- 21 Jun 07
30th Anniversary Retrospective: It seems preposterous in hindsight, but at the time, Mary Robinson‘s interview was dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history.’
Like Mary Robinson, I was moving up in the world. In September 1990, the campaigning barrister was engaged in an odyssey that would see her elevated from her elegant Ranelagh home to an even more exclusive pad known as Áras an Uachtaráin.
At the same time, I was engaged in an odyssey that would see me elevated from a bedsit on Dublin’s Lennox Street to a slightly bigger bedsit around the corner on Synge Street. Momentous times, indeed.
Halfway through the month, I was despatched by hotpress to interview Robinson, who was making modest waves as Labour’s candidate in the impending presidential election. I was greeted at the door by her husband Nick. Mary was in the kitchen listening to the One O’Clock radio news which was carrying the acceptance speech by Brian Lenihan, who’d just been nominated as Fianna Fáil‘s candidate.
Visibly irritated by what she’d been hearing, Robinson got down to the interview without much preliminary small talk. “It’s clear that Brian Lenihan’s greatest claim to the presidency is loyal service to the party and, in particular, Mr. Haughey,” she fumed.
The righteous indignation may or may not have been feigned. As the encounter proceeded, she certainly became more composed; more recognisable as a clinical lawyer who weighed every word. There were no awkward or fractious moments. She smiled weakly at the would-be humorous questions but seemed unfazed by anything she was asked. I left thinking that what I’d gotten was solid but less than incendiary.
A fortnight passed during which I wrote up the Robinson piece. Transcribing a 90-minute tape by hand is extremely tiresome, so pulling together those long political interviews was always a chore. As I remember, I was far more enthused by an interview I’d done with AC/DC for the same issue, in which the metal-heads had been entertainingly rude, dumb and obnoxious.
On the way into work on publication day, I noticed that the Irish Press’ front-page was devoted to a story by political correspondent Emily O’Reilly about a controversial interview in the latest hotpress. O’Reilly’s article was headlined: “The Longest Suicide Note In History”. AC/DC were apparently finished, and it was all my fault!
By the time I arrived at the office, I realised what big news the Robinson piece had become. Her political opponents had accused her of making an horrendous gaffe in her desperation to appeal to the trendy youth.
Much of the denunciation centred around her reply of “Yes” to a question about whether, as President, she would officiate at the opening of a contraceptive stall in a Virgin Megastore (back then, the record chain was openly selling condoms in defiance of Irish law).
The furore initially seemed quite exciting until I heard the One O’Clock news. A spokesperson for the Robinson camp was insisting that the candidate had been “misquoted”. I rushed to my desk to find the tape that would prove them wrong, but it wasn’t there. It wasn’t on anybody else’s desk either.
I then had the pleasure of informing Mr. Stokes that I’d mislaid the tape. The editor was characteristically unperturbed but I sensed that his relaxed demeanour might finally crack if I didn’t find it pronto.
Convinced that my budding journalistic career was now on the verge of withering, I walked back to my new flat which, weeks after I’d moved in, still resembled a dumping ground for stuffed bin-bags and packing boxes.
It took about two hours of frantic searching but I eventually found the tape – under the bed where I’d placed it and a few other work-related records and cassettes for safe-keeping. Having checked that the reported quote was accurate, I returned to the office and handed over the tape, pretending I’d been supremely confident of vindication all along.
By late afternoon, Robinson had conceded that she wasn’t misquoted but insisted that she would not officiate at the opening of any illegal enterprise. She offered what became known as the “yes-mechanism” defence whereby she claimed to have a habit of saying yes to show she’d understood a question before formulating her reply. This, one imagines, must create endless confusion when her answer to a question is "no".
There was plenty of other stuff in the interview that also proved contentious. It was used repeatedly by Fianna Fáil throughout what became a turbulent presidential campaign to portray the Labour candidate as unfit for high office, but the tactic backfired and history was made.
Robinson changed the face of the Irish presidency, and I discovered the importance of efficient filing.