Address by Dr. Mary Robinson

On behalf of my fellow Senators I welcome to the House Dr. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and a past Member of the House. As you are all aware, this newly elected Seanad is determined to modernise its procedures and actively engage with the civic society. To begin this process we have changed Standing Orders to allow persons and representatives of public and civic life to address Seanad Éireann. Today our guest, Dr. Mary Robinson, will address Members on the importance of the Seanad in her career as a human rights activist.

Dr. Robinson has had a very distinguished career as a politician, academic and human rights campaigner. As well as being regarded in this country as a transforming President, Dr. Robinson is also renowned at home and abroad as an extremely successful, committed and skilled human rights activist. At the age of 25, Dr. Mary Robinson became Ireland's youngest professor of law when she was appointed Reid Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law at Trinity College where she also served as a lecturer in European Community law. From 1969 to 1989, Dr. Robinson was a member of Seanad Éireann where her legal expertise and advocacy skills had a major impact on the drafting of legislation. During this time she was also committed to the promotion and protection of human rights. In 1990 she became the first woman to be elected President of Ireland, and from 1997 to 2002 she was the United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Dr. Robinson now heads up the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice, a centre for thought leadership, education and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those many victims of climate change who are usually forgotten, namely, the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised throughout the world.

It is in recognition of her success and expertise in the area of human rights that she is invited here today to address the House. We are delighted that a person of such reputation and achievement at home and abroad has agreed to speak to the Seanad under the new rules. Therefore, it is a great honour and privilege to ask Dr. Mary Robinson to address the House.

Dr. Mary Robinson

Cathaoirleach, Leas-Chathaoirleach, Members of the Seanad, I never thought for one minute when I was a Member of the House that I would be invited back to address you, least of all from the Minister's chair. I feel reassured that the Cathaoirleach is from County Mayo and will protect me. I was so enthusiastic about attending that I arrived early, which made the protocol more difficult.

As Senators have heard, I had the honour to spend 20 years in the House from 1969 until August 1989 when I believed I was retiring altogether from public life. For nine of those years, I was a member of the Labour Party with Front Bench and back bench experience. I am pleased that there is a better gender balance now — some 18 of the 60 Senators are women — than when I was first elected, but there is still room for improvement. When I was elected in 1969 there were six women. When I signed the roll as an overawed young Senator, I met Senator Kit Ahern, a long-standing Fianna Fáil Senator who I am sure many Members remember. She drew me aside and gave me a piece of advice, namely, that lady Members of the Seanad wore hats. I did not like wearing hats, but I wore a small beret my first day. I have always hated the photograph that was taken. Subsequently, I learned that it was not necessary for ladies to wear hats.

I have been asked to share some of my experiences as a Senator and to outline how it contributed to my later work. I am pleased that the first discussion theme chosen by the Seanad relates to human rights and that a former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning, the chair of the Irish Human Rights Commission, IHRC, has already addressed the Chamber in that context.

Four areas of my time in the Seanad contributed helpfully to my later work. For example, my experience of contributing to the legislative process taught me to read closely the small print of legislation and to understand the technical side of drafting, amending and speaking on the different Stages of a Bill before the House. It was an honour as President of Ireland to sign Bills into law or, after consulting the Council of State, to refer some of them to the Supreme Court under Article 26. Obviously, one does not need to be a former Member of the Dáil or Seanad to become Uachtarán na hÉireann, but it was undoubtedly helpful for me, particularly in respect of that function.

My second reflection is on my first Bill that I sought to promote as a Private Members' Bill, which was meant to amend the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 as it related to access to contraceptives. Two Senators — John Horgan and Dr. Trevor West — joined with me in tabling a short Private Members' Bill, but it was never even given a First Reading. This was unusual and I am unsure as to whether other Bills suffered a similar fate. We tried a number of times to have it included on the Order of Business. The day it was debated, it was done suddenly and defeated in a vote.

When I announced that I was going to introduce the legislation, I was taken aback by the extent of the public outcry, the hate letters and being denounced from pulpits. I had been focusing on the fact that the law was not in touch with reality. As Senators may recall, married women could not avail of the contraceptive pill at the time unless their doctors certified that they had cycle regulation problems. It must have been the weather because there was an awful lot of married women with cycle regulation problems. Equally, it was not against the law to use a condom, but it was against criminal law to buy or sell one. Coming from Harvard Law School as I did, I did not believe the law was conforming with reality and it was obvious that it needed to be amended.

I have since reflected a great deal on what I did not consider then, namely, the fact that I was touching on a sensitive part of Irish culture — the unwillingness to discuss sex even in the family, never mind in a public way. I learned a valuable lesson that proved important when I became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

A major category of human rights violations is that of the harmful traditional practices applied to women, for example, genital mutilation, genital cutting, forced marriages, etc. Supporters of these practices claim the human rights agenda is a Western agenda and that they have different cultural approaches. One of my first acts as High Commissioner was to support those special rapporteurs on violence against women and relevant issues who were Muslim women. They advocated that, as opposed to being cultural, these were harmful traditional practices. Even so, it was clear that the only way one could achieve sustainable change was from within, be it in the village, the community or the country. I brought my Seanad experience to the issue. It took ten years for the Government to amend the law on contraceptives and to achieve what we called at the time an Irish solution to an Irish problem. It presented an important opportunity to understand that, if one wants to change behaviours and attitudes, it is a slow, educational and awareness raising process that requires much patience, stamina and consistency.

Although I mentioned that I do not like wearing hats, I now wear a different one and have been officially designated an elder in the sense that I was honoured to be included in The Elders group brought together by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Given the participation of strong women like Graça Machel, Gro Brundtland and Ela Bhatt, from the beginning The Elders have wanted to highlight the way in which the wrong application of religion and tradition can subjugate and hold back women in certain respects. Our statement received strong support from the male members of The Elders, notably President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Tutu, President Fernando Cardoso, Kofi Annan and others.

We decided that we needed to highlight a practical area in which it was necessary to call on religious leaders and traditional chiefs to support the empowerment and rights of women. We took the example of child marriage. From my time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I knew that child marriage was a major issue, but I had underestimated the number of girls affected. Approximately 10 million girls per year marry well below the age of 18 years, the recognised age under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

When Archbishop Tutu, Ms Machel, Ms Brundtland and I visited Ethiopia this year, I noted a difference between the law and the practice. Ethiopia has a good law that states no one below the age of 18 years should marry, but we visited the Amhara region where the average age of marriage was 12 years. We met eight, nine and ten year olds who had been married by their families. More than anything else, the situation was brought home to me when I spoke with a 16 year old accompanied by her 30 year old husband in a village that was addressing the question of child marriage from within — increased education levels, keeping girls in school and involving the whole of the village and the imams. To relax the 16 year old, I asked her to tell me about her wedding day. She looked at me with the saddest eyes and said she had to drop out of school. I had a sudden picture of this 15 year old happily playing in school with her 15 year old companions and the next day her parents tell her she is now married and must move into her husband's family home and do whatever is asked of her, by a husband whom she has never met before. This is the reality of child marriage. The lessons I learned in Seanad Éireann seeking to introduce that Bill stay with me.

A third point is the ability to table motions on different issues. It allows a very wide range of issues to be raised that otherwise probably would not be raised in the Oireachtas, issues of prison reform which can come up if there is a Bill but often need to come up on their own. I remember raising an issue of the persecution of Jews in Russia. I could raise issues on foreign affairs as well as local issues. That was a reminder to me of constantly seeking to pursue human rights issues. Sometimes I found there was a parallel between what I might be trying to do as a barrister in a case in court, instructed by my clients, and raising a matter in the Seanad. The long litigation on Wood Quay crossed the courts, Seanad Éireann and Dublin City Council at different times.

The fourth area, was the opportunity as a member of the Seanad to participate in international issues and discussions and, to some extent, to travel abroad in that context. I took part in several meetings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It was interesting to see the different perspectives, not having had much experience before that. I became an active member of AWEPA, and I know that some Members of the Dáil and Seanad are still very active in AWEPA, the link between European and African parliamentarians supporting parliamentary democracy in African countries. When we started in the early days of AWEPA it was, of course, to address the apartheid issue. It was important that strong members of the Dáil and Seanad were speaking out on apartheid. When I became High Commissioner for Human Rights, I had a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom I adore, and he asked me to become a member of the eminent group of AWEPA, so I still have a strong link with AWEPA. He sent me e-mail and I loved the way he was beginning to tell me the reasons that he would like me to serve on the eminent group of AWEPA. He obviously got tired working and he said: "Do this for me, Mary — how is that for whitemail?" I thought that was a lovely expression, instead of blackmail, it was whitemail.

