By Susan McKay Irish News Columnist
There’s something about Mary Robinson. As one of the world’s leading human rights activists, she is a formidable woman and an outstandingly brave one. She moves among world leaders and is a personal friend of Nelson Mandela’s. But she has not lost her belief in the importance of the local and the power of the individual to change the world. She has, above all, a rare ability to inspire.
After the former president addressed the McCluskey Summer School in Carlingford at the weekend, a young woman in the audience spoke about how she’d taken part with thousands of others in marches in Dublin against the war in Iraq but felt that these protests had just been ignored. “I feel helpless and disillusioned as a young person,” she said.
Mrs Robinson urged against despair. The marches had been an important corrective to what the majority of Americans now recognised as “a huge mistake”, she said, a mistake for which we would be paying the price for decades. It had never been more important or necessary for young people to be politically aware and active, she said.
Referring to a forthcoming Oxfam report called ‘Climate Wrongs and Human Rights’, the former president said that a sense of urgency was required.
“Our world is hurtling towards destruction,” she said. “By 2055 we may have 100 million environmental refugees fleeing desertification and flooding.” We had at most two decades before climate change became irreversible.
“All we’ve learned about human rights will be challenged as never before,” she said. “That is the way I will be moving forward.”
The personal is the political.
Mary Robinson has been looking after her grandchildren in Mayo this summer, and said that in 2055 they will be in their fifties.
She was speaking at the McCluskey Summer School to mark the 40th anniversary of the civil rights movement, with a focus on challenges to civil rights in Ireland today.
Mrs Robinson explicitly criticised the Irish government for its plans to “pare down on the cheap” bodies set up to fight inequality and poverty. There was still much to be done. The Travelling community in particular was “still suffering”.
When Austin Currie raised the issue of those who were “disappeared” by the IRA, she agreed that this was a “terrible crime against international humanitarian law”. Then she broadened it out from the local, likening it to the use of “extraordinary rendition” by the current US regime. This involves the abduction of those deemed to be terrorist suspects who are then taken to countries where they can be tortured with impunity.
Mrs Robinson said she was concerned about “European complicity” in rendition. Amnesty International has recently reported that Ireland is engaged in such complicity, by allowing CIA planes involved in rendition flights to use Shannon airport for refuelling.
A young northern man asked Mrs Robinson if she felt the Special Criminal Court in Dublin was engaging in “a form of internment”. He referred to the remand of northern republicans who were opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.
“I am very sympathetic to the critique of the Special Criminal Court given,” the former president said.
She said there was a potential for corruption in the powers given to the court which needed serious analysis.
Inevitably, given her past association as a lawyer with the cause of Irish women campaigning for the right to choose abortion, there was a question about the “pre-born”. She replied that too little attention was paid to the thousands of women who die across the world each year because of “botched abortions”. It might be better if women always felt in a position to proceed with pregnancy, she said, “but at least women should have the right to safe terminations.”
She was diplomatic in response to a comment from civil rights veteran Anne Carr, who said that in her work with “the Protestant unionist loyalist community,” she was finding it difficult to convince people of the need for a bill of rights. Mrs Robinson said that she had “sensed that the early vibrancy of the movement for a bill of rights had gone” and urged further dialogue.
She praised the courage and passion of those who were regarded as “troublemakers” when they set out to fight discrimination and to get civil rights here. At this end of the “long, anguished road to where we are today” there was still a compelling need for “concerted citizen action” and for passionate belief in human rights. She’s brilliant, this woman.
Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson.