09/04/2009 09:55 PM
I had the privilege of interviewing Mary Robinson on Thursday for the IN NYC group of young Irish professionals at the Irish consulate in New York.
The former Irish president and U.N Commissioner on Human Rights spoke for over an hour on topics as diverse as Afghanistan, her native county Mayo an the issue of climate change that she is deeply involved in.
I was particularly struck however, by her recounting of one of the most extraordinary moments in the Irish peace process, the day in early 1994 she went to Belfast and shook the hand of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
At the time the IRA were not on ceasefire and the British and Irish governments were apoplectic that she even contemplated such a visit and such a meeting. The attempts to stop her ranged form the ridiculous to the sublime. He own party leader Dick Spring of the Labour Party strongly recommended she not do it. The Irish government hummed and hawed and clearly wanted her to stay home.
The British were more inventive, threatening to withdraw her security if she stepped on their soil and allegedly giving out her private phone number.
They were all so anxious to stop her because they knew what it meant.The political isolation of Sinn Fein would end and the firm policy of never engaging with "terrorist communities," otherwise known as the people of Republican West Belfast.
The demonization of those communities and of Robinson herself for visiting them was in full swing by the time she got to Belfast.
But she was keeping a promise to Irish people everywhere that she would be an inclusive president. To that end she had visited or held receptions for many of Ireland's most disadvantaged groups and communities.
She accepted the offer to come to West Belfast on the same basis. As Gerry Adams was the local political leader she saw no reason not to meet him.
Such a clear-headed political strategy was lost on the other powers-that-be at the time. They portrayed Robinson as the cat's paw of the IRA and tried to demonize her in the worst way possible.
In the event she went ahead with the visit which proved an overwhelming success and a huge boost to the fledgling peace process.
She received an ecstatic welcome from the West Belfast community who had long been so demonized. She shook Gerry Adams' hand but that hardly seemed the most important thing to her in retrospect. Rather it was that she was fulfilling the mission she had set herself as head of
state to be president of all the Irish people.
On that day in Belfast Mary Robinson did Ireland proud.