That early experience of linking with the issue of apartheid, the need to build up democracy in African countries, the opportunities in the Inter-Parliamentary Union certainly contributed to my growing interest in international human rights, going beyond the human rights at the European level that I was very much engaged in and taking cases to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the court in Luxembourg. I became very interested in development issues, the issues of developing countries and, in particular, issues in Africa. That is why, when I was elected President, I said at my inauguration that I hoped I would have an opportunity to in some way address international human rights issues. I was very aware of the limits on the role and powers of the President. They were more evident then because the office had not been fully developed as thankfully it is now. It was a great honour to be the first Head of State to go to Somalia in 1992 and to make a number of subsequent visits to Rwanda, after the genocidal killing there, as Uachtarán na hÉireann.

It was also an issue which as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I saw both the extent of violations of human rights and also the work of organisations on women's, children's and broad human rights issues and the need to be more supportive, in particular, of rights to food and safe water, health, education, which led to me establishing an organisation called Realising Rights, which was never intended to be permanent and which came to a planned end last December. In the meantime, travelling in African countries, I became aware of the extent to which climate shocks were undermining poor livelihoods of indigenous farmers, of poor communities and of those in slums. It was either flooding, prolonged drought and then flash flooding. The farmers had no seasons to plan and sow. That led to the establishment of my current work, the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice. This is my last endeavour. I intend to work at this for the remainder of my time. Again, I see the early seeds in the Seanad.

I want to turn to the way in which the Seanad itself and the Oireachtas has developed since my time. There is a much more developed committee system now. I believe this is a necessary feature of modern parliaments. I would like to have us reflect a little on the role of elected assemblies in the modern world. The elders have been very focused on the Arab Spring, on the way in which significant numbers of people were able to come out to the streets and squares because they had social media to contact each other and they knew there would be not just one or two, but ten or 20 or 1,000. They would be protected by numbers. I was recently in Tunisia and saw the good election that has taken place and the beginnings of a parliamentary assembly which will begin drafting a new constitution. Obviously in Egypt there are more difficulties and in many of the countries of the region. For me it was kind of affirmation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that those from countries where their leaders would have told me as High Commissioner that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is western rights, but these were the very rights that these people were coming out in the street and squares to proclaim. They wanted human dignity, human rights, democracy, accountability and jobs. I think we should think across to what is happening in many countries in the developed world, including Ireland. You have occupy movements, that are questioning the status quo, that are looking for new systems, new approaches. I wanted to quote from a speech made by Hillary Clinton in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, Women and the Economy Summit, APEC, which was meeting on women and the economy. It was a very thoughtful speech. There is a somewhat long passage in it that I think bears reflection:

Because when everyone has a chance to participate in the economic life of a nation, we can all be richer. More of us can contribute to the global GDP and the gap between the developed and the developing contries would narrow significantly as productivity rises in economies from Haiti to Papua New Guinea.

But that great, global dream cannot be realised by tinkering around the edges of reform. Nor, candidly, can it be secured though any singular commitment on the part of us here. It requires, rather, a fundamental transformation, a paradigm shift in how governments make and enforce laws and policies, how businesses invest and operate, how people make choices in the marketplace.

The transformational nature of this undertaking that lies ahead is, in my view, not unlike other momentous shifts in the economic history of our world. In the 19th century, many nations began moving from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Then the inventions and mass productions of that era gave rise in the 20th century to the information age and the knowledge economy, with an unprecedented rise in innovation and prosperity.

As information transcends borders and creates opportunities for farmers to bank on mobile phones and children in distant villages to learn remotely, I believe that here, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are entering the participation age, where every individual, regardless of gender or other characteristics, is poised to be a contributing and valued member of the global marketplace.

That is a very interesting concept, the participation age. I invite Members of the Seanad to reflect on what it means for this House that we are entering the participation age. The Seanad has already begun that process by establishing the Seanad Public Petitions Committee, which I have learned a little more about from the Leader of the House. Having arrived early we had a chance to talk about it. It seems that it is bringing the Seanad closer to the public and hopefully will better inform the public of the work of the Seanad. I am particularly delighted as an official designated elder that the Seanad has adopted the human rights of older people as the theme for this term. I was very pleased to learn that groups have been invited who will address Members on this subject on the floor of the Seanad this afternoon. That would never have happened in my time. That is progress. Things are moving on. I wish Members well in this endeavour and in particular in thinking about the participation age and how elected bodies can serve well and adapt to and become much more inclusive and open and set new trends. Tá áthas an domhain orm bheith ar ais arís. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

As Leader of the 24th Seanad I am honoured to welcome back Dr. Robinson and I am pleased that she is here as a result of our invitation. As one of the world's leading human rights advocates she is a most welcome guest here today. The Seanad Public Petitions Committee has chosen the human rights of older people in Ireland as the focus of our work this term. Later today for the first time representatives of older people's advocacy groups will address the committee in the Chamber and next Tuesday experts on issues affecting older people in our society will have the opportunity to address the House. It has been said on several occasions since last May that the 24th Seanad may be the last one but we intend to make it the best one.

As Uachtarán na hÉireann and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr. Robinson brought world attention to human rights challenges and called for a greater commitment to and action on human rights to make human rights a reality for all. The presidency of an tIar-Uachtarán Mary Robinson was special in many ways. She will be forever associated with the faithful light in the window of Arás an Uachtaráin which, sadly, has renewed resonance now that we are witnessing emigration again on a scale not seen for many years.

The people are proud of the pioneering role Dr. Robinson played as President of Ireland during her term of office. She was a President for the people, meeting them in their communities to see at first hand the work of local groups. She initiated the practice of inviting groups from every area of national life, North and South, to Arás an Uachtaráin to confirm to them that their work was important to the nation as a whole. Naturally, she was an inspiration to the people, especially women, to come centre stage to speak of their aspirations and concerns and to show their achievements and success. She evoked a strong empathy with the Irish Diaspora giving a new focus to their isolation and their wish to be re-included in the national awareness. She championed the causes of those who strove to overcome barriers of disability, disadvantage, marginalisation to take their rightful place in education and employment.

On assuming office as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, Dr. Robinson continued to build on her remarkable achievements as Uachtarán na hÉireann on the international stage as one of Ireland's greatest ambassadors and visionaries. Throughout her five years of service as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights she achieved remarkable progress in raising the profile of human rights and making them a central issue in all societies. Having travelled far and wide to promote respect for human rights, she was never afraid to take up the cause of victims of human rights abuses wherever they occurred, nor did she ever tire of lending her powerful voice to the cries of these victims which may not have been heard otherwise. She gave priority to implementing the then Secretary General's reform proposal to integrate human rights to all activities of the United Nations and she strengthened human rights monitoring in conflict areas.

Dr. Robinson's relentless commitment in championing the cause of human rights was exemplified following the completion of her term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2002 by the foundation of Realizing Rights — The Ethical Globalization Initiative based at Columbia University in New York. This organisation fostered ethical trade and decent work and promoted the right to health and humane migration policies and encouraged women's participation and leadership in corporate responsibility. In the course of her significant work with the Realizing Rights initiative, she became conscious of the issue of climate change and its impact especially on developing countries.

To this end Dr. Robinson established the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice to progress further her momentous work to date by endeavouring to address inequalities in climate change. The fact that she chose to establish the foundation in Ireland to carry on its significant work shows her deep-rooted commitment to this country and to advancing the reputation of Ireland internationally as a society that cares deeply about the plight of those who live in the poorest countries in the world. The creation of an alliance of innovation between the Mary Robinson Foundation, Trinity College and University College Dublin is noteworthy. With the support of the foundation, Trinity College and UCD are now developing masters courses in development practice which have attracted a good deal of interest from other universities throughout the world. I have no doubt these initiatives will raise the profile of these universities internationally.

I note Dr. Robinson's lifetime commitment to human rights was recognised by the award to her of the US presidential medal of freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009. She has shown us time and again that with courage, imagination and integrity, everything is possible. We are grateful that she accepted my invitation to address the House today and to share with us her vision for the future of Ireland. I believe strongly that her commitment to public service and positive communication are of particular relevance to this House as we endeavour to enhance the value and relevance of the Seanad for the benefit of the public.

