herald

Wednesday 18 October 2017

And here's to you, Mrs Robinson . . .

It's hard to argue as David McWilliams bangs the drum for our Mary

Ballyfermot's singing checkout girl Mary Byrne is not the only Mary from this country with the X factor. If you're David McWilliams, then Mary Robinson positively oozes it as well.

Even if you're not David McWilliams, you'd find it hard to disagree with this vibrant and exhilarating film -- the fifth, last and for my money best of the Ireland's Greatest series.

It's difficult to imagine anyone better suited to make the case for the former President of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights. Like Robinson, McWilliams has been treated with a degree of suspicion and hostility by the glorified county councillors that pass for politicians in this country.

They consider him a bit of a flash Harry; a bit too slick and smart for their liking and several sizes too big for his own boots. While it's true that McWilliams as a television presenter can sometimes be glib and prone to packaging his message in neat, easily digestible soundbites, this was an eloquent and persuasive film.

McWilliams introduced a refreshingly personal note when he recalled sitting in a pub with a gang of friends the night in 1990 when Robinson became President. "The only time we'd ever hugged each other before was when Dave O'Leary scored against Romania," he said.

Walking home after closing time, he passed two young chaps on the street --who would also probably be more inclined to man-hugging at the result of a football match rather than a presidential election -- singing 'Mary', that great song by The 4 Of Us.

"Mary Robinson had beaten the machine," he said. "Finally, Ireland had a great leader.

"That night, for the first time ever, we had someone we could be proud to call our president. This was a new dawn. She stood head and shoulders above any other statesman we have produced."

Heady words, indeed, and ones that I'm sure had more than a few old-style Fianna Fail gombeen men shifting itchily in their mohair suits and spraying spittle at the television screen.

Yet the anecdote crystallised what the Robinson presidency meant to so many, the way it galvanised a whole generation who had previously regarded the office of president as a cosy, cynical old farts' club and changed the perception of Ireland on the world stage from being a small, faintly irrelevant island to "the mothership of a global tribe".

McWilliams's recurring theme was that Robinson, even before her tenure in the big house in the park, was always a woman ahead of her time.

A Catholic who attended Trinity College -- which at the time required a special dispensation from the odious John Charles McQuaid -- she was the first Catholic from the university to be elected to the Seanad.

Her outspoken pronouncements on the issues of contraception and the rights of homosexuals -- not to mention her successful campaigns for free legal aid and for the right of women to sit on juries -- challenged "all the Catholic sacred cows", said McWilliams.

It also resulted, at one point, in her parents having to walk out of their local church in Ballina, Co Mayo, when their daughter was denounced from the pulpit.

On becoming President, she upset the political applecart (and especially her nemesis, Charlie Haughey).

She gave 92 interviews in her first year alone; she spoke out about Aids; she talked to republicans and Unionists alike, thereby dodging the inevitable bricks flung from both sides of the North's political chasm. Most heinously of all, she visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Personally, I've thought right from the beginning that Ireland's Greatest is essentially a silly series. But as a stand-alone documentary, this reminded you of the comparative stagnation into which the presidency has slumped since Robinson.

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