Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

November 16, 1990

Irish voters have destroyed forever certain stereotypes, notably their own, about the Irish Republic. They have elected as president a mother of three who is also a crusader for contraception and divorce and, additionally, a lecturer on European Community law. The presidency is ceremonial, but symbol often counts for more than substance in Irish politics and Anglo-Irish relations. The Irish have finally got a president who can look the British sovereign and prime minister in the eye and not blink, and do the same to an Irish cardinal.

For 20 years, Mary Robinson was a gadfly in Irish public life as senator and lawyer. She argued the values of much of the Western world, which fly in the face of Ireland's heritage of isolation and acquiescence to clerical guidance in public law. Not incidentally, the Ireland she has advocated is one in which a Protestant from Ulster would feel less uncomfortable.

An independent, Mrs. Robinson was supported by two parties. The Labor Party is historically indifferent to the national question and participates in government only as a junior partner to Fine Gael, the normal opposition. The Workers Party is truly of the left, and strikes most non-Irish as un-Irish. Combined, they obtained less than 14 percent of the vote last year. In the second count of this presidential election, with the votes of the third-place finisher redistributed by voters' preference, Mary Robinson won 52.8 percent.

Partly this was a rebuke of the ruling Fianna Fail party and its candidate, Brian Lenihan, until recently a popular man. He paid for the revelation that he tried to persuade the outgoing president, Patrick Hillery, to circumvent the constitution in Fianna Fail's behalf in 1982. The prime ministry of Charles Haughey is now on shaky ground. But the electorate could have chosen the Fine Gael candidate, Austin Currie, an upstanding founder of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. His 17 percent showing was a symbol of the priority they accord Irish unification.

Of course, the traditionalists may have found the one way to shut Mary Robinson up. As president she must not debate issues. She promised not to use her office to advocate constitutional change. But all she needs to do is preside over a tea party and smile. They'll know what she's thinking.

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