As Leader of the Upper House, I am committed to improving the way in which the Seanad does its business. To this end, as Dr. Robinson remarked, the Seanad Public Petitions Committee has been created. It represents a strong addition to the overall committee system and brings the Seanad closer to the citizen by allowing community representatives to appear before the House. The Seanad Public Consultation Committee has chosen human rights for older people in Ireland as the focus of its work for this term. Later this afternoon and for the first time representatives of older people's advocacy groups will address the committee in the Chamber and, next Tuesday, experts on issues affecting older people in our society will have the opportunity to address the House. I hope that by highlighting these issues and by giving the opportunity to representatives of older people to address Members we will compliment in some way the significant contribution of Dr. Robinson to human rights. The submissions received from older people's advocacy groups in advance of today's address were especially informative and contain some practical suggestions for consideration, such as the enactment of legislation to regulate the standard of home care services for older people and the provision of inspection for providers of home care services. The advocacy groups were especially concerned about the introduction of a fuel strategy scheme and the extension of the Citizens Information Board advocacy services which provide advocacy services to older people.

I congratulate Dr. Robinson on her trip to the Horn of Africa. I believe Ireland can be a valuable bridge to the poorest countries in the world. We have come from poverty and famine ourselves and we have a good record in development aid and, as such, we are uniquely placed to be a voice for the vulnerable and the marginalised throughout the world, just as Dr. Robinson has been for many years. We are especially pleased to have her here and we wish her many more years of success.

Ar son Seanadóirí Fhianna Fáil, cuiruim fáilte roimh Mary Robinson ar ais go dtí an Seanad tar éis beagnach 20 bliain.

I am delighted, Dr. Robinson, that you are here today. My first memory of you, which shows my age, was during the year of my intermediate certificate when the presidential campaign was at its height. Not only did you break new ground in the presidency, you broke new ground in my house in Malahide at the time, which was and still is a strong Fianna Fáil household. At the time there was a grave disagreement between my mother and father and they voted differently for the first time ever. As they have continued to do so since, you performed a great service in my house.

I have never had an opportunity to talk to you directly, but I personally want to thank you for all the work you have done on behalf of this country. You have been an absolute credit in every role you played, particularly that of President, but also when you followed on as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I remember your trip to Somalia vividly as if it was only yesterday. Lighting a candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin was symbolic, but you did shine a light into the darkest corners of this world on behalf of the people. That is something the people of Ireland will never forget. I am delighted that you are continuing in your advocacy role and in your many other roles in this country. Your experience, along with the experience of our most recent President, is very valuable in these difficult times for Ireland, Europe and the rest of the world.

Given that he is Leader of the Upper House, Senator Cummins gets the opportunity to say everything I was going to say; therefore, I will be brief. The Leader has outlined what we are trying to do in the Seanad. As someone who has served in the Dáil and in the Seanad, I personally believe there is a great role for this Chamber in the future. I would be most interested, Dr. Robinson, to hear your views on how Seanad Éireann can represent Irish citizens better in modern Ireland.

The public consultation committee, on which Members from all groups serve, is a very important initiative. We have focused on the human rights of older people. It is incumbent on us — your reputation on this is second to none — to look after people who are vulnerable and marginalised, and that includes the elderly, the poor and people in the developing world. The narrative is all about the economy, which is understandable, but it is incumbent on us not to forget our society and not to forget those who are less well off than us and those who do not even have a house over their heads.

My Fianna Fáil Party colleagues and I are absolutely delighted you are here today. Your opening remarks were most interesting, but I would like to hear your views about the Seanad in the future, and also about Ireland's standing in the developing world. We have a great reputation here, but there is a debate on overseas development aid and whether the budget should be cut, and what this might do to Ireland's name in the developing world. Since you visited so many of these countries, I would be most interested to hear your views on how we should proceed with ensuring that foreign development aid is to the forefront of everything we do, but in this Government and any future government.

I am delighted that you are here. My father forgives you. My parents are back talking after 20 years. I am delighted you have graced us with your presence.

On behalf of the Labour Party group, I am delighted, Dr. Robinson, to welcome you very warmly back to the Seanad after some years. After hearing Senator O'Brien describe his intermediate certificate year in 1990, we all feel like elders in this House.

I am so glad you are here today. Your career has been a credit to Ireland. You have represented us so well on the international stage and you have been a powerful advocate for human rights — not just at home, but abroad as well — throughout your very distinguished career.

Like Senator O'Brien, I feel the Leader has said all I wanted to say in paying tribute to your long and distinguished career, both here in Ireland and overseas. However, I should say a personal word of thanks to you, because I am the only person here to whom you were not only a lecturer in Trinity College, but also a client of yours as a barrister in a relatively profile case in the late 1980s involving the provision of information on abortion when I was a student leader. Just as Senator O'Brien's parents have a view on your career, my mother is eternally grateful to you for keeping me out of jail, as she saw it at the time. She and my grandmother were very enthusiastic footsoldiers for you during the presidential election campaign in 1990 as a direct result of the work you did in representing us in court.

That work was one of the many ways in which you were prepared to take on issues that were not always popular and issues that often brought a great deal of hostility down upon you at the time, but issues on which you were subsequently vindicated. Such issues include contraceptive rights and freedom of expression on information on abortion. Those are issues which we should continue to work on in the Seanad.

I would like to comment briefly on the transformative role you played in the presidency and in the Seanad, before returning to the issue of what we can do in the Seanad to further your work. You truly transformed the presidency on taking office in 1990 and made it a revitalised office. It is fair to say that tradition was continued by your successor, Mary McAleese, and I am sure it will be continued by President Michael D. Higgins. With characteristic modesty, you have not spoken about many of the other aspects of work which you have done since leaving the presidency not only as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but also as honorary president of Oxfam International, as well as work with the Realizing Rights initiative and the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. I should also mention, as a Trinity College Senator, your work as Chancellor of the University of Dublin, for which we are very grateful.

During your career in the Seanad, you also took on quite a range of different issues, and you only touched on a few of those. Your work made a significant contribution in bringing about subsequent change. Examples include the rights of women to sit on juries, the requirement that all women resign from the Civil Service on marriage, gay rights and changes in the law on homosexuality, work on penal reform and work on heritage and on preserving Wood Quay.

The work you are doing now with the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice is extremely exciting and it touches on perhaps the most pressing issue facing us today, although it is hard to look beyond the crisis in eurozone countries. Clearly, climate change is a genuinely international threat to us all. The principles of climate justice, which your organisation has adopted and which inform all the activities in which you are engaged, are extremely exciting and extremely important, particularly the need to link human rights with climate justice. Too often they are seen as two separate things, environmental rights and human rights. As you say, the international rights framework must encompass the right to climate justice. I am also glad to see that you have encompassed issues of gender in your work on climate justice. Climate change impacts differently upon women and men. This is a very exciting project and I am sure I am not alone in hoping it will not be your last project. We will endeavour to promote the principles on which you are working in this term in the Seanad.

I would like to finish by speaking again about the Seanad. Senator O'Brien asked how the Seanad can be used in the best way to be representative of people and to express the sort of democracy and participation that you spoke of in your address to us. How best can we make the Seanad a meaningful and useful forum? We are trying to do that, as the Leader has said, in what may be the last Seanad, but what we hope will be the best and most effective Seanad. The fact that you are here addressing us, the fact that Dr. Manning has already been here and the fact that we have a range of groups addressing us in the Chamber this afternoon as part of our public consultation process, are all important reforms to make the Seanad more engaged with the public, more meaningful and to give us more of a role in changing public policy.

I think there are other areas where the Seanad could again take a leading role on issues such as climate justice and women's rights. There are still challenging issues that may be better addressed in the Seanad, given our traditional role as a forum for such issues. I speak, in particular, about women's reproductive rights, the right to abortion and issues to do with the ABC judgment of the European Court of Human Rights last December and the Government's commitment to establish an expert group. These are issues we need to discuss in the House.

Dr. Robinson mentioned the strong women's representation in the House. Some 50% of the members of the Labour Party group are women — six out of 12 — about which we are delighted. However, it is also important that we consider the rights of those in minorities generally, including people with disabilities. In this term we are focusing on the rights of older people, but we will be focusing, I hope, on other aspects of human rights in the future.

It is important that we continue to table legislation that would not perhaps get the same hearing in the Dáil, that touches on issues of direct relevance to people and on which the law is still out of date. I am talking, for example, about changing the law to ensure religions will not have an unduly dominant status, in view of the fact that when it comes to religion persons who describe themselves as having no faith now make up the largest minority group in this country — Catholics make up the largest religious grouping. We need to consider all of these issues, even if they are challenging or controversial. This would be in keeping with the tradition of which Dr. Robinson is the best exemplar in the Seanad but which is and was espoused by others such as Senator Norris and former Senator Mary Henry who took on challenging issues, brought forward matters of social policy and directly helped to bring about social change. With all of this, we salute Dr. Robinson and look forward to her responses to the questions we all have about how we can best use the Seanad.

