners, Ian Williams sums up the process by which the five permanent members of the Security Council choose a Secretary- General: "After a lot of horsetrading, the famous Five have usually agreed on the lowest common denominator, someone who is the least offensive to all of them, not a citizen of any of their countries, and guaranteed to be pliant and sycophantic while running a 50,000-strong organisation."

Mary Robinson might seem easy meat for such high-powered cynicism. She has no diplomatic experience. She has never held ministerial office. Her career as a party politician was enormously unimpressive. She failed even to get elected to the Dail for the Irish Labour Party, losing elections for Dublin constituencies in 1977 and 1981. Before 1990, the only national office she managed to hold was that of largely powerless senator for Trinity College, Dublin, representing a constituency with a traditional soft spot for liberal intellectuals. And in the broadly symbolic office of President of Ireland, she has wielded little real power.

Her personal style - the gracious courtesy of a 52-year-old woman from prosperous small-town Catholic stock, educated at a posh Dublin convent before Trinity and Harvard - adds to the impression of her being too nice for the UN snake-pit. But the impression is mistaken. It misses the point of Mrs Robinson's achievement. Far from being a vaguely benign figure floating above real politics, she is a woman who stood at the dangerous crossroads of sex, politics and religion for two decades and emerged not merely unscathed but with the respect of even her most ferocious enemies.

A former leader of the Irish Labour Party, on being told that a colleague would miss a crucial meeting because he was in Nicaragua, remarked that given a choice between saving the world and saving the Irish left, the colleague had chosen the easier option. It could similarly be said that, after Ireland, the UN would be, if not an easy option, then certainly not an intimidating one. For the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s, when Mary Robinson forged her legal and political weapons, was not a place where liberal and humanitarian principles were bland generalities. To fight, and ultimately to win, the battles for women's rights and against sectarianism, needed teak-like toughness.

Her political career, for instance, looks less negligible when it is recalled that legal and constitutional issues were the important arena for conflict in Irish life in the 1970s and 1980s and that she was a dominant figure. Contraception, divorce, homosexuality and abortion were the battlegrounds in a war that was not just about sexuality and the rights of women but even more fundamentally about the relationship between religion and politics.

In each of the battles she led from the front. In 1970 she introduced the first bill to reform laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives. Over the next 20 years she campaigned to lift the constitutional ban on divorce. In 1982 she showed great courage in being the first prominent figure to argue against the insertion of an anti-abortion clause in the constitution. And shortly before she stood for the presidency in 1990, she took the Irish government to the European Court of Human Rights where its homosexuality laws were overturned.

None of this was merely a matter of making abstract legal arguments in plush courtrooms. When she published her first contraception bill, her letterbox was filled with used condoms. When she stood for the presidency, a Fianna Fail politician hinted at the prospect of abortion referral clinics in the presidential residence if she was elected.

Padraig Flynn, now the EU commissioner for social affairs, cast aspersions on her commitment to her husband, Nick, and her three children, telling the nation that Mary Robinson "has to have new clothes and her new look and her new hairdo, and she has the new interest in family, being a mother and all that kind of thing. But none of us who knew Mary Robinson very well in previous incarnations ever heard her claiming to be a great wife and mother". A woman who can withstand such slurs is no push-over.

Even as President she has been far from bland. She shook the hand of the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in West Belfast before the IRA declared its ceasefire in 1994, a brave and controversial gesture by a woman with a long history of opposition to violent nationalism. She has consistently used her office to give recognition to the out-groups of Irish society: the unemployed, gays and lesbians, members of the often despised travelling community.

What is surprising is not that Irish governments have attempted to place limits on her - by stopping her from giving the BBC's Dimbleby Lecture in 1991 or from co-chairing the international advisory group on the future of the UN in 1993 - but that they have tried it so seldom and so ineffectively. For what she has done is nothing less than to activate a previously dormant fourth force in the Irish political system, giving the presidency a presence almost as weighty as the courts, the houses of parliament and the government itself.

It may be objected that Ireland is a very small stage. But there is a continuity between Mary Robinson's Irish career and her international one. Her achievements in Ireland come down to one thing: the defence of the rights of its citizens against their own state. And this is precisely where her potential importance for the UN lies.

The UN's failures have been due in large part to its deference to established diplomatic principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in a country's "internal affairs", high-sounding ideals that translate into impotence in the face of a human rights disaster such asRwanda's. Mrs Robinson has already played a central role in breaking the hold of these doctrines. In 1992, after her visit to a Somalia torn by famine and civil war, she brought her very undiplomatic outrage to UN headquarters in New York, and prompted the organisation, for the first time in its history, to intervene for humanitarian purposes in a member state's internal affairs.

Since then, she has articulated, especially in relation to Rwanda, which she also visited, the revolutionary idea that "countries can no longer say that how they treat their inhabitants is solely their own business". She has proposed a third principle for the UN to add to those of national sovereignty and international security - "human security". It means, in effect, recognising that the universal human rights declared by the UN must no longer be dependent solely on the will of individual governments to respect them.

If the noises about making Mary Robinson Secretary-General of the UN indicate a recognition of the urgency of her message to the international community, then she is the right woman for the job. If, on the other hand, the permanent members of the Security Council are looking merely to place a nice facade on a rotten structure, then she is not. In nearly 30 years of public life, the one thing she has been spectacularly bad at is being anybody's patsy.

The writer is a columnist with the `Irish Times'.