Trade one of our many links with Libyans


Imports, exports, trade missions, students and migrants connect Ireland with Gadafy’s state, writes MARY FITZGERALD

THE RELATIONSHIP between Ireland and Libya has ebbed and flowed during the 42-year regime of Col Muammer Gadafy, with IRA gun-running in the 1980s and beef import bans in the 1990s giving way in recent years to steadily improving ties based on growing trade and investment.

Diplomatic relations with Libya were opened in 1977 and have been maintained since by the Irish Embassy in Rome.

Relations were strained in the 1980s by Gadafy’s patronage of the IRA. Libya gave weapons, including about 1,000 AK47 assault rifles and six tonnes of Semtex explosive, to the IRA between 1984 and 1987.

A visit by then taoiseach Charles Haughey to Tripoli in 1983, during which he met Gadafy, helped cement agreements on live cattle exports which resulted in Libya becoming the State’s single-biggest market for live cattle. At its peak in the early 1990s, this trade was worth more than £70 million.

Libya banned such imports from the Republic and other EU countries in 1996 following the BSE scare and, despite efforts to return to previous levels, Irish live cattle and meat exports never fully recovered.

Irish firms began tentatively exploring the Libyan market after the US lifted its trade embargo on Libya in 2004 and the EU followed suit, agreeing to end sanctions.

“Companies started going to Libya on their own initiative after 2004, especially those in the construction and civil engineering sector, to see what opportunities were there,” says one Irish businessman with long-standing involvement with the country who did not want to be named.

“Since then relations have developed quite a lot. The Libyans are very well-disposed to Ireland and the Irish. They want to grow the relationship on all fronts.”

Last May, Minister for Trade and Commerce Billy Kelleher led a trade mission to Tripoli, accompanied by Irish Ambassador Pat Hennessy, officials from Enterprise Ireland and representatives of 14 Irish firms pursuing business contracts in Libya. Most of the participating companies were in the construction sector, but the mission also included firms drawn from the software, education and training, economic consultancy and food sectors.

On foot of this visit, Ireland and Libya agreed to establish a “joint economic commission” in Dublin where officials from both countries could discuss areas of further co-operation. The commission met last October, with Mr Kelleher and the Libyan minister for European affairs Abdulati al-Obeidi, a former prime minister, chairing.

Participants discussed co-operation on educational initiatives, access for Irish agricultural products to the Libyan market, opportunities for Irish companies in Libyan infrastructure projects and moves towards a double-taxation agreement between the two countries.

Mr Obeidi, who is understood to be very close to Gadafy and played a key role in negotiations to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted over the Lockerbie bombing, also met with Taoiseach Brian Cowen to extend a personal invitation to the EU-Africa summit taking place in Libya last November.

In 2009, Libya was Ireland’s 39th largest merchandise trade partner. Trade that year amounted to €284.6 million, an increase of more than 55 per cent on the previous year. Of this, imports from Libya – mostly petroleum and petroleum-related products – amounted to €258.21 million. Exports amounted to €26.48 million, and included medical and pharmaceutical products as well as dairy and other food products.

The relationship between the two countries has also been shaped by migration. Libyans constitute one of the biggest Arab communities in Ireland. Many came for professional or educational reasons and decided to stay, often marrying Irish citizens.

Several work in the medical sector. Those who returned to Libya after studying in Ireland include high-ranking government officials, some of whom belong to what is described as an active Trinity College alumni association in Tripoli.

A significant proportion of the Libyan community in Ireland sought political asylum here from the 1990s on. Of these, several were involved in the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groupings.

One of the quirkier facets of the relationship between Libya and Ireland is the fact students at the ISM international school in Tripoli sit the Leaving Cert.

In 1995, school officials settled on the Irish exam system as the best option for their multinational student body.