On behalf of the Independent group of Taoiseach's nominees, I warmly welcome Dr. Robinson back to Seanad Éireann and congratulate her on her truly formidable career to date. I thank her so much for her inspiration. She has clearly articulated and illustrated to us the tremendous role she has played as a human rights activist. I commend her particularly for her steadfast and committed work in the fields of human rights, justice and equality, both in Ireland and internationally. In 1999, when she was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she articulated her understanding of the aim of human rights as follows:

To push beyond standard-setting and asserting human rights to make those standards a living reality for people everywhere ... to move beyond the design and drawing-board phase, to move beyond thinking and talking about the foundation stones, to laying those foundation stones, inch by inch, together.

She was true to this understanding of human rights long before her appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. During her 20 years as a Senator she was a human rights activist in the truest sense. She was never afraid to engage with difficult and controversial issues. Her vocal opposition and active campaigning on different issues have been instrumental in shaping the Ireland we, as Irish women, live in today. In her campaign to eliminate discrimination against women she was a key player in improving the living reality for women in Irish society. Many of the present generation of Irish women entering into employment in the Civil Service are blissfully unaware that until as recently as 1973 they would have been legally obliged to leave their employment upon marriage. It is equally difficult to comprehend that it was not until 1975 that women were deemed eligible for jury service.

There have undeniably been advances in the promotion of gender equality in recent years. However, considering the fact that there have been only 86 female Senators since the first Seanad, as Dr. Robinson said, there is room for improvement. To share my own memories, almost 20 years ago I attended a training course of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Mexico on the diversity of women in our cultures and how we could achieve leadership. At the time Dr. Robinson was President of Ireland and I can tell her she clearly inspired so many women from around the world, both at the time and afterwards. In fact, I admire her because she has never deviated from her principles, irrespective of the high level political positions she has held. Like my colleagues, I would be interested to hear her opinions. If she were a Member of the 24th Seanad, on what issues would she focus?

As the outgoing chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, I have been campaigning for many years to strengthen children's rights in the Constitution. In 1976 Dr. Robinson was, in fact, the first public representative to recognise the need to insert some changes in the Constitution to safeguard the welfare of children. During the Seanad debate on the Adoption Bill 1976 she expressed her disappointment that a constitutional amendment on adoption would only paper over some of the defects and consequently fail to deliver a broad-based reform of the law in line with the charter on children's rights. While it is beyond disappointing that in the subsequent 35 years we have not managed to ensure children's rights are upheld in the Constitution, we have arrived at a unique juncture at which there is consensus across the Houses on the need to strengthen children's rights in the Constitution and we have an assurance from the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, that a referendum will be held in 2012. This action is necessary to positively change the living reality for children in Ireland. I ask Dr. Robinson for any advice she might give us on how we can get over the line in this referendum.

I wonder whether Dr. Robinson would share with us her thinking on how best to implement and breathe life into the human rights recommendations made to Ireland during the universal periodic review in Geneva in October.

I echo the Cathaoirleach's words of welcome and those of Senators Maurice Cummins, Darragh O'Brien, Ivana Bacik and Jillian van Turnhout. Mary Robinson was elected to this House on 2 August 1969 and President 21 years later. Next Saturday week, 3 December, marks the 21st anniversary of her inauguration as President. I wish the party every success and I am sure it will be most enjoyable. She has shaken the hands of tens of thousands of graduates of Trinity College Dublin where she serves with distinction, as Senator Bacik said, as chancellor. In her maiden speech to the House on 2 December 1969 she referred to the gross underuse of the Seanad by the Government. That issue is still topical today, as she will gather.

Mary Robinson's first family planning Bill was launched on 3 March 1971 but was defeated on 7 July. However, that did not deter her in her advocacy of human rights. She sought to allow couples of different religions to be eligible to adopt children. With Trevor West and John Horgan, she introduced family planning Bills in 1973 and 1974. She represented the plaintiffs in an amazing array of cases, including some dealing with the right to import contraceptives, the right of women to serve on juries — it is incredible that this was actually an issue in our lifetimes — free legal aid and family law, the succession rights of non-married persons, the right to remarry where a spouse was still alive, and the right to information. She adopted all of these great causes. She is good at the catchphrase too: in its time "Mná na hÉireann" was the equivalent of "Yes we can."

We remember warmly Mary Robinson's contributions to reconciling the traditions on the island. She was the first President to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies. In May 1993 she visited the Queen in Buckingham Palace and three weeks later the west Belfast community festival. We remember her visits to Somalia and Rwanda and the Irish famine memorial at Grosse-Île near Montreal, a deeply moving place which must have influenced her in her concern for places in which famine occurs today and her work on climate change. We also remember her visit to Manchester after an IRA bomb attack in June 1996 and Enniskillen for the funeral of a Member of this House, Gordon Wilson.

Mary Robinson is a proud representative of the west and, following her example, the posts of President, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Cathaoirleach of the Seanad are all now held by people from there. The other three provinces may well need the advocacy of somebody such as Mary Robinson to ensure they will have access to major political posts in Irish public life. She has also put down roots in this city, especially in this neighbourhood. She led an early conservation movement to save Wood Quay. Her husband Nicholas has strong connections with Westland Row and they first met at TCD. Her climate change work takes place at the end of Kildare Street, on the first turn right. In a little garden at the back of the Rubrics in TCD Professor George Dawson developed a new variety of daffodil called "Mary Robinson". I hope they grow well and that Dr. Robinson enjoys every spring as they come to life again. I understand they also grow in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin.

I wish to end with a note on Dr. Robinson's kindness. It is taken from the biography by Olivia O'Leary and Helen Burke and refers to the legal work she undertook when Senator David Norris, who is beside me now and who will be asking questions presently along with Senator Crown, challenged the laws against homosexual practice in 1980. The the book states:

I asked David to write down for me what it was like as a boy and as a teenager. He handwrote for me one of the most moving accounts and the tears came to my eyes as I read of the hurt and pain; the raw pain is what I remember.

I commend these emotions. I thank Dr. Robinson profusely for coming to the House and I wish her well in all her many endeavours on addressing climate change.

On behalf of the Sinn Féin Party I warmly welcome Dr. Robinson to the House. We learn something new every day and today I have learned that I am the same age as Senator O'Brien.

Senator Cullinane is looking better for it.

I was completing my intermediate certificate when Dr. Robinson stood in the presidential campaign in 1990. My family was also divided. It was always divided between the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil but rather than doing what Senator O'Brien did and take sides, I took the best of both parties and joined the republican labour party of Sinn Féin.

Dr. Robinson mentioned her activism with regard to her work in the Seanad and after her time in the Seanad in terms of her presidential role and as a High Commissioner in the United Nations. However, she was also a young activist and her activism preceded her time in the Seanad. She referred to young people beginning to ask questions. It is interesting that many of the issues she raised, contraception being one, were seen at the time as radical. Would anyone see these issues as radical today? It is important to create space for young people. Today, we will have older people and representatives of older groups before the Seanad Public Consultation Committee but I hope that we will invite representatives of youth groups to address the Seanad as well.

I am proud of the work Dr. Robinson did as President of Ireland. When she met the now Deputy Gerry Adams on the Falls Road in west Belfast many years ago, it was seen as a brave move. Dr. Robinson mentioned Dr. Maurice Manning's visit to the House some weeks ago and referred to the good, frank and straight discussion in the House about human and civil rights. He made the point that human and civil rights abuses are not only issues for developing countries but that human rights abuses take place in the developed world and in this country as well.

I seek Dr. Robinson's opinion on two issues. There is a need for an all-Ireland Bill of Rights. This is committed to in the Good Friday agreement. It is important to establish what exactly human rights are and to put them on a statutory footing. This would enable legislators and Government to vindicate the rights of citizens and this is the most important thing that we can do. The second question relates to the UN millennium development goals and the need for us to continue to support overseas aid. Despite the fact that we have significant problems in this country, sometimes they pale in comparison to what is taking place in developing countries. We must continue to support people living in real poverty and in situations where there is famine in the world. I seek Dr. Robinson's opinion on these issues.

