The spirit of meitheal

Words of wisdom from honorary degree recipient Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman president and a former UN high commissioner for human rights.


Ireland’s first woman president and a former UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson embodies the spirit of “meitheal,” the Irish expression of the ancient and universal appliance of co-operation to social need. Robinson was granted an honorary doctor of laws degree in a special conferral ceremony June 21. Afterward, she engaged in a public conversation with former University of Alberta board chair Jim Edwards, offering her perspective on a wide range of issues.

On her visit to the University of Alberta in 1998 as UN high commissioner for human rights along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when she was ill and exhausted from travel and speaking engagements:

“I was out on my feet. But I remember the kindness. I remember the empathy that I felt, the support. Nobody minded. Everybody seemed to understand. ‘Don’t worry, it’s alright.’ It’s alright if you’re not able to make the kind of speech you wanted to make. You’re doing your best. It was a really important occasion that I still remember with the great sense that sometimes in your weakness, you really appreciate when others can understand and you can reach out. For me, coming back now and hearing all these tributes paid to somebody who seems to be very strong—you’re not always strong, you know. There are moments when you can be very weak, and you need the friendship of your friends, and you need their support.”

In tribute to Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered in Birstall, West Yorkshire, on June 16, 2016:

“I had another moment just this week, when I felt a terrible sadness because of the death of somebody whom I knew and worked with, and hugely admired for her courage and her character, and that is Jo Cox, the young MP in the United Kingdom who was murdered in her constituency as she was seeking to meet with her constituents.”

“A lot of tributes have been paid to Jo Cox. You’ve read them, I’m sure. None of them exaggerate who she was. She was just one of those extraordinary leaders, instinctively. And when she became a member of Parliament, she led with her voice about Syrian refugees. She spoke about the need for Europe to be more open and more pluralist and to understand the value of a pluralist country and the value of recognizing the way in which refugees contribute to a country. I really want to pay tribute to her. Tomorrow would be her 42nd birthday. In the United Kingdom and in many countries, there will be special tributes paid.

“Leadership matters. And she gave that leadership, and she still has given a legacy of a more kindly, gentler understanding that there’s far more that unites us than divides us, and we need to be joyful and celebrate what we have in common rather than what divides us.”

On climate change and human rights:

“Having worked on human rights issues, I came late to climate. Indeed, when I served as high commissioner for human rights, I never made any speech on climate. There was another part of the UN that was dealing with that, and it was as if they were two different worlds.”

“I was hearing this constant refrain: things are so much worse. And I wondered, what was the much worse? It was that you could no longer predict the weather. In Liberia, there had been very predictable rainy seasons that came twice a year, but now they didn’t know when the rainy season would come or for how long.”

“I learned when I read the science that it was because of the greenhouse gas emissions that this part of the world—Ireland, Canada, the United States, Europe, Korea, Japan, etc.—we are all responsible because of the way in which we have built up our economies. We didn’t know it for a long time, but we know it now, and we know it well, and we understand it.”

“In December, we got an agreement between 195 countries for a very fair climate agreement. It’s not a strong agreement—I wish it was stronger—but it’s very fair. Why do I say that? Because it’s an agreement that listened to those who are most affected by climate change.”

“I was present for the final gavel coming down on the Paris agreement, and I will never forget the moment. I will never forget being in a room of more than 1,000 people where the cheering and the clapping went on for an incredibly long time. People were in tears. They were hugging each other. It was that kind of moment of togetherness that is very rare in public life. And it was there because the agreement was fair.”

“It’s a humanitarian issue, it’s a development issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s a moral issue, it’s a political issue, you name it. It is the compelling issue of our time because it poses an existential threat.”

“I often speak in personal terms, as a lucky Irish grandmother, I had three children and I now have five grandchildren. I think about the world of those grandchildren; they’re aged between 12 and 2. They’ll be in their 40s—the youngest won’t even be in his 40s—in 2050. They’ll share the world with nine billion others. What kind of world will that be unless we can change to what Paris committed? We have to be well below two degrees, and actually, at 1.5 degrees. That means we have to get out of all fossil fuels by 2050.”

“We have to start a transformation, and it has to be a fair, just transformation. It doesn’t have to be overnight and destroy people’s livelihoods. I think we have to work for a just transformation, but we have no choice if we are going to have a safe world for every child born. Every child born today will live through all of this. And that’s something that gets me out of bed in the morning.”

“It’s not a negative challenge. It would be a much better world if we could get access to electricity for the 1.3 billion people in our world who never switch that switch, who are living in darkness with candles and kerosene, both of which are dangerous. They may have mobile phones now, but they don’t have light in their home that they can rely on. If they got access to that, it would take them out of the deep poverty. 2.6 billion people out of our 7.3 or 7.4 billion at the moment still cook on wood fires and ingest smoke, and four million people a year die from indoor fumes. It’s a huge death toll, and most of it is women and children who are around them as they cook. The health benefits, the poverty-tackling benefits, are huge the more we move to renewable energy.”

