More than 20 years after her term as Irish president, Mary Robinson continues to be an inspirational figure as she strives for a better world. Alec Marsh asks her about everything from nuclear arms to Donald Trump and climate change
The Dublin office of Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, is very much that of a 20th-century politician. There is no computer on the broad, wooden angular desk – just a few heaps of documents, a slightly dusty speakerphone, and an empty glass water jug and tumbler. By the windows, a matching boardroom table dominates, with a flat-screen television on the wall.
Spear’s is here to meet Robinson to find out what she thinks is wrong with the world today. The reason her views matter more than most is that she is the new chairman of the Elders – an international body of retired world statesmen set up by Nelson Mandela in 2007, whose objective is to help solve intractable global ills. Think of them, if you will, as a sort of geriatric International Rescue.
Since her term as Ireland’s first female president (1990-97), Robinson has served as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights and then climate change. She also set up her own shop – the Mary Robinson Foundation – focused on climate change justice. It was in 2007 that Mandela called her up to invite her to be an Elder, alongside such luminaries as former US president Jimmy Carter, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Robinson was appointed chairman of the group following Annan’s death last July.
‘I am humbled because I’m filling very big shoes, starting with the man who brought us all together as a group,’ says Robinson, 74, as we sit at the boardroom table. She expands on her approach, her voice soft but forceful: ‘I think we always need to think of ourselves as Elders: we’re not a think-tank, we’re not experts as such, we’re elders who have a responsibility to be humble and listen and try to do the job in a way that really speaks to the values.’
Robinson recalls that when the idea was first put to her she was suspicious: ‘I couldn’t help feeling that it was quite an arrogant idea – you know, elders for the world.’ The first planning meeting, at Richard Branson’s South African estate Ulusaba, where other would-be Elders were present – including founder Mandela, Carter and Tutu – changed that. ‘I felt, almost literally from that day, charged with a responsibility to continue his incredible legacy,’ recalls Robinson, who remembers Mandela’s exhortation to them: ‘Be humble; remember that people in their area know more than you do about what their problem is; listen and be courageous; be independent; and in particular reach out to those who are marginalised – reach out to young people.’
And that is what Robinson, alongside ten other active Elders including Mandela’s widow Graça Machel, a former education minister of Mozambique, and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general from 2007 to 2016, are doing. The organisation has identified six global themes to address – such as ‘access to justice’ and ‘universal health coverage’ – but is also focusing on addressing three threats to the world: the weakness of the multilateral system, climate change, and nuclear disarmament.
The last of these, in Robinson’s mind, presents the most pressing immediate danger: ‘It’s at the worst point ever since 1953,’ she declares. ‘The Doomsday Clock is as close to doomsday as it has been since 1953, partly because we have more nuclear states; we have the problem of the Iran treaty that is now under question; we have the issue of North Korea, but we have also the fact that the two main powers – Russia and the United States – are pulling out of existing treaties.’
In February Moscow announced it was following the US in withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987. ‘There is actually a nuclear race going on now. They’re updating and looking into their nuclear weapons. Europe is more exposed because Russia is not being willing to uphold that particular treaty. It’s very, very serious.’
Also in February, at the annual Munich Security Conference, Robinson spotted another worrying trend: no one’s talking. ‘It was actually very chilling to see that there didn’t seem to be back channels of discussion going on as there was during the Cold War,’ she comments.
The Elders have a plan, which they will present to the UN Security Council in June. ‘Our paper looks towards what we call a minimising approach,’ says Robinson, noting that they want the world powers to sign up to ‘no first use’ – China is the only one to do that so far. Next is to reduce the number of nuclear weapons ‘on full alert’ – ‘there far are too many, it’s frightening’ – followed by reducing the number deployed. Then they want to reduce numbers altogether.
If her diagnosis of the nuclear threat is scary, her prognosis is surprisingly upbeat: ‘I think we have a prospect because things are so bad,’ she says. ‘This is a really urgent situation,’ she adds with force. ‘And it’s one where the Elders must and are seeking to play as much of a role as we can.’
The mention of President Trump introduces us to the next area of concern: the attack on the multilateral system. Trump has torn up Nafta and instigated trade disputes with the European Union and China – as well as tearing up the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.
Mary Robinson on Trump
As a former head of state, what does she think when she sees Trump? Her expression doesn’t change: ‘Let me put it the other way,’ Robinson replies diplomatically. ‘When I was elected head of state I was really conscious that I had the kind of the responsibility of personifying my country.’ Robinson was aided in this, she notes, by being the first woman president – plus she was younger than her predecessors, so she chose to engage at different levels and focus on different issues. (She was also the first Irish president to make an official visit the UK – an important moment in the Northern Ireland peace process.) ‘If a leader doesn’t create that good impression, then over time the country suffers, and that’s what’s happening in the United States. It is suffering a diminution in its place in the world – temporarily, I hope – because of bad leadership.’