Dr. Robinson, we have 14 further questions for you. Do you wish to take them all together and sum up at the finish or do you want to break up the questions? How do you want to proceed?

Dr. Mary Robinson

I am in your hands in a way. Perhaps it would be fairer to wait until the end. I am taking notes.

Ba mhaith liom fíor-fháilte a chur roimh an Dochtúir Mhic Róibín ar an ócáid speisialta seo. As a west of Ireland Senator I am particularly honoured to welcome Dr. Robinson home to Seanad Éireann. Her visit today brings back happy memories of a special day in 1993 when, as Chairman of Galway County Council, I welcomed her as Uachtaráin na hÉireann to the county hall. It goes without saying that we are particularly proud of her achievements as an academic, a barrister, a politician, a UN high commissioner and as President. What advice would Dr. Robinson give to us as parliamentarians on the main human rights issues that we ought to pursue nationally and internationally in the coming five years? What does she regard as her most significant achievement in her long and distinguishedcareer?

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Dochtúir Mhic Róibín freisin. I am honoured to be given the opportunity to offer a few words and to ask a question as well. My memory goes back to 1990 when I was a new teacher in a small, four-teacher school in Athenry, Galway, in the west of Ireland. I remember the great joy we experienced together on her election. It was perhaps the first time we had ever spoken as a small staff in that way about what turned out to be a coming of age and a coming out for Ireland which Dr. Robinson began. In many ways she started what she has spoken of today as the new age of participation. Dr. Robinson started that journey for us a long time ago. It has struck me — Senator van Turnhout remarked on this as well — that she has never deviated from her principles. I would be obliged if she would say something today about the key influences in her life growing up in the west. What drove her on, despite remarkable opposition at times, to fight injustice and to become a champion of human rights in Ireland and throughout the world at so many levels? For me, she has never simply lived in Ireland; she has been of the world. What were the key influences for her which spurred this on?

I have a specific question about injustice against girls and I was struck by the way she spoke about the issue of child marriages. Recently in the House we held a debate on gendercide and the selective abortion of baby girls or the fatal neglect of baby girls in China and India as a means of population control. What leadership does Dr. Robinson believe we in the Seanad could offer to fight this problem from an Irish perspective? What is her view on how we can lead this forward?

I echo all that has been said. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Dochtúir Mhic Róibín. Like others I have reminiscences about her time in public life. I have had the honour on more than one occasion of visiting her office in Geneva as part of a parliamentary delegation when she was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I will always remember the great honour we felt at having an Irish woman in such a key, important role at international level at a time when we remained somewhat under the colonial yoke and when we were still emerging as a nation. As Senator Healy Eames suggested, Dr. Robinson's period of office as President was a coming out. I remember especially the deep feeling of patriotic joy we experienced because she was in such a pivotal position.

I have another memory of one of our visits to Geneva. As Dr. Robinson was reflecting on some incidents in her life I recall the inevitable family photograph was to be taken in her office. The UN flag was placed behind her desk but it was destined to be not quite in the frame of the photograph. Me being me, I decided I would move it because no one else was going to move it. There was a spike on the top of the flag pole and, as I moved it, it shot straight up through the ceiling and created a large hole. I have often reflected on it since and whether it was fixed subsequently or whether Dr. Robinson got into trouble because some mad Irish people had come in and trashed her office.

On another occasion we were there when Dr. Robinson was in the process of leaving office and I believe she was subject to a considerable personal dilemma. If memory serves me correctly she had been offered a second term and she was anguishing over the option. I felt privileged, as did the group with us, that we were discussing these issues and the wider implications of the move she inevitably made. I believe that Dr. Robinson upon reflection has no doubt that she made the right decision because she has managed to stride the world stage in a continuing and important role. She brings great credit and pride to this country as a result of the activities in which she is involved.

The Senator is eating into Senator Leyden's time.

I would like to ask Dr. Robinson a variation of the question on the role of the Seanad. As a constitutional lawyer and former Senator, how would she justify the continuance of the second Chamber against a somewhat indifferent public fuelled by an equally indifferent media which seems to have obscured the original intention of this House, which was to act as a check and balance against big government?

I warmly welcome Dr. Robinson to the House. I am delighted she took time out to be here. It is a great honour for the House. When I told my wife Mary she was coming, she could not resist the opportunity to sit in Visitors Gallery because she is a great admirer of hers.

Today is a significant day for Dr. Robinson to come to the House because it starts the 16 days of action opposing violence against women here and throughout the world. As a member of the Council of Europe, Dr. Robinson is particularly active in this regard and nobody has been a greater advocate of fighting for the rights of women than she has, in particular on the issue of violence against women. I thank the Leader of the House for inviting her here today.

When I was Minister of State at the Department of Health from 1987 to 1989, Dr. Robinson was a Senator. We were in the antechamber when this room was undergoing reconstruction. My officials hoped she would not be present not because they did not like or admire her, but because they knew she would be incisive on a Bill. We had a great discussion on the removal of the word "illegitimacy" from what was a very good Bill. The then Senator played a very important role and, like everything she contributes to, she was very incisive.

In her role as a former High Commissioner for Human Rights, I hope Dr. Robinson gets an opportunity, with The Elders, to visit Gaza and Palestine. They have taken a particular interest in the area. Gaza is an open prison and a sore in the region. I hope she helps to bring peace and harmony between Israel and Palestine. I was asked by Senator Power, who could not be here for her speech because she had other commitments, to raise that issue.

As Dr. Robinson is well aware, the report of the Basuni commission has just been published. It vindicates the testimony of Irish trained medics and other Bahrainians regarding torture in custody following the anti-government protests earlier this year. It also highlights the increased repression by the Bahrain regime of the civil and political rights of its people, in particular the Shi'ite minority. Have The Elders discussed the situation in Bahrain with Dr. Robinson? I urge her to do anything she can to help them.

It is good to have Dr. Robinson in the House. I stand here, proud to be hatless and a woman in the Seanad. I take this opportunity to thank her for standing up for mná na hÉireann.

I wanted to touch on the issue of participation, which Dr. Robinson raised. I would like to pay tribute to a group of women who were well ahead of their time, namely, the women who educated Dr. Robinson and me. They were a group of nuns who took the view that women had an equal right to take part in public life. They encouraged me, and I have no doubt they encouraged Dr. Robinson, to stand up and take our place in the public arena if that is what we wanted to do. They believed women had that right.

Today, I would like to ask Dr. Robinson to dwell on the thought that we are here at a time when the representation of women is falling or stagnant in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am part of an organisation, the 5050 Group, which is trying to achieve 50% representation by 2020. I am sure Dr. Robinson is aware of it. I would welcome her views on whether this is appropriate and whether the Seanad could have a role in it. The issue is of the utmost urgency. I am tired of listening to people say we have an economic and financial crisis and will deal with the women thing later. We have to deal with it now given that 50% of the population in the country are women.

As Senator Leyden mentioned, I would like to support women who are struggling with domestic violence in this country. Dr. Robinson mentioned being in the Seanad means having patience and stamina, yet thousands of women every year are telephoning and looking for assistance. Women are the subject of abuse and violence of all kinds every day and there are still a number of counties in Ireland, including Sligo where I live, Roscommon and Longford, where there are no emergency shelters.

I would like to hear the views of Dr. Robinson on how the Seanad could become involved. We talk about participation. First, we do not have enough women. Second, many women cannot and will never be able, because of the way they are being treated in this State, to be able to participate in public life.

I, too, would like to be associated with the fitting tributes paid by leaders to Dr. Robinson and welcome her to the House. As a member of the Labour Party, I was very privileged and honoured to be part of her campaign team during the presidential election. What I most admired about her was the minute she took up the Office of the President, she no longer represented the people who campaigned for her but every citizen in the country.

Dr. Robinson is the most successful woman to have ever sat in Seanad Éireann. She has gone onto become renowned worldwide. She is an iconic figure and a very well respected opinion shaper. It is a great boost to all of us here to note that she started her political career in this House. My question is similar to Senator Mooney's. I would be interested to know her opinion on the proposal to abolish the Seanad. Is she in favour of reform and retention, as she reformed the Office of the President?

I wish Dr. Robinson well and continued good work. I hope, like her daffodils, she will continue blooming.

I thank Dr. Robinson for her unceasing commitment to and inspiring authority in human rights activism, as her life and address gave witness to us today. I have been given one minute to ask her a question. If I had one billion minutes it would not be enough time to affirm, acknowledge and thank her for all she has done, particularly the way in which she has inspired my life path. As she knows, this Seanad, as the Leader and Deputy Leader have outlined, has focused on the protection and championing of human rights and equality. It is our primary theme and I thank her for her contribution to this work. It will stay with us for a long time.

