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20 November 1997 Edition

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Mary the First

Mary Robinson - An Independent Voice
By John Horgan
Published by O'Brien Press
Price £14.99 (hb)

In the run up to the recent Presidential election it was felt that the political parties were looking for a Mary Robinson clone to get their `Mary' into the Park. This may be a somewhat simplistic view - Peter Sutherland, Garret Fitzgerald, Peter Barry of Fine Gael and Ray McSharry of Fianna Fáil were all reputedly approached to run for their respective parties, but declined. The eventual candidates for those parties, Mary Banotti and Mary McAleese had to fight tooth and nail to secure their nominations.

However there can be no denying that people's expectations of the presidency were transformed by the Robinson years. She won over many of those who had voted against her, and enjoyed record popularity ratings during her term of office. Journalists are struggling to avoid articles along the lines `Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese: compare and contrast'.

In such circumstances a fresh look at Robinson's life and career may seem worthwhile. In this book what we get is largely an outline of her surprisingly lengthy career. The then Mary Bourke was elected as an independent to the Senate in 1969 at the age of 25 and immediately faced problems that will be familiar to Caoimhghín O Caoláin: being squeezed between the major political groupings in the allocation of speaking time etc.

What follows could be described as a brief political history of the 26 Counties since the late Sixties. Looking back, it is difficult to believe just how conservative the country really was and how deeply felt religious differences still were at that time in the 26 Counties.

According to Horgan, Bourke's marriage to her boyfriend from her student days in Trinity, Nicholas Robinson, deeply upset her family because he was a member of the Church of Ireland. This despite the fact that there are several mixed marriages in their background. Her parents and family stayed away from the small service held in the Dublin Airport church.

She was reluctantly admitted to the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour party but remained a marginal figure. She unsuccessfully contested the 1977 general election in Dublin South Central, but came to prominence during the protests to save Wood Quay from destruction by Dublin Corporation.

In 1986 however she resigned her membership of the Labour Party in protest at the lack of consultation with Unionists in the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It was a remarkable decision that typecast her as a Unionist for many years.

However earlier in her career she had come under sustained criticism from Conor Cruise O'Brien, then a government minster, for participating in an anti-internment rally in the Mansion House in1974. During the rally Derry republican Sean Keenan called for calm when Fr Denis Faul was being booed for anti-republican remarks. Keenan added that there should be pickets on ``every British establishment in Dublin, the greatest of which was Leinster House''.

At the heart of their disagreement was what they meant by liberalism. O'Brien seems to believe in the dictatorship of the majority in parliament, Robinson believes in political and civil rights, even for those she may disagree with. She would later criticise the non-jury Special Criminal Court in the 26 Counties, and was the barrister who brought the challenge against Section 31 to the European Commission of Human Rights.

Her famous handshake with Gerry Adams would once again bring her into conflict with southern neo-unionists, especially the Sunday Independent and John Bruton.

In an interview with Charlie Bird at the end of Robinson's term of office, Bruton still maintained that Robinson had been wrong to meet Adams.

For John Bruton, and many Southern neo-unionists, it seems reaching out to unionists means developing an abiding hatred of Irish republicans and northern nationalists. Indeed, it is possible that it is their hatred of republicans that makes them want to form common cause with unionists. Those who, like Mary Robinson, bear genuine goodwill towards unionists have shown that it is possible to `build bridges' to all shades of opinion.

Not many Collins secrets

Michael Collins: The Secret File
Edited by ATQ Stewart
Published by The Blackstaff Press in association with the Public Records Office
Price: £10.99

``...belongs to a family of `brainy' people who are disloyal and of advanced Sinn Féin sympathies''.

No, not the latest leaked memo regarding Mary McAleese: it is a snippet gleaned from the recently released Michael Collins security file, now published for the first time. According to the editor, ATQ Stewart, it was a comment which provided Collins with huge amusement when he famously read his own file and about which he ``characteristically'' boasted to his friends.

This is a curious little book, consisting of a breathless introduction by Stewart in his customary role as Unionist revisionist-historian-in-chief, which races through Collins's role in the Anglo-Irish war and which occupies a mere 36 pages. Predictably, for Stewart this history was about loss of Ireland to the British Empire rather than the struggle to win freedom. The remainder is taken up with facsimile reproductions of the contents of the Collins file.

More interesting is what the book doesn't contain. One would think that the first question even the most naive researcher would ask on being presented with Collins's file is the matter of censorship. Stewart, however, never addresses the probability that this file has been very carefully weeded. Indeed, in his Preface he offers us his touching belief that the contents are in a pristine condition: ``the only papers from the file not included are some which relate to persons other than Collins, or which duplicate information already given''. Really? What about the papers which were removed before the file was released? Did not the fact that the very first document is dated 8 January 1917 seem a little odd? Was there nothing on Collins from the previous year? The file was originally closed for 100 years, but has now been released under the `Open Government Initiative' of March 1996 (a contradiction in terms if ever I heard one). It is difficult to imagine that the essentially fairly innocuous contents of the file reproduced in this book would have warranted a 100-year order, even by the pathologically secretive British.

On opening the book many more things spring to mind; one being to close it again, because of the difficulty of trying to plough through almost 150 pages of mostly hand-written notes, many of them barely legible. Once one has gone to the trouble of doing this one is left wondering whether it was actually worth it. Nothing here adds in any significant way to what we know about Michael Collins, either as a man, a military leader, or as a politician.

It is true to say, however, that the documents do provide the pleasure of a sense of authenticity and immediacy: ``Michael Collins was reported for drilling at Ballinamuck,'' writes one officer ``He appears to be a very dangerous criminal, is a member of the Sinn Féin Council... his activities, if not speedily restrained, will lead to serious mischief''. One can't help wondering how many of the present day leadership's security files contain similar comments.

The lasting impression which is gained from the documents, however, is the very one which Stewart has overlooked, but which to be fair is something which is too often overlooked in the history of the time; that the Tan War was less about Michael Collins as an individual than the collective endeavour by the Irish people as a whole to wrest their country back. Many of the documents are police reports of Sinn Féin meetings, invariably attended by hundreds of people who were prepared to fight for national self-determination. What was achieved was done so by the people, not just by Collins and twelve men in Dublin.

By Fern Lane

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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