Flying the flag for Ireland
With more than 20 Irish Ambassadors taking up new posts in the coming weeks, seven diplomats about to embark on key missions explain why their job matters and what they plan to do with it
Photograph: Patrick Swan/Design Pics/Getty
In the coming weeks more than 20 new Ambassadors will take up postings at Embassies around the world in one of Ireland’s biggest diplomatic reshuffles in years. New heads of mission will take over in Washington, Beijing, London, Berlin, Paris and other capitals. Ireland will have a new Ambassador, or Permanent Representative, to the European Union in Brussels and a new Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.
The most important postings in terms of Ireland’s foreign-policy priorities include the US, China, Britain, Germany, Paris, the EU and the UN. Those taking up these high-level ambassadorships are among Ireland’s most experienced and distinguished diplomats – several are swapping one key posting for another.
Their primary mission, as has been the case with all of Ireland’s Ambassadors since the financial crisis hit in 2008, will be promoting Ireland’s economic interests internationally and contributing to its recovery. They will be tasked with weaving new narratives about where Ireland stands right now, and challenging outdated or ill-informed ideas about how it got there.
Former ambassador to Washington; incoming Ambassador to Germany
“Moving to Berlin after six years in Washington – I was the longest-serving Irish ambassador to the US in the modern era – is a major change in focus. To be in Berlin at this moment is to be at the crossroads of so much that is important in the political and economic life of Europe.
“It is of fundamental importance to Ireland, because we have very big interests to protect and advance in terms of our economic agenda, and this will obviously be my main focus.
“Germany has a relevance to Ireland like never before, and it is my job to capitalise on that. My role is to explain Ireland in Germany, to promote Ireland and connect Ireland with Germany. We have had to make a sustained effort in our diplomatic missions across the world to regain the reputation that was so badly damaged in 2008-9. We have gained a good reputation in Germany for how we have handled the crisis. Ireland is seen as a much-needed success story for the euro zone. We will continue to project the sense that Ireland is recovering and that we are destined to emerge from the bailout programme in the coming months.
“Germany is our fourth-largest export market and the second biggest for inward investment – there are more than 100 German companies in Ireland, employing more than 10,000 people in total.
“Today Ireland and Germany are more thoroughly connected and interwoven than at any other time in our history. The more we know one another the better.”
Former political director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; incoming Permanent Representative to the UN, in New York
“The UN has traditionally been a cornerstone of Irish foreign policy, and Ireland has always been a very active and loyal member of the UN. This enables us to punch above our weight in international affairs. We have been able to make a real difference, whether in the contribution made by our peacekeeping troops to UN missions, the profile we have had in disarmament and nonproliferation, or the work we do on global human rights and development within the UN framework.
“The UN is not perfect and has its share of frustrations and setbacks, which we see at the moment with the impasse on Syria at the Security Council, but it is the best we have, and no other body has the political and moral authority or the legitimacy the UN holds from its near-universal membership. The UN must be reformed and strengthened; we all want to work to improve it.
“Together with my colleagues, I hope we can . . . put an Irish imprint as far as possible on policies, actions and reforms which are agreed at the UN. The priorities for us will be our continuing involvement in UN peacekeeping, including the sensitive and challenging UNDOF mission in Syria; and the development agenda ahead of the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals.
“In the longer term, Ireland is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council for 2021, and we will need to start lobbying for that.”
Former ambassador to Germany; incoming Ambassador to the UK
“Relations between Britain and Ireland have never been better in the wake of the queen’s visit to Ireland, in 2011. It will be my job to steer the continued positive evolution of those relations.
“There are a huge number of strands to the relationship between Britain and Ireland: it is our most intensive, most varied and, I would say, our most important bilateral relationship.
“There are two things in particular I seek to focus on: economic relations and the role of the Irish community in Britain. I have always considered economic diplomacy and promotion a vital part of my past postings. It’s a priority for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a whole and ranges from promoting exports to tourism. It will be a hugely important element of my work in Britain.
“I look forward to working very closely with the four Irish agencies in London. I also look forward to actively engaging with the Irish community in Britain. I see the Irish community there as an asset for Ireland: the business and other networks it includes allow us to maximise both Ireland’s engagement with Britain and the advantages we can draw from that engagement.
“My role will also include monitoring the British debate on Europe and analysing the implications of that debate from an Irish point of view, because the outcome will be of crucial importance to Ireland.”