My question centres on what I consider a key human rights issue for Ireland today, namely, the proposed merger of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission. In order to get this merger right, the Bill to establish the new commission must include a crystal clear guarantee of its independence, that the legislative and European concept of equal treatment is a core component, that its functions in regard to independent assistance for victims of discrimination must be protected and enhanced and that it promotes social dialogue with NGOs and social partners. What advice would Dr. Robinson give to us for our upcoming scrutiny of the Bill to establish a human rights and equality commission?

I welcome Dr. Robinson. As we are on the theme of showing one's age, my parents decided that instead of attending civic classes in school in 1977, I would be sent out to support her in her campaign for the Dublin Rathmines West constituency. I was a lot younger than I should have been, about 11 or 12 years of age. I learned a lot about political culture and Dr. Robinson's wonderful vision and commitment as a member of civil society. I admire her. When I was director of the Project Arts Centre, she visited as President and she also attended many productions by little known companies and artists who are now some of the leading champions of the arts. She made that connection with them at a young, emerging age, which I appreciate.

I will not dwell on the Seanad reform question but Dr. Robinson will acknowledge that we have an appetite within to change. Many of the changes initiated by the House were proposed by the group of Independent Senators, on which I would like her to comment.

I acknowledge the notion of the age of participation and using social media such as Facebook to make connections. Young people, in particular, feel alienated from what they see as a traditional, centralised part of the democratic system which is at a remove. This is a reminder that in my role as a Taoiseach's nominee I need to make sure connections continue in this age of participation.

Will Dr. Robinson outline her sense of what is happening on the Horn of Africa in order that we might be able to pursue her insight into the current plight there?

I take great pleasure in welcoming Dr. Robinson back to the House. We were fellow scholars many years ago in Trinity College and I have followed her career with the greatest of admiration, as it evolved from membership of Dublin City Council to the Seanad to Aras an Uachtaráin and the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights. She then worked on a group that initially was supposed to consider ethical globalisation but I gather that was regarded as a bit of a mouthful and it became Realizing Rights. The notion that financial globalisation should be unaccompanied by the development of an ethical system to support and regulate it would be disastrous and I applaud her for taking this initiative but perhaps she was correct to change the name to Realizing Rights. The principles that have underlain her career support the pursuit of human rights and dignity not just theoretically but in action.

I would like Dr. Robinson to comment on the question of population because it seems that the extraordinary expansion in population in my lifetime — the global population was 3 billion when I did my intermediate certificate and it has now reached 7 billion — is having a huge impact on resources, the environment, political tensions and relations between nations and it also raises economic issues. Previous speakers obliquely referred to the situation that obtains in this House and generally throughout the world where human rights considerations are ruthlessly driven off the agenda by the priorities associated with the economic difficulties the entire planet is facing. Does she have any comment on that? I believe they are all interconnected.

Will Dr. Robinson comment on the status of gay people and organisations throughout the world? I acknowledge one or two respected international organisations have received accreditation at bodies such as the UN but we still have the situation where in Uganda right wing Christian groups have almost succeeded in introducing the death penalty for consensual relations. There was an appalling incident, of which I am sure Dr. Robinson is aware, where two young men were hanged from the back of a lorry in Iran simply for the crime of private expression of their love for each other.

I echo the remarks about Dr. Robinson's achievements and, as somebody who was a member of the Diaspora when she was President, I experienced a surge of pride in the Irish community when somebody who had been as outward looking, internationalist and mould breaking in the context of Irish politics had been elected to the position.

I am fascinated and impressed by Dr. Robinson's commitment to spreading democracy. Has she given thought to the current threats to democracy? I am worried and part of my worry stems from the fact that in many mature, established democracies such as ours we have become somewhat complacent. We have not had the experience of not knowing what it is like to live in a democracy or the more direct experience of living in a polity that is not democratic. We sometimes blithely assume that even if we show an ongoing level of disrespect for our democracy, it will always be there. I do not necessarily believe there is an inevitability about that.

I draw Dr. Robinson's attention to two specific rights issues that she might endorse in this phase of her career. I have, perhaps indelicately on a number of occasions, when Ministers or other guests were sitting in her chair and they were doing a wonderful, vigorous and outstanding job, reminded them that they had passed the mandatory age of retirement. I would never be so indelicate as to personalise this in Dr. Robinson's case but I had to politely remind a number of Ministers and other high achievers who sat in her seat that if they had been in the health service or other parts of the public service, they would have been subject to mandatory retirement and, in effect, denied the right to continue working if they wished to do so. I was equally intrigued to go through the list of the wonderful older people who continue to contribute, including Nelson Mandela, 95, Desmond Tutu, 81, and Jimmy Carter, 87. We are cutting off our noses to spite our face if we think that in future we will not be able to tap into the expertise of such people bring.

One of the most fundamental rights deficiencies in this country is citizens not having the right to elect Members of this House. It is an affront to democracy. I believe, for complex reasons I should not go into now, that a fine argument can be advanced for bicameral representation but there is a clear need for people of vision and experience who have worked within our system and who have examined other systems to advocate for more fundamental constitutional and Oireachtas reform because whatever mess we find ourselves in now and whatever blame can be laid at the door of the Government, little of it can be laid at the door of this House, which, at worst, was asleep at the tiller while errors and sins of commission were perpetrated by successive Governments and Dáileanna.

Would Dr. Robinson consider taking on a position of public advocacy for a more nuanced, comprehensive vision of Oireachtas reform and not merely a "Yes or No, let's abolish it" forum? It must be recalled that 38 esteemed and respected Members are either members of political parties or were nominated by the leaders of parties that are committed to the abolition of the House. For us to discuss today how the Seanad can be made a little more worthwhile is a little like going to the stereotypical character on death row in Alabama who has had his last meal but has not yet been executed and asking how the last few hours of his life could be made more relevant to the rest of society. Should we think about a more healthy and long-term future for a thoroughly reformed Oireachtas?

I very much thank Dr. Robinson for what she has done for our generation and generations to come.

I have long been an admirer of Dr. Robinson and her work, although I was only two when she was elected Uachtaráin na hÉireann.

I was struck by the Hillary Clinton passage she read in her address and the statement that when everybody has the opportunity to participate, the economy will be richer. She asked us to reflect on the participation age and she mentioned the improved gender balance in this Seanad. Like Senator O'Keeffe, I would like to know Dr. Robinson's reflections on female participation in public life and, more specifically, on gender quotas. In her view of the role of elected assemblies in the modern world, does she see a role for quotas to maximise all participation in public life where it is needed? How can we, or should we, change our political system, whether that is through the vehicle of Seanad reform, to bring in, for example, more young people and minorities?

Dr. Mary Robinson

I begin with an apology. I have breached protocol twice. I arrived half an hour early — the Captain of the Guard and everybody else was not expecting me to arrive so soon — and then sat down to deliver my speech. However, there was no insult intended. I realised immediately that I should have stood when Senators started to ask their questions. I think it is because I have never sat in this chair before.

I may disappoint those who asked some very good questions because as an iar-Uachtarán, a former President, I do not intend to go into the specific details of Irish policy. I will speak in general terms, but to make my points I may sometimes come near to the wire, as I have always tried to do. I will try to answer the questions posed, but if they have been too specific, I ask the Members to bear with me because it is an honourable tradition. There are two former Presidents and we will both continue in the tradition of former Presidents. I remember learning so much from President Hillery and how he conducted himself as an iar-Uachtarán and I will try to do the same.

I will begin by responding to Senator Darragh O'Brien. His tributes moved me very much, not just the nice things said but also the warmth of the voice will stay with me. He evoked a memory. About five years ago I gave a talk in the United States, in Boise, Idaho which is almost in the middle of that large country. There was a relatively good audience and, understandably, there was an Irish contingent. I spoke about ethical globalisation or human rights. At the end of the session a relatively young woman — perhaps in her early 30s — came forward and she had an air of purpose. She put out her hand as I got down from the rostrum and said, "I want to shake your hand. You got my first vote. I was 19 at the time and when I told my father, he nearly killed me." I will tie in that moment with the question which I can only answer in the following way. I was asked what would I regard as my greatest achievements. Certainly, the greatest honour was being elected President of Ireland, Uachtarán na hÉireann. As my successor Mary McAleese said about her time as President, every day is special, every day is precious and it is an incredible honour. I do not think anything else compares with it.

