During the debate in 1972 over the referendum to join the European Union, serious arguments were put forward against Ireland's joining. People questioned whether we were going to lose or dilute the independence and sovereignty we had struggled so long for. I happened to be in favor of joining, but I was convinced that if we joined, we had to retain our sense of Irishness. In fact, joining gradually made a deep and positive impact on our Irishness. Ireland welcomed the chance to express its European connection. We were reclaiming our place in Europe.
We ceased to define ourselves almost exclusively in terms of our relationship with Britain. It allowed us a more confident modern sense of ourselves, and we embraced wholeheartedly the idea of being one of a number of European countries that included Britain.
This was a new experience. Irish ministers met their British counterparts in a European context along with their French and German colleagues. People got to know one another, and that helped them address the difficult issue of violence in Northern Ireland. It created the kind of climate that led to the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985.
Being a part of the European Community enabled us to compare Irish social norms and statistics with those of other countries. I saw that particularly in the progress toward equal pay, equality of opportunity and social security for women. The women's movement in Ireland, which had begun in the '70s, was largely made up of journalists, lawyers like me and woman civil servants looking for equal pay. It intimidated quite a lot of married women in Ireland whose main focus was on their family and children. They felt, "This isn't for me; I'm just a housewife."
In the late '80s and into the '90s the women's movement began looking at the priorities of women in a more rounded way. It included women whose focus may be on their husbands and children but who may be doing volunteer work. At the same time women began taking part more actively in both the public and private sectors. When I was first elected to the Senate in 1969, there were only five women there. Now the proportion is about 13%. I had a sense that the world would be greatly improved when women were there in sufficient numbers to really influence the structures and the way of doing things.
Mary Robinson, a member of the Labour Party, was elected the first woman President of Ireland in 1990