Walking Taller : Mary Robinson says she represents the 'new Ireland.' She has her own gentle agenda as its president.


Somewhere among the movie and post-card images, in some state of mind between the poetry of Sligo and the poverty of Dublin, there is the Ireland of Mary Robinson.

"I represent a new and more pluralist Ireland," says Robinson, 47, lawyer, radical feminist and the first woman president of conservative, patriarchal Ireland.

She also was elected on a locally shocking platform of reshaping the president's job from idle figurehead to functional personification of a changing nation.

"And," she says, "I think Ireland has changed very significantly, but gradually, over about the last 10 years . . . by our membership in the European Community, now very much a part of the national psyche, by our young, well-educated population, by the vitality in our arts and culture.

"Irish people walk taller now."

Less partial observers, however, say Irish people haven't budged.

Homosexuality remains a crime. Divorce is not allowed. Abortion is illegal, and unemployment is 18.5%. The provinces of British-controlled Northern Ireland remain Catholic-Protestant killing fields.

Robinson, in Los Angeles last week as part of the first U.S. visit by an Irish head of state since President John F. Kennedy's funeral, does not deny Ireland's warts. Nor will she discuss them.

Under constraints of her largely ceremonial presidency, she is prohibited from talking about matters of government action, inaction, Ireland's constitution or political issues. She cannot travel overseas, even on vacation, without government permission.

Earlier this year--during a period she now diplomatically explains as "teething adjustment"--she was told to refuse an invitation to speak at a prestigious lecture series in London.

And Robinson's personal opinion, as a constitutional lawyer, of these apparent denials of her free speech? As president, she says, "I don't have personal opinions."

In years past, as a Harvard-educated lawyer and a 20-year legislator, she spoke long and loud for liberalization of Ireland's divorce and abortion laws. She argued for contraception in a country that is 95% Roman Catholic. She legislated equality for women in male-dominated Ireland and litigated human rights cases in the European courts.

About all that is now prudent for Robinson to discuss in public is her gentle agenda for the next seven years in office. Not that government muzzling and fewer ways of achieving her social goals pose major frustrations, she says.

"I feel I am being extended by the difference (between careers)," Robinson explains. "I don't use the language of a lawyer anymore. I draw quite a lot on our poets and our writers, and I am of the view that this is a very significant way of both communicating and moving along the kind of values we're talking about."

What Robinson talked about in an interview was her belief that Ireland in the '90s could do worse than borrow from the civil awakenings she saw as a law student in America in the '60s.

Love and the hands of friendship, she believes, might produce enough social exchanges to heal a festering Ulster. Encouraging local development through voluntary commitment to small causes, she says, is already broadening Ireland's values. Expanding a current surge in the arts and culture and returning to roots symbolized by Ireland's 1,500-year-old mother tongue will further reinforce the national identity.

Robinson calls it "bottom-up initiative." It is a critical aim of what she sees as two levels of presidential laboring.

"One is the level above the political, where at times you seek to be inspiration . . . you seek to distill the essences," she explains. "The other is below the political, to be in touch with small groups, with self-help groups, with local community involvement, with environmental groups, with heritage groups, and other activities."

As president, she has no authority to fund such activities. Nor can she promote legislation.

What she can do is visit the rural literacy group, the club dedicated to the physically impaired and "value what they are doing."

The approach, acknowledges a Robinson aide, definitely is spiritual and abstract. It is pure symbolism. It is an attempt to achieve a public end without ever expressing a political aim.

It also is a radical departure from the snoozing terms of earlier presidents. They were traditionally elderly solons from the party in power who ran uncontested for a post considered a political pasture, their reward for loyal service.

Robinson's nomination, however, was by a young reformist and his opposition Labour Party bent on restoring some democracy to the position.

She won with a 52% majority. Her election last November was more of an advent, her inauguration closer to a coronation.

It was widely noted that as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stepped down, Irish President Mary Robinson stepped up to maintain the world balance of feminine power. It escaped no one's attention that her victory came on the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which surely would mean a similar crumbling of Ireland's repressive ways.

There was again, as there was throughout the six-month campaign, much playing of a campaign song that Robinson brought back from the United States--the theme from the movie "The Graduate" as performed by Simon and Garfunkel.

So here's to whom, Mrs. Robinson?

Mary Robinson, nee Bourke, was to the Ballina manor born. Her parents were physicians and Roman Catholic. She attended boarding school in Dublin and finishing school in Paris. At 18 she was ready to challenge the social, cultural and sectarian systems of Irish centuries.

She followed her grandfather's footsteps by studying law--but at Trinity College in Dublin, a predominantly Protestant school.

One of her classmates was Nicholas Robinson, a Protestant. They were married in 1970. The doctors Aubrey and Tessa Robinson, furious at their daughter marrying beyond the faith, refused to attend the wedding.

The family would eventually mend. In the meantime, Robinson's work and studies soared. She obtained her master's degree at Harvard in 1968. It was, she said, "a very exciting time . . . (with) a great questioning of the values of society. Everything was up for examination."

Returning to Ireland, invigorated, ambitious, Robinson promptly broke the male ranks of academia at Trinity. At 24, she was the youngest professor in the school's history and teaching constitutional and criminal law.

A year later, as a member of the liberal Labour Party, she became the youngest member of the Irish Senate.

She says breaking religious, political and social molds in her own education, marriage and career has built the philosophy she now brings to the Irish presidency.

"I think it (the past) was why the whole idea of tolerance and pluralism is so important to me," she says. "Pluralism. Respecting and recognizing differences and accommodating them within our structure.

"You know, because you're a Protestant, you're not less Irish for that."

By such a formula, by cross-border, cross-community exchanges, she hopes there will be some future accord for Northern Ireland.

Robinson sees other facets of her rising Ireland.

She reports a "buoyant women's movement" with something to offer feminists in other countries. They should take stock, she suggests, ask questions.

"Has there been a narrowness and sometimes almost an arrogance in the movement?" Robinson asks. "Have we assumed that certain things amount to progress so that some women end up apologizing for themselves as 'just housewives'?"

The Catholic Church, she emphasizes, has broadened its approach and purpose through "wonderfully radical" priests, nuns and lay workers.

"They are involved in their local community," Robinson states. "They are involved in this very self-development . . . they believe in social justice, in equality, in tolerance with other religions."

This, she says, is the role she will model for Ireland.

She is after the children. Robinson knows they are interested in the new presidency, and it follows that they will be interested in her issues and values.

She is after the adults. "Just as I am a role model, my husband is a role model because he is a supportive male spouse," Robinson says.

She most certainly is after stubborn male elders who may still think an Irish woman's place is in the cottage, not the president's mansion in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

It could be a short struggle.

Before leaving for her four-city, 10-day tour of the United States, she attended an annual horse fair.

"A very significant number of people there would be small farmers, predominantly men, where I would have expected, potentially, to get resentment," Robinson relates.

Yet there was applause and thumbs-up from the men.

"These auld fellows, with the Guinness in their hands, were greeting me with a real sense of pride," she says. "It tells me . . . they are happy with what I am doing."

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