On Ireland's standing in the developing world, we can reflect on the fact — I hear it all the time — that it has good standing, particularly in African countries but also in Bangladesh and parts of Latin America. I made many state and some working visits when I was President and had the privilege of meeting the Irish community. One facet of the Irish community that touched me deeply and still does is the priests and nuns who have spent periods of 27, 30, 40 or 42 years in various countries. I remember the time when I was on a State visit to Brazil, having completed similar visits to Argentina and Chile. A reception was held in Rio de Janeiro which focused, in particular, on the Irish who had served in Brazil in many ways but particularly the religious and aid workers. When I asked a priest where he had come from, he said I would not know it; it had taken him 43 hours by bus to get to Rio de Janeiro. He was working in a very remote part of Brazil.

The reception provided generous hospitality with smoked salmon and all kinds of nice things being served, but I noticed a group of priests and nuns who were eating only rice. I invited them to help themselves to the different foods on offer, but they explained that their stomachs would not be able to deal with them. They were living in poor communities and could no longer each rich food. On many occasions ambassadors presenting their credentials told me they had been educated by the Christian Brothers or the Loreto nuns, even though they themselves were Muslim. This has been a wonderful contribution to education and the Irish aid agencies and Irish Aid have built on this tradition.

There is no doubt in my mind that we have a reputation because we have never offered tied aid or had any self-interest in our aid programme. There are compelling reasons we should continue this tradition as strongly as possible. There is, first, a moral imperative and a huge need for this, a point to which I will return briefly. Second, we are forming relations with parts of the world that are becoming more empowered.

To say the least, communications in our world have become much more global and the participation of countries has become more significant. In many cases, what is happening in developing countries, including in African countries, is very positive. They are beginning not only to develop their political systems but also their economies. I saw a statistic at a recent conference on African agriculture and wealth creation held in Tunisia by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation — the population of Africa will double by 2050. It is a continent with huge potential and I will deal with the question about population in that context.

It is true that the population of the world is increasing very rapidly. The birth of the seven billionth children was acknowledged by the Secretary General of the United Nations at the end of October. The six billionth child is now 12 years old, which means one billion children were born in that short space of time. I understand it will be 16 years before the eight billionth child is born. Therefore, the rate is slowing down slightly, but there is still a very rapid increase.

The only health hat I wear is that of the chairperson of a global leaders council on reproductive health. We are trying to make the case in the UN system and globally that access to family planning and reproductive health services is absolutely essential. It is a right which must be supported strongly by governments. There has been some retrenchment in funding in some countries, in particular, as we know very well. There is, however, a very clear way by which it is possible to have a welcome reduction in population size in places where there are strains on population, that is, by way of the education of girls and women and providing access to reasonable health care services. In fact, access to health care services is as important as access to education. If maternal and child mortality rates were to be reduced, the number of children each woman would have would be reduced. There are many statistics to prove this fact and it is a very important one.

A reference was made to the rights of children under the Constitution and the universal periodic review. I will not be too specific in my response. The universal periodic review marks a real step forward. Under the Human Rights Council, all governments submit to the review and there is strength in numbers in this regard. It is important that Ireland take seriously the results of the review in order that we will reinforce the responsibility to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights.

I wish to answer the questions about the Seanad and its reform but not in specific terms because it is a matter for Members. However, a number of the issues raised by Senators are ones on which the Seanad could play a more active role. I note the hearings to take place this afternoon on issues affecting the elderly and next week with experts. There is plenty of expertise in Ireland in the consortium dealing with issues related to ageing, and there are others with very good ideas. I very much agree with the suggestion that young people's groups should be included. A start has been made on ensuring the human rights of the elderly, and it might be very useful to give a real opportunity to representatives of young people and people with disabilities. There is a variety of such groups and it should not always be related to requests for more funding and resources. There is a need for a thoughtful contribution which the Seanad can make.

It has been noted that the 16 day campaign to combat violence against women has just commenced. I am glad that Ireland has a good reputation and a role to play in this regard. I am glad to support the consortium combatting violence against women which is now in its seventh year. The consortium will meet tomorrow to discuss the latest developments. At that meeting the Tánaiste will launch the plan of action of Ireland under Security Council Resolution 1325. I am aware of no other country with this type of consortium, which includes the Government, through Irish Aid; the Defence Forces; the Garda, which has participated though involvement in overseas missions; and all of the NGOs which deal in humanitarian and development issues. It is a very good practice and I have praised it abroad.

There was a reference to representatives of The Elders visiting Gaza; in fact, that has already happened. Anybody who is interested in The Elders should visit its website, theelders.org. I agree with Senators’ points regarding the problems in Bahrain, as highlighted by The Elders, and other countries in that region. The head of the independent commission which investigated abuses in Bahrain, Cherif Bassiouni, an eminent lawyer, produced his report yesterday. The King of Bahrain was obliged to sit and listen as Mr. Bassiouni outlined his hard-hitting conclusions.

In regard to my personal influences, reference was made to the Sacred Heart nuns. They were certainly an influence during my six years as a boarder in Mount Anville. We were very much encouraged by them to consider how issues of poverty and development in poor countries might be addressed. I was also fortunate enough to have a reference point within my family. My father had two sisters, both of whom became nuns. One of them worked in India for more than 30 years where she learned several local languages. When she returned to Ireland as an older woman we soon discovered her yoga skills. She startled my children and me when we first saw her swimming in cold water in Mayo or Kerry. We were very disinclined to join her. In school, I read the works of some of those who sought to change the world based on ethical values, including Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt — who played a key role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and Martin Luther King. These were the types of influences which helped to shape me and I hope they continue to be widely read.

Women's participation and empowerment is an issue about which I continue to feel strongly. Members may be interested in some of the work we are doing in this regard by way of the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice. For example, I recently moderated the COP 16 conference in Cancun in Mexico on gender and climate change. This meeting involved several important contributors — the Mexican Foreign Minister, who was chair of the conference; the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres; the European Union Commissioner on climate action, Connie Hedegaarde; together with a Minister from Denmark and one from Ecuador. The delegates indicated their pleasure at having an opportunity to address a conference which specifically linked gender issues and climate change. The gender dimensions are very evident when one sees how it is undermining poor, indigenous farmers.

This brought home to me something I learned in Seanad Éireann. When I was first elected to the House I was one of only six female Senators. We did not have a significant impact on the types of issues which were of particular relevance to women such as reform of the adoption law, although we did some work on that, maternity law and so on. It was only when our number subsequently grew to 13 that we achieved the critical mass necessary to make a difference and influence the agenda. I have realised that we will not have progress on gender and climate change unless we create a platform of female leaders. That is what we have done; we have created a troika plus of women leaders on gender and climate change.

I will travel to Durban this weekend for the next conference, which is being hosted by South Africa. On the first day of the conference, which is Monday, three women will handle the hand-over from Mexico to South Africa, namely, the Mexican Foreign Minister and her South African counterpart, in the presence of the executive secretary of the UNFCCC process. All three women have committed to highlighting gender and women's leadership in the context of climate. There will be other meetings in South Africa of a similar nature. It is something to reflect on for those who see the need, as I do, to improve participation of women in Ireland. Critical mass is important and probably, since we are not looking as good as we should be internationally, special steps, even if they are temporary, to improve the situation. As I said, I have to speak in very general terms.

I was asked to comment on my impressions on returning to Somalia and the Horn of Africa. I am haunted by the things I saw. My first impression was that everything was worse than when I was there as President of Ireland in 1992. On that occasion, we went in October and the same group was involved, comprising Concern, Trócaire and Oxfam. At the time of our first visit in October 1992 the rainy season was almost at an end and there were significant difficulties in getting food to the feeding stations, past Dhahar and Mogadishu, because of the conflict between warlords. During our visit in July of this year a state of famine was declared by the United Nations. The criteria for that are very strict and we were told at the time that some 28,000 children had died of hunger. The toll has increased since.

The situation overall has improved slightly because of the huge support from this country and elsewhere, but it is still quite severe. In 1992, I spoke to the two warlords who were primarily responsible for problems in the region. Nick even accused me of poking them in the stomach, which I did not do, but I did speak rather severely to them about letting the food through to the feeding stations. One could have that type of discussion, even in difficult circumstances, but there is no way one could talk to al-Shabaab. It is a vicious group, linked to al-Qaeda, which inflicts horrible wrongs on its own people.

