Charting a way out of conflict on a Brehon code

An Irish banker more interested in development now runs an advisory on how to put aid to best effect in conflict-ridden countries


Mark Dempsey believes in getting value for money. Five years ago, he chose armed British security guards working for a small security company in Baghdad, rather than opting for one of the higher-profile, but vastly more expensive teams operating in the Iraqi city.

Unlike some, he does not believe in regaling audiences with war stories: “I was based out of Jordan for two years, travelling into Baghdad each month. I went in November 2008 and finished up in February 2012.

“The worst of the violence had passed by then, and I was well-protected. I found a small British team. The security companies there are required to carry badges on their vehicles identifying themselves, which just makes them more visible. Absolutely daft. I stayed with the team at night and went to my meetings during the day, I lived just outside the Green Zone,” Dempsey, who was brought up on a farm outside Celbridge, Co Kildare, says with little drama.

Following college, Dempsey, whose father, Matt is the respected former editor of the Irish Farmers Journal, worked in Dublin with BNP Paribas and Depfa Bank and in Frankfurt for Eurex, the Futures and Options Exchange*.

More interested in development than banking, Dempsey left to join the Financial Services Volunteer Corps, which was then looking for a country director in India, though that programme was brought to an end when US AID decided to cut spending to the country.

The experience of working with the Iraqi Central Bank illustrated the difficulties faced in such regions: “The problem the bank had was that it wasn’t able to hire people because they have never changed the pay scales. People are leaving, but nobody is coming back.”

Having ended his time with the bank last year, Dempsey mused about future options, though minded to bring the lessons gained in Iraq “about what to do and what not to do” to countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

Invited to a conference in Oxford marking the anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, Dempsey says he “kept hearing this Irish voice in the room, [posing] a series of fantastic questions which were always hugely relevant and more often than not, insufficiently addressed”.

The “Irish voice” was Dr Shelley Deane, who had recently left her post as assistant professor of international relations and Middle East politics, specialising in negotiation and peace agreements at Senator George Mitchell’s alma mater, Bowdoin College.

Today, Dempsey, Deane, and a British colleague, Tristan Salmon run Brehon Advisory, which seeks to offer advice on how best to put public and private investment together, along with aid money to best effect in conflict-ridden countries.

* This article was amended on 21/0613 to correct an error.

“We’ve seen transitions before: post-second World War Europe, the Marshall Plan, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Latin American transitions but none equate with the global pace of change, current economic instability and political conflict contagion in the Middle East.

“Understanding the historical conflict dynamics, local political and investment environments is crucial to identifying and mitigating risks,” says Dempsey, who says the trio have contacts throughout the Middle East “at all levels” from “the baker on the street upwards”.

Obvious need
The need, he believes, is obvious. People throughout the Middle East and North Africa have demanded a re-writing of the social contract: respect for human rights, representative government and economic empowerment, but public institutions have been slow to react. Following the Arab Spring, “private investment stalled and livelihoods suffered. The need for political and economic reform on both national and regional levels has never been more pressing,” Dempsey told The Irish Times.

The region has the dynamism, innovation and competitiveness needed to advance, while each of the states is “stifled” by an oversized public sector, that is too influential and too inclined to interfere.

“Non-governmental organisations are inefficient, though they are coming under more pressure to do more with less, while embassies don’t get out much, or have to spend most of their time looking after their own nationals.

“Companies don’t know who to talk to in many cases, or they end up listening to people who tell them the wrong things. We encourage them to work with locals, to work with universities, to train locals. That cuts their costs.”

Much of the future investment will come from often-derided oil and gas companies, though Dempsey argues that such firms, along with those in construction and banking offer “a unique contribution” to the reconstruction of economies in Egypt and Libya.

Today, such companies have to be increasingly careful of how they operate, since they face demands for unprecedented levels of transparency.

“Corporate social responsibility cannot just be a phase,” he said.

Having ghost written reports for the United Nations, Brehon Advisory is currently seeking investors, while working on a number of projects based in Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Brussels and in the Gulf states.

Though it is based in London, Dempsey’s company draws on an ancient Gaelic term to describe the eight century Irish legal code that was “widely recognised as one of the most forward thinking legal systems of the time”.

“The laws were restorative rather than retributive in focus, adopting a civil code oriented toward justice, fairness and equality. It is these principal characteristics of justice, fairness and equality that govern the way [we] operate,” he says.

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