“I think we will see over the coming years that we cannot endure what is going to happen to our planet if we don’t get out of fossil fuels, all of it, by 2050. That’s absolutely imperative. We have to start with the hard ones, and we have to think about that here in Alberta. I do believe that the government here is more thoughtful and much more aware of the issues that have to be addressed. But there is no choice. There is no Planet B that we can go to.”

“I can tell you from seeing the effects of it in vulnerable communities, in vulnerable parts of the world, the effects of climate change are already intolerable, already more than people can bear. The sea water is rising, and they’re having to leave their countries. The ice is melting for the Inuit community and others. We cannot go on like that. I hope that we can find a way for what we very much talk about in climate justice as a just transition, meaning we prepare now for a world without fossil fuel in 2050. That will be a much, much better world for our grandchildren and their children into the future.”

On leadership and the challenges facing the world:

“There was a wonderful moment, and it wasn’t so long ago: 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. When it seemed as though democracy was very much on the rise in a pluralist and good way. We are now going through a bad patch, I think, but a lot depends on how leadership is exercised.”

“We have to reach higher moral ground. We have to be more transformative, more prepared to change than we have been, because we have to secure the future for our children and our grandchildren. That is our real moral challenge, and it is the moral challenge of our time.”

“Universities like this distinguished University of Alberta have so much to offer in leadership. You here in Alberta were incredible when there was the terrible fire in Fort McMurray. Everybody admired the community effort when you came together. That was a solidarity that we need on this issue as well.”

“How to unblock what is so blocked in decision-making? I would love to be able to tackle the role that money plays in corrupting our system and our politics much more than it used to. It’s partly a growing inequality, and it’s partly the money that’s playing too much of a role in politics generally. In particular, in the politics of the United States, there needs to be a rebirth of the true democratic principles. You shouldn’t have to be a millionaire or maybe a multimillionaire to make your way in public life. It’s not the same in Canada, and it’s not the same in Ireland, at the moment, but there is that sense of a growing inequality and a corruption that’s entered in. Tax avoidance and tax evasion as a matter of ‘how smart can you be?’ All of that is very undermining of a trust in politics that we need to reaffirm and re-earn, recreate somehow.”

On membership in the European Union:

“The directives of the European Union, once we joined, were binding on the Irish courts. The directives of equality had direct effect. I was able to take cases to the court in Luxembourg on those issues. The European Union meant a great deal on equality for Ireland.”

“If the Leave side were to win, the implications for the whole of Ireland are very serious immediately. There would be a border on our country again, and there would be a border between a European Union country and a non-European Union country. Nobody can tell what that border would mean because Ireland has always had free access to Britain. But this was pre-EU, and when the EU came in, it didn’t make any difference to it. But it would make a huge difference if Britain opted out. … It would be very negative for the economy and for peace in Northern Ireland, for stability. If you add to that then what Scotland might do, it would be even more potentially upsetting.”

On reaching out: Northern Ireland and the U.K.:

“I knew that if I accepted the visit, I would meet Gerry Adams and probably have to shake his hand, which I did. I was discouraged by the Irish government, but they didn’t say no, you can’t. And the British government wasn’t keen either. Somehow I knew it was important to do it. It was important to give some sense of support and solidarity to a beleaguered part of West Belfast which wasn’t comfortable being in the sovereignty of Britain and wasn’t ever really close to the south. We ignored that problem as best we could. Somehow we needed to open up a space.”

“What happened was, on the very night of the election, in the heat of the moment, when the vote was counted and I was the president, it was an incredible moment I can still remember. In my speech that evening, I said, ‘I will put a light in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin for all those who had to emigrate from Ireland.’ I was thinking of my mother because in our home in Ballina, our house was directly opposite from the cathedral, across the river Moy, the cathedral was at the other side. People going to Mass would see, so at Christmastime, we didn’t just put one candle. We put a whole chandelier—six candles in the window of the dining room on Christmas Eve lest anybody would be without a home. … It was that memory, and so I said I’d put a light in the window. We meant a candle, but we were told as soon as my husband and myself moved into Áras an Uachtaráin, no candle, it would burn the place down. So we got a lamp specially made with no off switch. I cannot tell you the power of that light. It took on a life of its own.”

“The sense of connection with Ireland is something we can be tremendously appreciative of in Ireland. It’s made a huge Irish family somehow, and we now value it very much.”

