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Irish president: Washington, Brussels face 'strong localizing impulse'

STANFORD --Subtle but significant constitutional shifts away from central, federal governments are taking place in both the United States and Europe, the president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, told an audience of 700 in Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 18.

"The president and Congress, together with landmark judgments of the federal Supreme Court, are beginning to map out the future shape of jurisdiction" in the United States, she said. Congress recently turned some social program responsibilities over to the states, "just as earlier generations of the same body -- with its wide popular support -- took exactly the same powers to the center at Washington," Robinson noted.

These jurisdictional shifts "seem to be more significant -- some of them perhaps troubling -- but more significant than when I was here in the '80s" as a visiting member of the law faculty at the University of San Francisco, said the former civil rights lawyer and liberal senator. (In a press conference later, Robinson declined to specify which U.S. jurisdictional changes she found troubling.)

"I wanted to indicate that the trends in this country have an influence beyond it because of the role of the United States in the world," she said. "And therefore, what is happening here . . . and the way in which you promote values such as equality, etc., have a resonance way beyond the United States and are of particular significance in the way that Europe is developing."

The Irish constitution constrains Robinson from making controversial public statements, particularly on domestic politics, such as the upcoming referendum on the country's constitutional ban on divorce. However, since her election in 1990, Robinson has used careful public speeches and meetings with diverse groups to provide moral leadership for Ireland. A Catholic who is married to a Protestant, she has tried to aid peace in Northern Ireland indirectly, by being the first major political figure to shake the hand of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, and by speaking of the "genuine fears" of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.

Asked about the peace process in Northern Ireland at the press conference, Robinson said she sees "subtle changes" taking place in the rhetoric of public office holders that are "being encouraged by the helpful interventions from outside," such as President Clinton's upcoming visit.

The large, diverse Irish diaspora, she said, shows that people "can have a broader concept of Irishness that's not simply territorial, and therefore that concept of Irishness can reach out to those in Northern Ireland whose sense of themselves and sense of identity is British."

An important backdrop to the political discussions, she said, has been "small quiet groups exchanging, reaching out," building relationships across political divides within Northern Ireland and between the two Irish countries. She stressed the role of women in such groups and also offered the opinion that "women are coping better" than men in economically depressed areas.

Referring to the "Million Man March" in Washington two days before her visit here, Robinson said, "I identify with the depth of the concern of the black American male here in marching to retrieve a sense of identity and purpose. To a worrying extent, I think men in all our societies have defined themselves through their jobs."

Robinson, who had just returned from a visit to Rwanda, also told reporters that she welcomes opportunities to "be a conscience, in a sense, for the develop[ed] world towards the developing world." Ireland's history of suffering through famines, she said, "explains the number of Irish aid workers; it explains a real commitment reflected in government policy" to annually expand its foreign aid to developing countries annually. The developed world's commitment to developing nations, she said, needs to be deepened.

European union

During her speech, Robinson said that the processes outlined in the Maastricht treaties creating the European Union from the fledgling European Community "unlocked a serious concern felt by many people about the perceived fast pace of European integration and about the supposed threat to national interests."

Signs of a "strong localizing impulse" include the narrow margin that French voters gave to the Maastricht initiatives; the fact that it took the Danes two referenda to approve them; and special protocols negotiated by member countries to opt out of terms of the overall agreements. Those include her own country's decision to negotiate a protocol "to protect one of our own constitutional provisions relating to the right to life of the unborn," the Danish government's decision to protect its right to prohibit nationals of other European states from owning second homes in Denmark, and the British government's decision to opt out of the timetable for moving to economic and monetary union.

Before she was president, Robinson herself used the European Court of Human Rights to achieve certain civil rights reforms in Ireland that she could not get through the Irish parliament. "Local autonomy can never be allowed to become a shelter in which the abuse of our human rights is permitted," she told the Stanford audience, but "localism is neither to be scorned nor to be feared. It cannot be -- and more importantly it should not be -- eradicated. Localism is especially valuable when harnessed in a positive direction, towards the celebration of the diversity of Europe, and of the cultural autonomy and the rich and separate historical traditions of its various parts."

The European Union's commitment to expand its membership into central and eastern Europe, she said, brings several fundamental challenges, which she listed as figuring out how to strengthen "the democratic base" through participation and accountability at the European level, deciding if the union needs an express Bill of Rights, and deciding how to respond to international responsibilities beyond Europe.

Robinson was invited by the Law School to deliver the lecture as part of its Herman Phleger Visiting Professorship. An endowment for the professorship provides for a person of high distinction in law to deliver public lectures at Stanford and otherwise participate in the intellectual life of the university.



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