For the first time ever, on Nov 7 1990, a woman, Mary Robinson, then 46, a law lecturer and senator, was voted in as Ireland’s president, a mainly ceremonial job she turned into a powerhouse position.
Don’t take my word for it. A nationwide survey by RTE Television in 2010 named Mary Robinson as the only woman in the top five most important people of Ireland’s 20th century. She placed third behind Nobel Prize winner John Hume and War of Independence hero Michael Collins.
Robinson’s election as president of the Irish Republic in 1990 created perhaps the biggest shock wave in the lifetime of Irish politics which she changed forever.
She was pro-divorce, pro-full legal equality for women. She empathized with the gay and lesbian community and was no pushover for the Irish church which had already clashed with her over a birth control bill she had introduced into the Irish Senate.
She also made clear she regarded Ireland’s emigrant millions as part of an extended Irish diaspora, lighting a symbolic candle in the window at the presidential residence Aras An Uachtarain to guide them home.
The job of the president had previously been held exclusively by men, not just any men either.
There was Eamon de Valera, who kept the job until he was 91. For others, the president’s job was a pleasant retirement sojourn with lots of golf and occasional funeral duty.
The 1990 election changed all that, and Ireland took its first steps towards real liberal democracy.
No one saw it coming. The all-powerful Fianna Fail party ran one of their top men, Brian Lenihan, who looked like a shoo-in against Robinson.
However, during the campaign, it became public that Lenihan had sought to illegally influence the President of Ireland Patrick Hillery when he was deciding whether to dismiss the Dáil and call an election or not.
That did it for Lenihan, and Robinson to everyone’s astonishment was elected.
Her victory was achieved against all odds. Her only political experience was as a member of the Irish Senate from Trinity College, hardly a powerful platform.
Just a few years earlier she was soundly defeated in a race for a Dáil seat. She was however widely known as a pioneering spirit at a time when women were a decidedly second class in Ireland.
Amazing to think now, but when she started her career women were effectively voiceless.
There was no shortage of issues for Robinson when she started out. Family planning was forbidden with condoms and birth control pills illegal, women could not serve on juries, women had to retire from teaching and other government positions when they married, and women were paid about half the rate men were for similar jobs.
The local bishop had even denounced her from the pulpit in her own hometown of Ballina for advocating contraception. Her parents who were present left the cathedral in deep anguish.
Despite all that, she made it to the presidency and proceeded to blow the doors off what had been a veritable retirement home job for aged pols.
She also threw wide open the doors of Aras an Uachtarain to community groups all across the country, making it the people’s house. She met and shook hands with Gerry Adams, then the banned president of Sinn Fein which was an incredibly significant step forward.
Her approval rating was an amazing 93 percent in office. It is unlikely we will ever see her likes again.