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Former Irish president speaks at ND

Kaitlynn Riely | Monday, October 15, 2007

The increase in the number of immigrants coming to Ireland and the decline in emigration from Ireland presents “new and complex challenges to the Irish identity,” said Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Robinson was the keynote speaker Sunday evening in Washington Hall for “Race and Immigration in the New Ireland,” a conference hosted by Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.

University President Father John Jenkins welcomed Robinson and noted Notre Dame’s “deep affinity with Ireland and all things Irish.” Immigration, the issue debated in an American context at last week’s Notre Dame Forum, is a topic Ireland is also discussing, Jenkins said.

“Ireland, which has so long been a land of emigrants, is now becoming a land of immigrants,” he said.

For a country “steeped in the inevitability of emigration,” the new demographics of the modern Ireland are “both a huge challenge and a great opportunity,” Robinson said.

According to population and migration estimates, between April 2005 and April 2006, [86,900 people immigrated into Ireland,] Robinson said. The number of emigrants in the same time period was 17,000, resulting in a net migration influx of 69,900.

The immigrants are making Ireland a younger country, Robinson said, and they are bringing different heritages into Ireland, from countries like Poland and Lithuania.

Robinson now lives in New York but said she has witnessed the impact of the influx of peoples into Ireland. When visiting County Mayo, the part of Ireland she is from, she picked up a copy of the local newspaper.

“I was really amazed, but also I think pleasantly surprised, to see that it carries a page every week in Polish, because there is that demand,” she said.

But, she noted, migration into Ireland, and the slowing of emigration, has caused challenges for the country. Robinson described a report written by Mayo Intercultural Action, a group that aimed to create a profile of immigrants, identify their needs and identify the needs of service providers helping the newly immigrated.

The report cited problems with integration, racism, ethnic intolerance, school availability and health care.

Ireland’s government has taken steps to work against racism against immigrants to Ireland, Robinson said. The government launched the “National Action Plan” in 2005. The European Union, with its European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, also oversees Ireland’s actions against racism, she said.

“There is stocktaking within Ireland and also at the European Union level,” she said.

Robinson praised the conference Notre Dame is hosting this week. She said it is an opportunity to gather experts at a location removed from Ireland to constructively discuss and give advice as to how the country can move forward while living up to its history.

“That history [is] of a people who had to leave our country and find a future elsewhere,” Robinson said. “How do we treat those that are in the same position now?”

Unfortunately, Robinson said, many immigrants to Ireland are the victims of racism. She recounted a meeting she had with a group of about 30 women of African background who were living in Ireland.

“I realized that, on an almost daily basis, they were suffering different kinds of racism,” Robinson said.

One teenager told her she was frequently told by Irish to go back to her own country.

An audience member asked Robinson how Ireland should balance a desire to preserve culture with the realization that culture does change over time.

Robinson said that immigration will not make Ireland “less Irish.”

“It makes us more excitingly vibrant, in being the people who used to go, and who now receive people, and who have a sense of an Irish destiny,” Robinson said. “And I think it’s wonderful.”

Robinson also commented on the current debate in the United States about immigration.

“I’ve actually been quite shocked, being based in New York the last five years, at the increasingly harsh language in the discourse on migration in this country,” she said.

In years past, Robinson said, she believed the United States had a more admirable system of policies toward immigrants than Europe did. Now, she said, she disagrees with the labeling of a group of immigrants as “illegals,” comparing it to the description of children born out of wedlock as “illegitimate.”

You don’t call human beings illegitimate or illegal,” she said. “They are human beings.”

There must be more concern about implicit racism through language, Robinson said, drawing applause from the audience.

Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights after her presidency and held the position until 2002.

The “Race and Immigration in the New Ireland” conference will continue through Wednesday.