Woman with liberal views elected as Irish president

November 10, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

LONDON -- Mary Robinson, feminist and human rights activist, lawyer and mother, liberal politician in a conservative, Roman Catholic country, was elected the first female president of Ireland yesterday.

Ms. Robinson, a Catholic married to a Protestant, favors decriminalizing homosexuality, legalizing divorce and providing greater accessibility to contraceptive devices and to information about abortion.

Her improbable victory as in independent candidate in Wednesday'spresidential voting was declared yesterday afternoon. She will be inaugurated Dec. 3, succeeding Patrick J. Hillery, who did not seek re-election.

"My election means that we have a more pluralist Ireland, that we have more space in Ireland," said the tall, slim and thoroughly unconventional 46-year-old woman. "It is a victory for the women of Ireland."

Her first challenge in her job will be to give it substance.

The function of the Irish presidency is that of a head of state, nothead of government. The presidential duties are largely ceremonial, the role having been designed as apolitical. But Ms. Robinson wants the post to have more than figurehead status.

She says she will work on broad problems, such as the continuing emigration of young people from Ireland and the tensions between Catholics in the Republic of Ireland and Protestants in Northern Ireland. She says she has plans to make the presidential mansion the showcase of national culture.

But Mrs. Robinson has promised not to use the presidency as a platform to promote her views on social issues, which -- she said yesterday -- she knows many of her voters do not endorse.

To a large degree, Ms. Robinson's victory was an accident.

She won because her prime opponent, Brian Lenihan of the long-dominant Fianna Fail party, did himself irreparable harm by allowing himself to be caught in an apparent lie about an episode of political intrigue that took place in 1982. Fianna Fail had monopolized the office since 1945.

She won because all of Fianna Fail's rivals, sensing blood, chose her as their vehicle for ganging up on the wounded Lenihan. Indeed, Mr. Lenihan accurately described his defeat as the work of a "rainbow coalition of disparate elements."

She won because she ran a controlled, scripted, U.S.-style campaign, avoiding controversy and relying on frequent repetition of selected themes.

And with all that she won by very little. She trailed Mr. Lenihan by 5 percentage points on the first count, getting just 39 percent of the vote. A third candidate, Austin Currie, had 17 percent.

But since no one had an absolute majority, the Irish electoral rules required that Mr. Currie's support be split between Ms. Robinson and Mr. Lenihan according to voters' second preferences. And those second-choice votes put Ms. Robinson over the top, 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent.

A native of Ballina in rural County Mayo, she first gained national attention at age 25, when she became the youngest law professor ever at Dublin's prestigious Trinity College.

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