The lawyer-by-training also identifies another alarming trend in the US: ‘There’s a kind of attack on the institutions of state that is very worrying. I studied in the Harvard Law School for a year and I thought the United States constitution was rock solid and of the highest quality – as we did in those days. It’s really worrying to see the power of money and corporate power. In South Africa they were worried about a corporate capture of the state. The United States is moving in that direction, unless there is an arresting of the influence of corporate cronies of President Trump in senior positions.’
Citing areas such as climate change, of energy, of regulations for health, and ‘the focus on getting right-wing judges in the Supreme Court’, she adds: ‘It is very worrying because it is politicising – yes it was moving in that direction, but it was never quite so politicised.’
Mary Robinson on the federal case
Does she see a danger of the US losing its moral authority? ‘People do distinguish in all kinds of ways between what’s happening at the federal government level and the people of the United States and the states and cities,’ she says. ‘It’s very obvious in climate: it’s visible in other ways as well. When you’re in the United States you can see that people do not like the way they are led at a federal level.’
However, she warns: ‘If Trump were to be re-elected that would seriously erode their leadership because it would be too long of a leadership that the world doesn’t trust at all.’ European and Asian leaders have tried working with him, she breaks into a resigned chuckle: ‘People now no longer want to work with him so much as minimise the damage he can do. And that’s pretty frightening.’
Yet it’s apparent that Trump isn’t the only thorn in the side of the enlightened, progressive political civility. In Moscow, Ankara, Budapest, Vienna, Caracas – not to mention Damascus – there are unsavoury political leaders who in some cases are far worse. Does Robinson – whose team of retired world leaders specialises in discreetly helping incumbents to take the high road when the low road might be more immediately politically appealing – regard this as a crisis of world leadership?
‘I call it a bumpy time,’ she laughs quietly. ‘I say that because we have had bumpy times before and we have to realise there is a populism, there’s a kind of nationalism of the wrong kind – believing that countries need the sovereignty to deal with these problems when actually [what’s needed] is the interconnection to deal with many of them effectively.’ And she is quick to point to stand-out examples of good leadership in the world: look at Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, ‘giving very good moral leadership’ after the mosque massacres in Christchurch in March. She also names Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, as another good leader.
It’s impossible to sit down with a former president of Ireland and avoid the topic of the UK’s departure from the EU, especially when the Irish backstop figures so large. ‘Brexit is part of what we are talking about,’ she says. ‘This sense of victimisation, marginalisation, anger at what is perceived to be a regional body – distant and with foreigners running too much of it.’ Robinson notes that this comes ‘with the fear of the migration in an island, which in comparison to this island [Ireland] is rather a populated island. So I can understand that people would be more anxious about who’s coming and “who’s taking our jobs”.’
If her response is rather more sympathetic to the Leave cause than I would expect, she nonetheless reveals during our conversation that she harbours hopes that Brexit might not happen. ‘The sheer difficulty that the UK has had in being angle to untangle itself – partly because of the Irish issue – has perhaps brought home to member states that it’s not a decision to be thought about lightly, even though the UK is more complex than other countries might be. There’s no getting away from a sense of loss, a sense of dismay, a sense of wonderment that a country would actually feel that it’s better beside a very large trade bloc and be doing agreements on trade with the rest of the world as a compensation. We find it difficult to understand. It’s not an issue that the Elders would ever want to comment on.’
Any equivocation vanishes, however, when I ask about the potential harm that a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would bring. ‘What people seem to really fear is that there are those who – the expression is – are lying in the long grass, and if there is a hard border it will become manipulated,’ she warns. ‘It will become abused and it will become a source of potential violence. That’s a real concern.’
Mary Robinson’s climate change activism
When children around the world boycotted school for a day earlier this year to demonstrate about climate change, Robinson issued a short video address on Twitter commending them. Asked about this, she reminds me of one of Kofi Annan’s dictums – ‘You’re never too young to lead; never too old to learn.’
‘Schoolchildren have given us moral leadership, based on the intergenerational injustice to them. Hearing them say, “I’m worried I’m not going to have a future – what about my children and grandchildren?” You know… it’s very compelling stuff, because it’s true.’
And truth, let’s not forget, has a powerful habit of turning the tide in the affairs of men, sooner or later.
Despite all the apparent gloom in the state of the world, Robinson emits rather a quiet, phlegmatic cheeriness, one that speaks of hope and is rather infectious. She politely endures our photo-shoot, and then takes her leave. The door shuts. David Harrison, our photographer, turns to me and gives me a mighty hug: ‘Meeting people like that is why I became a photographer,’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
This is not, you’ll understand, the normal conclusion of a Spear’s interview. But it’s apt. Mary Robinson is undoubtedly an inspiration, and just what this troubled world needs.
Alec Marsh is the editor of Spear’s
Portraits by David Harrison
This article first appeared in issue 68 of Spear’s magazine, available on newsstands now. Click here to buy and subscribe.