Barriers Fall, Irish Elect Female President : Politics: Mary Robinson, internationally respected lawyer and feminist, prevails by taking on the old-style world of back-slapping and patronage.


Exactly a year after the Berlin Wall crumbled, "people power" hit Ireland and the barriers came tumbling down with another victory against all the odds.

Politically, Ireland and Eastern Europe are poles apart. But for the Irish, Mary Robinson's election as this country's first woman president is just as much a landmark as the collapse of communism in the East.

"The women of Ireland, instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system," Robinson proclaimed.

Men reign supreme in Irish politics--or they did until now. Divorce and abortion are both banned in this staunchly conservative and predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Ireland's president may be a figurehead, forced by the constitution to be above party politics, but Robinson's surprise victory does mark a watershed in Irish society and politics.

It was not only women who turned out to defeat the big party political machines. In a country with one of the youngest populations in Europe, young voters also signaled their desire for a more pluralist, liberal and open Ireland.

Robinson, an internationally respected lawyer backed by a coalition of left-wing groups, won the presidential election this month by defeating old-style Irish politics, the back-slapping world of favors and patronage.

They were personified in Brian Lenihan, candidate of the ruling Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny) Party.

He had become embroiled in a scandal over phone calls he may or may not have made to President Patrick Hillery in a 1982 government crisis, trying to get Charles Haughey appointed prime minister without calling an election.

The crisis came back to haunt Haughey on Halloween night and he had to fire Lenihan, deputy prime minister and defense minister and his closest confidant of 30 years, to save his coalition government.

The Irish Times heralded the huge change in the political landscape: "The Ireland of traditional Fianna Fail, of favors extended and returned, on the nod and wink, is still there.

"But it is a shrinking constituency in a society which is becoming more urbanized, more sophisticated, more sure of itself."

The London Times put it more bluntly: "Here is a victory of probity against the pork barrel, of individual merit against the cozy intimacy of a political elite which has divided into two major parties founded in a civil war 70 years ago. She has given hope that Ireland is ready for change."

Robinson campaigned forcefully for the liberalization of Ireland's laws, which are among the most Draconian in the European Community. Divorce and abortion were banned in two separate referendums in the 1980s. Homosexuality is outlawed.

Robinson, a working mother of three who espoused feminist and human rights causes, has insisted that her presidency will give a voice to the dispossessed in Irish society.

"To all those who have no voice or whose voice is weak, I say: Take heart. There is hope."

She also spared a thought for the thousands of well-educated Irish youngsters who emigrate every year in a desperate search for jobs in North America, Britain and Australia.

Showing a typical Irish literary flair in her acceptance speech, she quoted poet Paul Durcan on the plight of emigrants:

"Yet I have no choice but to leave, to leave

"And yet there is nowhere I more yearn to live

"Than in my own wild countryside . . . "

Robinson recognizes her limitations under the constitution. A possible pointer to where she may make her most revolutionary mark was the way she speedily extended a hand of friendship to the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, where Irish nationalist guerrillas are battling to oust Britain.

In 1985 Robinson resigned from the Irish Labor Party in protest over the Anglo-Irish accord that gave Dublin a consultative voice in the daily running of Northern Ireland.

She thought the accord was unfair to the Unionists who want passionately to stay part of Britain. They have not forgotten that gesture and warmly welcomed her appointment.

Robinson, a 1,000-to-1 outsider, made her dream come true by trudging around the country for six months with her campaign bus interminably blaring out the 1968 Simon and Garfunkel hit "Mrs. Robinson."

Now still shell-shocked by her triumph, she reflects on the aptness of being elected on the first anniversary of the Berlin Wall's collapse, and concludes: "Some kind of a wall has come down on the old politics in Ireland."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World