Diarmaid Ferriter: Mary Robinson’s legacy in no need of a vanity project

The former president should follow the practice of her predecessors and donate her papers to the National Library, the National Archives or a university

On this day 40 years ago, a major Irish political drama reached a conclusion when the fifth president of Ireland, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, resigned from office. Patrick Donegan, the minister for defence at the time, had insulted Ó Dálaigh over his decision to refer the Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court for a judgment as to its constitutionality. Ó Dálaigh should not have had to resign; that he did was not just due to the failure of Donegan to resign but also to the refusal of taoiseach Liam Cosgrave to demand Donegan's resignation.

In a letter to Ó Dálaigh, Donegan sought to blame others for how the controversy over his description of the president as a “thundering disgrace” had played out, complaining, for example, that “facile references by journalists, which can become emotive, are difficult to contend with”. This was an ironic assertion given Donegan’s emotive and facile comments about Ó Dálaigh. The president was scathing in response, asking pointedly: “Have you any conception of your responsibility as a minister of state and in particular as minister for defence?”

Ó Dálaigh resigned to protect the dignity of the office of president, but there was a broader context to the controversy: he had long been sidelined by the coalition government and, according to notes he compiled, he felt there was not even “a minimum of acceptance” of him as president by some of its members. He bristled, too, over the contemptuous way he believed Cosgrave had treated him.

O Dálaigh’s notes also shed light on what I have described elsewhere as a “learned but also a highly unusual and occasionally messianic mind”. There is little doubt, however, that he was treated disgracefully during this controversy.


Such an assessment can be made because Ó Dálaigh's private papers are held in the University College Dublin (UCD) archives, and combined with the State papers in the National Archives, they allow for a detailed analysis and interpretation of the events that led to his resignation. The papers of one of his predecessors as president, Éamon de Valera, are also in the UCD archives, as are the papers of Ó Dálaigh's successor, Patrick Hillery, which were deposited by Hillery in 1991 and 1997. All collections in the UCD archives are donated without payment of any kind. The current president, Michael D Higgins, donated the archive of his career up to that point to the National Library of Ireland in 2011, also without payment, with the promise of more to come.

However, the papers of Mary Robinson, president in 1990-1997, are heading west to the new Mary Robinson Centre in Ballina, which has an estimated cost of €8.35 million. Mayo County Council, which will hold the papers in trust on behalf of the State, has committed €1.5 million to the centre, while the Department of the Taoiseach will provide €2 million, and this money will reportedly be matched through philanthropic funding.

Robinson’s archive is being assessed for acceptance as a heritage donation; under sections of the Finance Act 1995 and the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, a tax credit equal to 80 per cent of the market value of the heritage item donated can be credited against tax liabilities incurred by the donor. As the Robinson archive has been valued by Mealy’s auctioneers at €2.5million, this amounts to a possible tax credit of €2 million. Robinson has described this project as a “give back” to the people of Ireland.

The website of the Mary Robinson Centre lists the contents of the archive, including:

“2,000 books on law and Human Rights (many of these presented to Mary Robinson and signed by the author); 3,800 periodicals, many of them with contributions by Robinson; A Master File of the President’s engagements from Dec 1990 to Sept 1997; The symbolic light in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin from Mary’s Presidency; Robinson’s personal diaries from 1967 to 1990 and from 1998 to 2001; 325 Archive Cartons containing documents ranging from the Anglo Irish Agreement to Women and Equality . . .”

Whether these items are worth €2.5 million is arguable, but equally troubling is that an auction house ever had to be involved in the calculation of the material value in the private market of an archive of a former head of state. And why is a “master file” of the president’s engagements not the property of the State? If Robinson wants to encourage research into her career, or assessments of her legacy, she should follow the practice of her predecessors and donate her papers to the National Library, the National Archives or one of the national universities, without any need for tax credits or valuations by auctioneers and with no excessively expensive, publicly funded vanity centre.

Robinson is a former groundbreaking politician and head of state, in receipt of a very large annual pension from the public purse, being paid €121,158 last year. Her public service should extend to the donation of her archive in the proper sense, continuing a noble tradition.