One of the most concerning aspects from my point of view was the realisation that in 1992 we did not even mention climate. We knew that Ethiopia, parts of Kenya and the Horn of Africa generally suffered from time to time from drought and earlier periods of food shortage or famine, but that was all. The latest statistics on the Horn of Africa are very compelling, with the region experiencing its eight hottest years ever in succession. We will not have to wait 19 years for the next severe drought. Already some 13 million people in the wider Horn of Africa are suffering from problems of food shortage. On the issue of development aid, Ireland has a very good reputation in regard to hunger and food security, thanks to Irish Aid and to people like Tom Arnold who are recognised internationally as experts on the issue. We have developed important links in this regard and Ireland is regarded as a leader on hunger and food security. Those needs will be there in the future as the undermining of climate places increasing numbers of people at risk of starvation or severe malnutrition.

One of the most difficult experiences of our recent visit to Somalia was visiting the health clinic in Dilla — there is a photograph there of my previous visit, 19 years before, which I found affecting — where we saw severely malnourished children being weighed and their mothers given packets of Plumpy'nut. They were told that if the children took two portions a day over a period of two weeks, they would stabilise and be able to gain weight. However, I was told that in many cases, when the mothers return home, their other children, who are desperately hungry, would take some of the Plumpy'nut rations. Even the mothers, desperate to stay alive, sometimes take them. That is the hardest part. If children become stunted because of severe malnutrition in the first two years, they will never regain their full physical and mental capability. This goes to the core of human rights — how can we do this to children?

I am very appreciative that even at a time of severe economic recession and family suffering in this country, the generosity of the Irish people to the Horn of Africa, and specifically to Somalia, is something of which we can be proud and on which we can build.

I was asked to reflect briefly on how gay people were treated internationally. It is true that the United Nations has very late in the day been willing to appreciate work done elsewhere on a declaration in this regard. However, it is also true that many countries, particularly those on the African continent — specifically, Uganda and Iran — have been savage in the way they have addressed the issue of gay people. I was very troubled by the idea of threatening to cut off aid to countries which had bad policies in this area. That would not be helpful because it would immediately evoke a kind of post-colonial relationship and have a counter-impact.

Dr. Mary Robinson

It would also be likely to encourage people to dig in. This matter must be addressed with a great deal of discernment and subtlety.

To return to the question of what I would do if I was a Member of the Seanad today, in the current climate every institution and organisation in modern Ireland will be obliged to justify its existence. There is a great deal more scrutiny and — this is a good development — accountability. In this age of participation, the level of that accountability will increase. It may be good that a question mark has been placed over the 24th Seanad. What has happened means Members are thinking about the matter in a way all institutions should be doing in the context of evaluating whether they are responding to the needs of the age of participation. Those in the Seanad are not only thinking, they are also changing their ways of operating.

My final message would be to offer huge encouragement to Members in what they are doing. Whatever the future holds, it is out of the hands of Senators, as well as those of everyone else. Members should take heart from the fact that, to some extent, they are being obliged to justify themselves more publicly in order to provide leadership in a way which makes them more relevant. This does not just include the Seanad, it also includes what individual Senators do in their ways of operating. Like many others, I was listening to the radio this morning and heard a Member of this House refer to the need for children to take more exercise. I thought that this resonated well because the individual in question was speaking as a Senator and indicating that he was a Taoiseach's nominee and, therefore, had to find a way in which he could be more effective. I encourage individual Senators, regardless of whether they represent a party or of how they gained membership of the House, to voice whatever concerns they may have in public. They must make the point that they care about the issues at a time when there are many such issues about which to be concerned. They should proceed in a way that allows them to link what they are doing with this Chamber and must also take account of the possibility that issues with which they might be involved could be dealt with here at a later date.

I could go on, but my time is probably exhausted. Again, I thank Senators warmly. It was difficult to sit here and listen to such tributes. There is a downside and if my husband, Nick, were here, he would indicate what it is.

I thank Dr. Robinson. The Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator O'Donovan, will formally thank her on behalf of Members.

I am honoured to have the privilege to propose a vote of thanks to Dr. Robinson. Before doing so, I wish to dwell on a couple of minor issues of relevance to our guest. Dr. Robinson, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Cathaoirleach and the President all come from the west. If that proves anything, it is that Oliver Cromwell was wrong.

I became a Member of the Seanad in the year Dr. Robinson left, 1989. In 1990, when Dr. Robinson was travelling the country and fighting her presidential campaign, my sister and I visited Romania. The purpose of our going there was to enable my sister to adopt two Romanian boys who are now adults. On the day Dr. Robinson was elected President, I recall leaving Bucharest at approximately 4 a.m. This was just after the overthrow of Ceaucescu and in addition to it being a cold morning, the general atmosphere was chilly. As a result, we encountered difficulty in flying back to London. I must confess that when I eventually arrived back in Bantry in west Cork at 8 p.m., I cast my vote for the late Brian Lenihan Snr. When my sister eventually adopted her two children and brought them back to Ireland, I had the good fortune to act as godfather to one of them. At the christening my sister informed me that she had been privileged and honoured to vote for Mary Robinson. I have seven sisters, most of whom live abroad. However, if the others lived here, I believe they would have followed her example.

As a person from west Cork and as Leas-Chathaoirleach, I am honoured to inform the House — many Senators will already know this — that Dr. Robinson launched her presidential campaign in Allihies on the Beara Peninsula. As one of the people who founded the Sheep's Head Way — Slí Muintir Bháire — walk, I have very fond memories of being master of ceremonies at the top of the Goat's Path on the occasion Dr. Robinson unveiled a beautiful stone seat on which is inscribed some of Seamus Heaney's poetry. I spoke to her, as Gaelige, that morning about the ceo draíochta. There was a wonderful mist hanging over the peninsula on that occasion but it cleared once Dr. Robinson arrived. I do not know if she exercised any spiritual influence over the mist, but it was a wonderful occasion.

I have fond memories of the way in which the role of President evolved during Dr. Robinson's term of office. While in office, she visited St. James's Church — Church of Ireland — in Durrus and, close to where I live in Bantry, CoAction West Cork's St. Joseph's workshop for the mentally disadvantaged. She also visited places in Schull and Mizen Head. I have great memories of her visits to west Cork.

Recently I was honoured to represent this Parliament at a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Bern where I spoke about Ireland's contribution in dealing with the terrible situation on the Horn of Africa and was fortunate enough to hear a speech delivered by Ban Ki-Moon. On the night before I returned home I was having a meal when I was approached by an African gentleman who was approximately 60 years of age. He had probably heard the old west Cork brogue and asked, "Conas atá tú?" I was somewhat startled, but he smiled and informed me that he had attended UCC and played rugby for, I believe, Dolphin in Cork. He then asked, "How is the esteemed Mary Robinson?" I think he was Nigerian and certainly caught me off guard when he asked, "Conas atá tú?" It is interesting that when one visits different parts of the world, one can be reminded of the importance — in more ways than one — of Dr. Robinson to Ireland.

It is a singular privilege and honour for me to propose a vote of thanks to Dr. Robinson. I extend our gratitude and express very deep appreciation for the honour she has bestowed on this Chamber and every Member present. Go raibh míle maith ag an Dochtúir Máire Mhic Róibín, duine fíor-uasal.

As Deputy Leader, I am deeply honoured to be asked to make some brief concluding comments and thank Dr. Robinson on behalf of the Leader of the House, Senator Cummins, and all our colleagues. We are so grateful to Dr. Robinson for accepting Senator Cummins's invitation to come before the Seanad to address us. We all thank her very much for her powerful advocacy over many years in promoting and advancing human rights and equality. She has made such an immense contribution and, as others have said, she has been an inspiration and an iconic figure to many across the world.

I thank Dr. Robinson also for her very full, considered, gracious and warm response to the wide range of questions and comments that colleagues have put to her today. We very much appreciate her responding so fully and for coming close to the wire, as she said, on a number of occasions. We all find her words very moving, particularly when she referred again to her visit to the Horn of Africa and to the impact she saw there of climate change, war and poverty on so many children in particular. We will all take inspiration from what she has said.

Just as Dr. Robinson was a transformative President and her work continues to transform the human rights landscape internationally, so too, I hope, we can be a transformative Seanad in this 24th Seanad. Her words have certainly given us all an inspiration and an example. Her contribution today has been greatly encouraging to all of us in trying to make the 24th Seanad a more accountable, democratic and effective body in future. I very much hope we will welcome her back to a truly reformed and transformed 25th Seanad at some point in the future. I wish her the best of luck and thank her.

Sitting suspended at 1.45 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.