For seven years, Mary Robinson served as the first female president of Ireland. Yet, she also has a long record of service as a human rights advocate.
After leaving office in 1997, she was appointed as the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations. She now runs The Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice. This week, she has a new book out called Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice.
She speaks with guest host Celeste Headlee on Saturday's All Things Considered about her foundation, her views on Catholicism and the EU crisis affecting Ireland.
On the challenges facing the European Union
"I think Ireland has gained a great deal. I think the European Union is suffering from severe financial constraints and they've also affected Ireland, and a certain questioning of being part of a larger whole that doesn't seem to be very responsive to people's needs, where people talk about a democratic deficit that the EU is kind of behind closed doors too much, and I think that's a criticism that I think the European Union has to address."
On attending Mass
"I had been thinking for a long time about the paternalistic and authoritarian nature of the way the church operated, particularly in Ireland at the time. All of that, I was questioning and then the questions came to the surface and I said, 'I don't need to go to Mass every Sunday and feel guilty if I don't.' I don't feel compelled to do it every Sunday or in a sort of strictly paid-up way because I disagree with so much of what the church stands for, particularly in reproductive health."
On advocating for Climate Justice
"To me, there is an injustice that we have to draw attention to, but the good news is, there's so much we can do. I find it shocking that ... 1.3 billion people out of the 7 billion in our world today don't have any electricity. But even more so that 2.6 billion, mainly women, still cook on open fires — with coal, with wood, with animal dung — and ingest fumes that cause 4 million to die every year, and that's a lot of people.
"So, how come when we have clean cook stoves now, when we have D lights that can be recharged in the solar, wonderful sun that shines in poor developing countries, how come we haven't got the solidarity as a race to say, 'Everybody should have the basics of clean water, light in the home'?
"That to me is what being part of human life together is about."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Coming up, the front man of the musical duo Rhye on being perceived as a front woman. But first...
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shown a light on human suffering but illuminated a better future for our world.
HEADLEE: That was the day in 2009 when Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Upon leaving office in 1997, she was appointed as the high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, and she now runs the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice. She has a new memoir out this week called "Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice." She joins us here in studio in Washington. Mary Robinson, welcome to the program.
MARY ROBINSON: Thank you very much.
HEADLEE: From the descriptions in your book, you became aware of a social imbalance, at least where class was concerned, from a very, very early age. Tell me about some of the social changes, how that particular part, the class differences that you noticed as a child, how that has changed in Ireland, or if it has.
ROBINSON: I think my early interest in human rights came from the fact that I was the only girl with four brothers - two older than me and two younger. So I had to be engaged in equality of human rights...
HEADLEE: Oh, you were fighting all the time.
ROBINSON: And my parents actually gave me a real sense that I had as much right to my full achievement of whatever I could do as my brothers. But that wasn't the Ireland at that time that I was growing up in. Women knew their place; girls knew their place in church, in every other way. The constitution made it quite clear the place of the woman is in the home. And when I was in my last year in boarding school, the conversation between us was what do you do for a year or two before getting married?
HEADLEE: You know, your book catalogs such an incredible era of change that lasts decade after decade in which Ireland really transforms from the time you're a child until now. I wonder, is there a period that you look back at and think, this is the decade when Ireland transformed?
ROBINSON: I think one of the transforming decisions that Ireland took was to apply - at the same time as Britain and Denmark - to become a member of the then European community.
HEADLEE: Although right now there are countries, like Britain, that are questioning whether they should remain in the EU, in the final tally, you think then that Ireland has gotten more out of the EU than it would have had it remained out, or should it leave now?
ROBINSON: I think Ireland has gained a great deal. I think the European Union is suffering from severe financial constraints and that they've also affected Ireland. And a certain questioning of being part of a larger hold that doesn't seem to be very responsive to people's needs where people talk about, you know, a democratic deficit, that the EU isn't - is kind of behind closed doors too much. And I think that's a criticism that the European Union has to address.
HEADLEE: You know, in the book, you talk about a discussion with a friend in college. And she asks you to name seven Irish laws that discriminate against women. You say seven. I can name way more than that. Things have clearly changed since the days when you were in college. Could you still name way more than seven?
ROBINSON: I couldn't name the laws, but nor could I say that we have reached true gender balance. There are still too few women in parliament, too few women in the top levels of business.
HEADLEE: But you guys have had a female president. We haven't. I mean, why do you think that is? Why has the U.S., do you - in your opinion, why have we not had a woman in the White House yet?