Former permanent representative to the UN, in New York; incoming Ambassador to the US
“The relationship between the US and Ireland has always been a unique relationship, vibrant and dynamic, but it is also a relationship that must be constantly renewed and reinvigorated.
“I see two major priorities for my posting there. Both are real bread-and-butter issues affecting families all over Ireland: economic relations and immigration reform.
“At this time of economic challenge in Ireland the economic relationship with the US is more important than ever. The US is the biggest source of foreign investment in Ireland. In trade terms it is our biggest trade partner for services, second biggest for trade in goods, and the second-largest market for tourism. It is a very competitive market out there, and we have to keep upping our game.
“I will be doing everything possible to enhance the prospect of a Bill on immigration reform getting through Congress, so that undocumented Irish can step out of the shadows and we can create a pathway for legal immigration in the future.
“Northern Ireland will also be on our agenda; we want to ensure US engagement there continues.
“Overall, my challenge as Ambassador is to project a modern, 21st-century Ireland, one which is enriched by our past but resolutely faced to the future. Whether it relates to the cultural identity we are projecting or our economic realities, it is about ensuring nothing stays in a time warp.”
Former ambassador to France; incoming Ambassador to China
“I was part of the team that set up the Irish Embassy in China, in 1979. We are a long way from those days – at that time the Irish community in China consisted of two people; now it includes some 3,000.
“China is likely to become the largest economy in the world within the next 10-15 years, and a country like Ireland, with a modern, innovative, enterprising economy, should have expanding relations with it. That’s a huge priority for the Government, for Irish business and Irish academia.
“I think China finds Ireland very interesting for several reasons, including the fact that we are the only English-speaking country in the euro zone.
“We signed a strategic partnership with the Chinese last year when the Taoiseach was in Beijing, and China’s current president visited Ireland last year. Two-way trade amounts to €8 billion. There are 150 partnership agreements between our educational institutions.
“Ireland is still in a period of national recovery; our Embassies are at the front line, and the first priority is to advance economic relations. We also have to keep momentum in the political relationship – political and diplomatic relations are essential as the framework in a country like China.
“Our agenda needs to be very focused and ambitious, but we also need to be careful. A lot of people – not in Ireland but elsewhere – approach China a little wide-eyed; we have to make sure we approach it with patience and due diligence and reap the rewards steadily.”
Former permanent representative to the European Union; incoming Ambassador to France
“The priority for all of Ireland’s ambassadors continues to be the country’s economic recovery and contributing to economic growth and employment. France is an extremely significant market for Irish goods and services; it’s also an important tourist market for us.
“A major part of my job will be to continue promoting trade and investment . . . Understanding France’s EU priorities and the domestic context in which those priorities are fashioned, and seeing where they might coincide with or differ from Irish priorities, will be a crucial part of my work.
“In addition to that I will be explaining where Ireland is coming from in terms of our own economic recovery.
“As I found in Brussels, there is an interesting balance to be struck, because you have to accentuate the positive, but at the same time you want to paint a realistic picture and acknowledge there are several problems still ahead.
“In all bilateral relationships there is a need to keep the relationship fresh and energised. People in France and Ireland generally have positive views of the other country, but they are often, in a way, quite sentimental and old fashioned.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is to present in France a picture of Ireland which is modern and realistic but without discounting all of the factors – the scenery in the west of Ireland, for example, or the quality of Irish food – which have long been important in terms of shaping French perceptions of Ireland.”
Former ambassador to China; incoming Permanent Representative to the European Union
“I am taking up my post in Brussels on the back of an extraordinarily successful Irish presidency of the EU. The challenge now is how to sustain, develop and build on the great work of the presidency.
“I see that as an important theme in the next chapter of Ireland’s activity in the European Union.
“The presidency played an important role in consolidating Ireland’s reputation within the EU, and the next phase is to drive forward specific objectives which have been agreed at EU level, including those of particular interest to Ireland, like banking stability, economic governance, trade agreements and the whole question of a people-centred approach.
“Stability, jobs and growth was the motto of the Irish presidency. It was essentially a people-centred theme, and I think it struck a chord within the EU and outside the EU . . . Ireland is viewed as having addressed its economic challenges in a very serious way, in a way which has been both methodical and successful, and that is important. The question now is how to turn that to best effect within the EU.
“One of the key advantages of the Permanent Representation in Brussels, apart from it managing the business of Ireland’s relations with the EU, is that it allows us to build relationships with key policy advisers and key players in the other member states. That is important, because within the EU the background music is as important as the symphony.”