Thursday, April 13, 2023

Presidents Robinson, Biden and the Ballina connection

The visit of President Joe Biden to Ireland has understandably brought great excitement, nowhere more so than Ballina, County Mayo, his ancestral home in the West. The town has not one, but two presidential claims to fame – it is also where Mary Robinson, President of Ireland from 1990-1997, was born and raised. The University of Galway, also on the West coast, is proud to house the Mary Robinson archive, and to have a strong link with Ballina through its partnership with the Mary Robinson Centre. Her recently restored and extended childhood home, beautifully situated on the River Moy, the Centre is due to open within a year and through this partnership plans to use her archive as a catalyst to inspire others to address the causes she has championed in her career.

This immensely rich archive consists of material relating to Mary Robinson’s work from 1967 to the present and includes material covering her time as a barrister, legislator, senator, professor, President of Ireland, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner of Human Rights, UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and El Niño, Chair of the Elders, founder of Realizing Rights - The Ethical Globalization Initiative, and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice.  

While that task of cataloguing the archive continues, it seems an opportune time to share a selection of items from the archive, some of which have a strong US connection.

Student to Senator

1981 Seanad election flyer

Mary Robinson is perhaps best known in Ireland for her role as its first female President (1990-97), but she was breaking records and making waves well before that. In 1967 she became the first female auditor of the Dublin University Law Society at Trinity College (TCD). During her maiden address she advocated removing the prohibition of divorce from the Irish Constitution, eliminating the ban on the use of contraceptives, and decriminalizing homosexuality and suicide. She was awarded a fellowship to attend Harvard Law School, receiving an LL.M [Master of Laws] in 1968. It was an incredible year which influenced her thinking and her character immensely - Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and American students were trying to avoid being drafted, were criticising the Vietnam war and many were becoming more radical. She left Dublin, in her own words “a shy girl”, and returned an "impatient one" – impatient to start changing the law.

At the age of 25, in 1969, she became Ireland’s youngest professor of law, when she was appointed Reid Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law, at TCD. In the same year she was elected to Seanad Éireann [Ireland’s Senate] as an independent candidate and served as Senator for twenty years, during which time many of the issues she raised and campaigned to reform saw some success - contraception had been legalized, women could now serve on juries and the marriage bar on women in the civil service had been lifted.



In 1990, Mary became the first female President of Ireland, and the youngest president at that time. She is widely seen as having revolutionised the role of the Presidency, broadening its scope through her knowledge of constitutional law, developing new political, cultural, and economic links with other countries, reaching out to local communities at home and abroad, and using her platform to bring attention to the suffering of others such as her visit to Somalia in 1992.

Great Britain and Northern Ireland 

Her visit to Great Britain in 1993 where she met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace was historic and paved the way for a reciprocal visit hosted by Mary’s successor President McAleese. Equally her numerous visits to Northern Ireland where she reached out to communities on the ground, and politicians of all hues were hailed by people on all sides as vital in the search for Peace.

letter from US President Bill Clinton, in relation to Northern Ireland, 1995

U.S. Visit and the Irish Diaspora

Traditionally seen as the “Taoiseach’s turf” [Taoiseach, meaning "Chieftain" is the term used for the Irish Prime Minister], Robinson became the first Irish President to make an official State* visit to the United States of America while in office, following a public invite from President Bill Clinton, during one of his own visits to these shores. It followed on from her address to the Houses of the Oireachtas [Irish houses of parliament] in 1995 in which she spoke of “Cherishing the Irish Diaspora”. The address, which was positively received by Irish diaspora around the world, was entered into the official Congressional Report of the United States, by Senator Edward Kennedy, brother of Robert and a proud member of the Irish diaspora.

President Robinson's Address "Cherishing the Diaspora" is entered into U.S. Congressional Report by US Senator Edward Kennedy, February 1995

On the death of Rose Kennedy (née Fitzgerald), matriarch of the Kennedy clan and mother to Robert, Edward and another President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President Mary Robinson was one of many who sent condolences.

Senator Kennedy's response to condolences from President Robinson on the death of his mother, Kennedy matriarch Rose FitzGerald Kennedy, 10 February 1995

Ireland and the Choctaw Nation

Mary Robinson received many awards throughout her presidency but perhaps none more poignant than that of “Honorary Chief of the Choctaw Nation”. The relationship between Ireland and the Choctaw Nation began in 1847, when the Choctaws collected $170 to support the Irish during the Famine. The gift was significant, considering the Choctaw people had recently been forced to walk the Trail of Tears between 1831 and 1833. Irish President Mary Robinson visited the Choctaw Nation in 1995 to rekindle and re-establish the friendship and thank Choctaws for their aid. In 2020, the Irish people once again honoured that gift, giving back to Native American tribes hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, in memory of the Choctaw Nation’s act of generosity.