“Although I was the seventh president of Ireland, no previous president had ever done anything in Britain because of the whole Northern Ireland situation. And the British didn’t know what to call me. My title under the Irish constitution was President of Ireland, but they didn’t want to call me that, so they called me ‘Irish president’ or tried to get away from ‘President of Ireland.’”

“The invitation to have tea with the Queen was a huge breakthrough in relations. It was very much an initiative, I think, of Her Majesty the Queen herself. She knew what she was doing, as she always does, and she made a hugely important state visit to Ireland subsequently with my successor, Mary McAleese. Since then, president Michael D. Higgins made an equally very successful visit to Britain, so relations are at a very good level.”

On the spirit of meitheal:

Meitheal is an Irish word which means ‘linked to the other.’ It’s very like the African term ubuntu, which my friend Archbishop Tutu would say, ‘I am because you are.’

When I was growing up, I used to love going out with my father, who was a medical doctor, on long calls. I was the only girl, and I adored my father. Going out on a call with him, he would tell me stories. We would see farmers in a field with the one tractor and all the workers, and then the next week, they would do the next farmer’s field, and if that farmer was sick, the field would be done. It’s a spirit that you recognize here in Alberta.”

On holding one’s friends and allies to account:

“It’s a very important balance, and I think you’re only a true friend if you’re true to the values that you want to see upheld.”

On the Yogyakarta Principles and the rights of sexual and gender minorities:

“I think that there is momentum, but the trouble is that for the United Nations, it has to be a universal acceptance if it’s going to be a true United Nations declaration. There are countries in the world where people are persecuted, even killed, for their sexuality, for their sense of identity.”

“I was very proud of the fact that my own country, Ireland, was the first country in the world to have a referendum on same-sex marriage, and every county in Ireland voted positively, except one, Roscommon, and even in Roscommon, the vote was quite close. It was a very people-centred approach.”

On the participation of youth:

“As elders, in any country we go to, we meet with young people. Even on the climate issue, we’ve had debates between elders and youngers. We feel that it’s really important to listen to the voices of young people and to engage them in the potential that they have and the contribution that they can make.”

“Sometimes, I’ve been on panels where a young person has been included, and they’re always the last to be allowed to speak. I’ve gotten to the stage now where if that happens, I always make sure that we listen to the young person first. Let’s reverse the order that a young person has to wait to be the last voice and almost be tolerated rather than really listened to.”

On the 1916 centenary:

“The centenary of 1916 has been very important in Ireland this year because it has been approached in a broader way than before. I don’t remember at the 90th or earlier that we actually tried to connect it with the values that we now have in Ireland and how they are influenced by the centenary.”

“In Galway, there was a celebration of an inclusive centenary. 1916, 2016. And it was looking at the contribution of those who have come to Ireland, to the modern Ireland. There are many ways in which people are seeking to look at the values and question. It’s very healthy. We’re not very introspective somehow. We’re not very good at looking at our values. I do believe that the centenary celebration has enabled us to—the very fact that there’s now a wall in Dublin, in Glasnevin, to honour those who were killed during 1916, not just the 70 who were those who fought and died and were martyrs, but the British army soldiers who were killed and the civilians who were completely forgotten, including children who had been killed during that uprising. Somehow that wall is a symbol of an inclusiveness that I think would be well understood here in Canada.”

On women’s participation in politics:

“I feel very strongly that we should and must encourage women to not only seek office but to do so confidently. There’s often a difference in confidence between young men and young women and what they feel they’re capable of doing. The young men somehow feel instinctively qualified for whatever it may be.”

“Our society is much better for the better balance. That’s recognized in the business community, for example, in boards: they’re seeking more diversity and equality.”

“Mentoring and encouraging is necessary and important. When I was running for president of Ireland, I was able to point to a woman president in Europe—the president of Iceland. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became a friend. She’s a friend of Kim Campbell’s as well. She was in, I think, her second term as president when I was seeking to be the first woman president in Ireland, and I can tell you that it helped enormously to be able to say, ‘Look! She’s there, and she’s been re-elected, and she’s doing a good job, everyone recognizes she is.’ You almost have to point to somebody because the ceiling is there.”

“I also feel very strongly that it helps to have a critical mass. When I was first elected to the Irish senate, there were six of us. We were of different parties, and I was an independent at the time. When we became 13 out of 60, we began to make a difference, and we also linked with women in the lower house, the Dáil, and then we found we could actually prioritize issues that wouldn’t have otherwise got priority. And that has continued in the Irish parliament. There’s a very strong women’s caucus, a women’s group that is cross-party and includes independents because some issues are more important.”

“I also have come to believe in quotas. We have now quotas in Irish politics. It’s a more recent provision, and I think if we don’t have quotas, then it can take a long time for women to get to a critical mass.”

Watch the ceremony and conversation