In the News: 'Boe Speaker Gem of Ireland'

Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, will speak on “World Hunger and Poverty,” at the 2011 Boe Forum on Public Affairs, beginning at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 9, in the Elmen Center.

Dr. Peg Preston, associate professor of history; Dr. Patrick Hicks, associate professor of English and Augustana's Writer-in-Residence; and Dr. Bill Swart, associate professor of sociology, have studied Ireland extensively, including its history, culture and political structure. They spoke with the Argus Leader about why Robinson is such an influential world leader. 

Boe speaker is a gem of Ireland
Mary Robinson, appearing Wednesday at Augustana, was considered 'breath of fresh air' as nation's president

By Jill Callison

When Mary Robinson became Ireland’s president in 1990, it was as if the country had taken off an old, heavy coat and put on a fresh new suit, Augustana College professor Margaret Preston says.

Preston witnessed it firsthand.

“World Hunger and Poverty”

2011 Boe Forum on Public Affairs, featuring Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland

  • 7  p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Elmen Center
  • Free and open to the public; tickets are required

“Prior to that, the position was held by men who had spent many, many years in politics and kind of had retired to the position,” says Preston, who teaches history and has lived and traveled extensively in Ireland.

“I was (living) in Ireland at the time, and I experienced the almost palpable excitement her candidacy brought about. This was new, this was different, this was exciting.”

Robinson will be in Sioux Falls on Wednesday to speak at the 2011 Boe Forum on Public Affairs. She will talk on “World Hunger and Poverty.” The Boe Forum is presented by Augustana’s Center for Western Studies and is free.

Robinson was Ireland’s president from 1990 to 1997. She left the position a few months early to serve as U.N. commissioner for human rights through 2002.

Patrick Hicks, who has a Ph.D. in Irish literature and is Augustana’s writer-in-residence, says Robinson made human rights a focal point of the UN.

“Before that, it was something people didn’t really talk about,” says Hicks, a dual citizen of Ireland and the United States. “She brought attention to the injustices around the world.”

Robinson did that, Hicks says, even though it was not popular.

“She’s pointed out injustices in countries where it might not be politically expedient to do so,” he says. "She’s very principled. She was like this in Ireland as well. Some of the things she says people don’t agree with, but one thing you can’t say about Mary Robinson is that she shrinks away from what she sees as a problem.”

Before Robinson, the office of president was a figurehead, Hicks says.

"She began to ask questions, and there was a liberalization of the laws,” he says.

William Swart, a professor in Augustana’s sociology department, has described Robinson as a woman of remarkable international presence, well regarded for her work in human rights, her ability to stick to commitments and her integrity.

Her current work looks at climate change from a human rights perspective, or climate justice.

“Climate justice emphasizes an inverse relationship between the nations that bear the bulk of the responsibility for climate change’s greenhouse gasses,” Swart says.

The most highly developed countries suffer the least consequences of climate change, at least in the immediate term. The least developed countries produce less than 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions but are heavily influenced by disruptive increases in the food processes.

More often than not, Hicks says, women with little say in economics or politics suffer the most from climate justice.

“A human-rights issues for (the Mary Robinson) Foundation in 2011 is trying to focus on human rights and justice issues,” Swart says. “She’s trying to capture the language of human rights and use it to mobilize toward redressing climate change issues.”

She has criticized the U.S. stance on torture and the death penalty.

Ireland didn’t gain independence until the early 20th century, Preston points out. Famine in the 19th century still has repercussions. But under Robinson, the changes gained a positive aspect.

“She was a breath of fresh air,” Preston says.

Kelly Sprecher
Director of Communications & Media Relations