Robinson was an exceptionally popular president, and halfway through her term of office her popularity rating had reached an unprecedented 93%. She resigned from the presidency a few weeks shy of the end of one term to take up the role of UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and served until 2002. A tireless advocate for justice, she was president of Realizing Rights – the Ethical Globalization Initiative from 2002 to 2010.

The Elders

"The Elders with founder and Honorary Elder Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, May 2010. L-R: Graça Machel, Fernando H Cardoso,  Desmond Tutu (Chair), Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Gro Brundtland, Martty Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Nelson Mandela (seated)"

Along with Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and another former US President Jimmy Carter, Robinson was a founding member of "The Elders", a group of world leaders with a goal of contributing their wisdom to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. In 2010 she founded and was chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice from 2010 until 2019 and continues to push to ensure the most vulnerable communities in the world do not disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change.

Planet Pals

letter from 10 year old Alicia Premkumar, 2013

Some of the nicest items in the archive are letters and drawings from children which, it might surprise some, are carefully kept. In 2013 Mary received a letter from ten-year-old Alicia Premkumar, a pupil of Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál in Carlow, detailing how she had inspired Alicia to set up “Planet Pals” for which she subsequently won “Young Environmentalist of the Year” in the Super Junior Category. Many thanks to Alicia, now a student of Physiotherapy at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, for allowing her letter and photograph to be reproduced. Her fellow planet pals were Meadhbh Broderick, Caragh O’Toole (not pictured) and Daniela Besleaga.


Ticket stub, 1968

Apart from the Ballina link, another Irish love connects both President Biden, and President Robinson – a love of Irish Arts, in particular poetry. The archive contains personal correspondence between Mary and several poets she considered friends including Séamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Brendan Kennelly, and her friend from TCD, Eavan Boland. A lovely image springs to mind when looking at the ticket stub from 1968 of Mary listening to her friend Eavan, talking about fellow Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, while in the beautiful surroundings of another Western county, County Sligo.

Medal of Freedom

Medal of Freedom awarded to President Robinson by President Barack Obama in 2009

In July 2009, Mary was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States. Coincidentally, it was also awarded to fellow Elder Archbishop Tutu the same year, and to President Biden in 2017, while he was serving as Vice-President. On presenting her with the award, U.S. President Barack Obama said, 

"As a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland, Mary Robinson was the first woman elected President of Ireland…Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering but illuminated a better future for our world."

* President Seán T. O'Kelly was invited to the United States of America by President Eisenhower in 1959 and addressed the Joint Meeting of Congress, 18/03/1959. President de Valera attended President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963, and made an official visit in 1964 during which he also addressed Congress. President Robinson herself met President Clinton on a private visit in 1993, as did her successor President McAleese in 1998.

President Robinson's 1996 visit was the only official State visit, however. State visits to the United States are formal visits by the head of state from one country to the United States, during which the president of the United States acts as official host of the visitor. State visits are considered to be the highest expression of friendly bilateral relations between the United States and a foreign state and are, in general, characterised by an emphasis on official public ceremonies. State visits can only occur on the invitation of the president of the United States, acting in his capacity as head of the United States. (Official visits, in contrast, can also only occur on the invitation of the president of the United States, though are offered in the president's capacity as chief of the federal government of the United States.)

For further information on the work being carried out to process, preserve and catalogue the Mary Robinson Archive, check out this blog.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Kevin Boyle and the Good Friday Agreement - The Legal and Human Rights Perspective

Kevin Boyle.
University of
Galway Library Archives

The archive of activist, human rights academic, and barrister, Kevin Boyle, offers a decades-long insight into the long journey towards peace in Northern Ireland. Born in Newry, Co. Down, in 1943, Boyle attended Queen’s University Belfast in the mid-1960s and became active in the political and activist campaigns of the time. A central member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, as well as an active member of other similar groups, such as People’s Democracy, Boyle had a front-line role in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland from the 1960s. Thoughout subsequent years Boyle worked as an academic and barrister advocating for human rights-based perspectives and protections to help move communities and society beyond the use violence in Northern Ireland, by both Loyalist and Republican organisations.

From the late 1970s Boyle was Professor of Law at then University College Galway, before becoming the founding director of the international NGO, Article 19, a decade later, advocating for freedom of expression and anti-censorship around the world. By the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Boyle was working as Professor of Human Rights at University of Essex, U.K. 

In the years leading up the Good Friday Agreement and in its immediate aftermath, Boyle closely monitored how the legal frameworks and various strands of the Good Friday Agreement would affect the experience human rights for those in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. Boyle researched and analysed the text of the agreement in his typical methodical style, and was heavily invested in how the new proposed bodies to be established under the agreement, including a Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland, and its southern counterpoint in the Republic, would function, co-operate, communicate, and be a positive force for human rights protection on the island. Often working with his long-time academic collaborator, Professor Tom Hadden, Boyle’s archive at University of Galway Library, contains Boyle’s detailed research files on the legal and human rights perspective on the Good Friday Agreement.

