Mary Robinson becomes the first woman to be elected President of the Republic of Ireland on November 7, 1990. She becomes the first Labour Party candidate, the first woman, and the first non-Fianna Fáil candidate in the history of contested presidential elections to win the presidency.
Brian Lenihan, the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence is chosen by Fianna Fáil as their candidate, though he faces a late challenge for the party nomination from another senior minister, John P. Wilson, TD. Lenihan is popular and widely seen as humorous and intelligent. He has delivered liberal policy reform (relaxed censorship in the 1960s), and is seen as a near certainty to win the presidency.
Fine Gael, after trying and failing to get former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and former Tánaiste Peter Barry to run, ultimately nominate the former civil rights campaigner and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) member Austin Currie. Currie is elected to Dáil Éireann in the 1989 general election and has been a minister in Brian Faulkner‘s power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland from 1973–1974. However Currie has little experience in the politics of the Republic and is widely seen as the party’s last choice, nominated only when no one else is available.
The Labour Party lets it be known that it would for the first time run a candidate. Along with the Workers’ Party, Labour nominates the independent candidate Mary Robinson, SC, a former Labour Party member and senator, and liberal campaigner. Robinson is a former Reid Professor of Law in the Trinity College, Dublin. She is previously involved in the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform and the campaign to save Wood Quay.
Lenihan enters the race as odds-on favourite. No Fianna Fáil candidate has ever lost a presidential election. However, Lenihan is derailed when he confirms in an on-the-record interview with freelance journalist and academic researcher Jim Duffy that he has been involved in controversial attempts to pressurise the President, Patrick Hillery, over a controversial parliamentary dissolution in 1982. As a result of the contrast between his public denials during the campaign and his confirmation during an earlier interview recorded in May, he is dismissed from the Irish government.
At this point a cabinet colleague, Pádraig Flynn, launches a controversial personal attack on Mary Robinson “as a wife and mother,” an attack that is itself attacked in response as “disgraceful” on live radio by Michael McDowell, a senior member of the Progressive Democrats, then in coalition with Fianna Fáil and up to that point supporting Lenihan’s campaign. Flynn’s attack is a fatal blow to Lenihan’s campaign, causing many female supporters of Lenihan to vote for Robinson in a gesture of support.
Lenihan nonetheless receives a plurality of first-choice votes. Mary Robinson beats Austin Currie, forcing Fine Gael’s candidate into third place. Under Ireland’s system of single transferable vote, Robinson receives over 75% of the transfers when Austin Currie is eliminated, beating Lenihan into second place and becoming the seventh President of Ireland.
While the role of the presidency in day-to-day politics is a very limited one, the Robinson presidency is regarded by many observers as a watershed in Irish society, symbolising the shift away from the conservative ultra-Catholic male-dominated Ireland which existed up until the end of the 1980s to the more liberal society symbolised by Robinson.
Robinson is generally credited with raising the profile of the office of president, which has been considered little more than an honorary figurehead position under her predecessors. Prior to Mary Robinson’s presidency it was not unusual to hear commentators advocating the abolition of the office of president, a viewpoint that is almost never advanced nowadays.