ROBINSON: I was in New York during the campaign when then-Senator Clinton was fighting a hard campaign against the...
HEADLEE: Then-Senator Barack Obama.
ROBINSON: Yes. In reflecting on those, I think that the way in which she campaigned for the presidency, and then the way in which she exercised the very tough office of secretary of state somehow shattered that invisible ceiling. I don't think it will be very surprising if in the relatively near future there is a woman who comes forward and becomes president of the United States.
HEADLEE: I'm speaking with Mary Robinson. She was the first female president of Ireland. Her new book, a memoir, is called "Everybody Matters."
Allow me, if I may, to move on to Catholicism. It was, as you've mentioned, an incredibly significant part of your upbringing, both of your parents, very devout Catholics until their death. Immediately after you left school, you had a crisis of religion. You thought you were going to be a nun. You went to France. You changed your mind. You decided you weren't going to go to mass.
You describe in the book that you wish you handled it differently with your parents. There are so many young Catholics right now having these same kind of crises of conscience. I wonder if you have any advice for someone else before they make a mistake, perhaps, that they might regret?
ROBINSON: I'm not sure that it's easy to give advice in individual circumstances, and particularly when you're talking about a spirituality belief, somebody's interim thoughts. I was aware that I had been thinking for a long time about the paternalistic and authoritarian nature of the way the church operated, particularly in Ireland at the time. But all of that, I was questioning. And then the questions came to surface.
And I said: I don't need to go to mass every Sunday and feel guilty if I don't. I don't feel compelled to do it every Sunday or in a sort of strictly paid-up way, because I disagree with so much of what the church stands for, particularly in reproductive health.
HEADLEE: So does that mean that you don't follow the trial and tribulation of the Catholic Church, that you don't have any emotional investment in who might be the next pope or what's been going on?
ROBINSON: I think I'm more interested in the religions of the world giving us a kind of global, ethical standard, you know? And I like the work of Hans Kung who's being - looking at a global ethic. And I know him, and we've talked about this quite a bit. And I think we do need the spirituality of the great religions of the world. And it is important for human rights and human dignity.
HEADLEE: Well, since you brought up the battle that you have with the Catholic Church over reproductive rights, I have to ask you about the young wife who died in Ireland because she had a troubled pregnancy and she was in the hospital and they refused her an abortion. What reaction did you have to that story?
ROBINSON: There was a huge reaction in Ireland to that story. It really touched people. And people were ashamed that it had happened, such a lovely couple, so popular in Galway. They even said they came to Ireland to have children because it was such a safe country to have children in. And I think there is sometimes one single human tragedy that evokes a need for change. I must say I'm proud of the fact that so many people in Ireland were especially touched by that story to come out into the streets.
And it was a bit like what happened in India with that rape in the bus of a young woman. Sometimes, something that was tolerated and not spoken about for a very long time becomes something that has to be dealt with.
HEADLEE: Let's talk about your foundation, the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice. And I found it also intriguing that you called it Climate Justice. I assume you chose that name, yourself a constitutional lawyer. But to put Climate Change into the idea of justice, why?
ROBINSON: Because of the injustice of how climate change is undermining poverty in very poor countries and very poor communities. The conversation now in Africa is things are so much worse. We don't have seasons anymore. We have long periods of drought, and then flash flooding. We used to have rainy seasons. We knew when to sow and when to harvest. Now, the rainy season doesn't come when it used to. And we've never known anything like this.
And they don't use the fossil fuel. They don't have cars. They don't contribute to the oil and gas and coal problem that is causing this. And therefore, to me, there is an injustice that we have to draw attention to. But the good news is there's so much we can do. I find it shocking - and this is the first and probably the only statistic I'll use - that 1.3 billion people out of the seven billion in our world today don't have any electricity. But even more so, the 2.6 billion, mainly women, still cook on open fires, with coal, with wood, with animal dung and ingest fumes that cause four million to die every year. And that's a lot of people.
So how come, when we have clean cook stoves now, when we have d.lights that can be recharged in the solar, wonderful sun that shines in poor, developing countries, how come we haven't got the solidarity as, you know, as a race to say everybody should have the basics of clean water, light in the home?
That, to me, is what being part of human life together is about. And it's about climate justice, it's about human rights, it's about targeting the poorest and making sure they have the basics of what it is to be a citizen of the world in the 21st century.
HEADLEE: Mary Robinson was the first female president of Ireland. She now runs the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, as you just heard her talking about. Her new memoir is called "Everybody Matters." Mrs. Robinson, thank you so much for joining us.
ROBINSON: Pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.