Notes by Kevin Boyle on the Good Friday Agreement.
University of Galway Library Archives.

Within the files are numerous documents in Boyle’s manuscript hand, with notes and thoughts written directly at the time of the Agreement. One such set of notes, headed “Negotiating Northern Ireland” document Boyle’s thinking and reactions of the time. Phrases like “The fight for peace”, “George Mitchell – Making Peace”, followed by a chronology of political flashpoints in Northern Ireland from the mid-1980s, show the process of Boyle's thinking in building the picture of future directions in the North in the fall out of the multi-party talks in April 1998. Ever the rational thinker on such matters, while writing a list of key areas to focus on, from decommissioning of weapons to the new Executive that would be set up, Boyle writes and underlines in pen the reminder/warning: “Avoid Group Think”. 

Also within the Boyle archive is a typescript copy of “General Scheme of Human Rights Commission Bill”, extensively annotated by Boyle. Other files also address “A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland”. The talks resulting in the Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of years of complex and often fragile dialogue between various political parties from across bitter sectarian divides, which often threatened to irrevocably break down. The Good Friday Agreement was not the finish line for human rights-based interests by Boyle on the future of peace in Northern Ireland, or indeed on the island of Ireland. Rather, it was a starting point from which to include and build a better and new future, inclusive and reflective of a human rights perspective.

Notes by Kevin Boyle on the role of the British-Irish Council.
University of Galway Library Archives.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Reading the Good Friday Agreement - Archives and the Public Record of the GFA


Years of debate, talks, compromise and negotiation from across broad political divides in Northern Ireland were distilled into a document that became known by many names – “The Belfast Agreement”, “The Stormont Agreement”, or more widely, “The Good Friday Agreement”. The multi-party talks included representatives of the Ulster Union Party, led by David Trimble, SDLP leader, John Hume, and Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, among others, who were complimented by other key stakeholders including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, and assisted by American Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Senator George Mitchell.

The tense talks which took place at Stormont Castle over days and nights of early April 1998. The deadline for the talks, as set by Senator Mitchell was actually Thursday 9 April, but the talks spilled over past the mid-night deadline into the famous date of 10 April, Good Friday, and an agreement was reached by all parties (except the DUP, whose leader Ian Paisley protested outside Stormont and objected to the agreement, having previously refused to join the talks).

As the terms of the agreement, from its various key strands which set out a roadmap for governance, power-sharing, and security on the island, as well the establishment of new cross-border bodies with roles and functions as North-South Ministerial Council, as well as new departures for Anglo-Irish relations and structures along an east-west axis through a British-Irish Council. The changes proposed had to approved by referendum in Northern Ireland and in the Republic as alterations to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution had to be made to accommodate the terms of the agreement.

Cover page of "The Agreement"
University of Galway Library Archives

A thirty-page document, a text of the Good Friday Agreement, was printed and a copy circulated to every house in Northern Ireland. Its cover featured a silhouetted family on a sun-set beach (an image which is uncredited in the document) felt curiously at odds with the tone and importance of the document and text of the agreement. More akin to a holiday brochure, the pamphlet nevertheless was at pains to focus the reader on the text inside. “This Agreement is About Your future. Please read it carefully”. Archives of such landmark political moments also reveal the complexities of how such events are documented. 

The fact that the Agreement pamphlet is without any context or information as to who produced the document, who published, designed, or printed it, or who oversaw its distribution, is significant. Does this make it a symptom of an oversight during a frenetic period following the signing of the agreement, where civil servants or others worked to get the document out into the community as fast as possible? Or was it a deliberate action to keep the Agreement document as apolitical (if such a thing were possible) as possible – not have it ascribed to one or other political party, not endorsed by one faction’s opinion from Dublin, Belfast, or London, rather to simply present the words of the agreement as they were, plain and clear, to the reader.

Viewing the archival significance form another viewpoint, the document further placed the emphasis and agency for change in the hands of the reader and of the voter. “it’s your decision” it reiterated, boldly and loudly from the front cover. It distanced the agreement from the parties and personalities who brokered it and put its impetus and ultimately its lasting effects onto the public. The resulting referendum votes took place on 18th May 1998, comfortably passing in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. The document includes the text of the “Declaration of Support” by the participants in the multi-party talks”, the details of the constitutional changes, the many minutiae of strands one, two, and three of the agreement, as well as the terms of rights and safeguards, decommissioning, security, policing, justice, prisoners, as well as validation, implementation and review.

Contents and opening page of The Agreement pamphlet. 
University of Galway Library Archives.

As an ephemeral piece of archival memory of the Good Friday Agreement, the document is a potent symbol of the rippling legacies and impacts of the talks. It affected every person and household on the island of Ireland, north and south, and following decades of conflict, sectarianism, pain, and over three thousands deaths, a thirty-page pamphlet now held the possible if not also fragile roadmap for a shared power and peaceful future.