Ireland needs to ‘get over itself’ in relation to Germany

An official review of the two countries’ relationship is under way. It’s time to think anew

On Monday, Germany marks the day when the hated Berlin Wall has been gone as long as it stood. Its demolition began on November 9th, 1989, 28 years after it was built. But German unification remains a costly, ongoing task, in particular to overcome mental blocks between eastern and western Germans that have outlasted the physical division.

This is what Germans mean when they talk of the “wall in the head”. But they’re not alone in having a mental block.

Ask any of the almost 13,000 Irish people living in Germany how their adopted homeland is perceived back in Ireland, and many mention a wall in Irish minds towards Germany.

On paper, everything is fine: with bilateral trade ties worth €25 billion annually, Germany is Ireland’s second-largest inward investor and third-largest source of tourists, with over 650,000 German visitors to Ireland in 2016.


But what about in the other direction, beyond city breaks to Berlin and boozy Oktoberfest excursions to Munich?

Some 30 years after Joxer went to Stuttgart for Euro ’88, have the Irish, in their relationship with Germany, ever really – mentally – arrived?

Cracks appeared in the veneer of civility between the countries during the financial crisis that convulsed Europe in the years after 2008. In snugs and on talk shows, the talk was of Germans “dominating” us and forcing us to pay back greedy bondholders – while conveniently forgetting our own politicians who set us up for the fall by nationalising the banks.

A decade after the banking crisis hit, Brexit is the new crisis. With no choice but to turn it into an opportunity, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has announced a comprehensive review of “vital” Irish-German relations, to “vigorously advance our interests and our goals”.

So what are our interests and goals? And how can they be realised when, as one Irish official in Dublin admits, “Germany is an unknown to many here and that makes it appear intimidating.”

Countdown to Brexit

As the Brexit clock winds down, and Ireland looks for new partners in Europe, is it not about time that we “get over ourselves” in relation to Germany?

Ireland’s ambassador to Berlin Michael Collins says the time is right to think anew about Germany – and not just because of Brexit. Next year is the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the countries, and 20 years since the embassy returned to Berlin from Bonn.

“This review process is about – post-bailout and post-Brexit – asking the question: what sort of message and image should we try to make known about Ireland here in Germany?” says Collins.

As part of the process, he and his staff have toured this massive country to meet the Irish community, with an option of expanding the official presence beyond Berlin in the near future.

“There’s definitely an argument to be made that we should we have a place in Munich, Frankfurt, or both,” he said. “But is an additional presence sustainable, how much will it cost us, and can we do it on experimental basis for a few years?”

Berlin may be the home of the federal government, but Germany’s federal nature and 16 states means the real business is done elsewhere.

If the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf declared independence tomorrow, its economy would displace Sweden’s in the European league table. In the south, Bavaria’s gross domestic product is more than twice Ireland’s.

Ireland is the right place: great for kids, so much space and empty beaches. People here in Germany are dying to go somewhere quiet with fewer people

A strategic review that fails to take account of Germany’s federal structure will perpetuate Ireland’s Berlin-centric approach to the country.

On a drizzly evening that could be Dublin if it wasn’t Hamburg, 30 Irish people have shown up in a fluorescent-lit university seminar room to knock about ideas. Irish pubs in Germany still attract over 8 million people, says one Hamburg pub owner, and would be happy to act as decentralised tourist information hubs.

James, a scientist from Mayo, has spent two years working at DESY, a massive physics research lab that employs 5,000 people here. “It’s an extraordinary place with opportunities for undergrad placements, but most don’t even know it’s here,” he says. “In Europe, Germany is the place to get a spot in science.”

Paul Quigley, who runs his own business in Hamburg, suggests Ireland is missing a trick on agritourism.

“I have German friends who go on their family holidays to Austria to an open farm, but there are a lot fewer in Ireland,” he said. “Ireland is the right place: great for kids, so much space and empty beaches. People here in Germany are dying to go somewhere quiet with fewer people.”

Joe Hogan, working in Hamburg since 2009 in the export trade, says he doesn’t get “any negative comments about Ireland – bar that we are a tax haven”.

Poisoned tax apple

The poisoned tax apple dangles over these consultations and, with no change likely on Irish fiscal affairs, any new review will fight an uphill battle to communicate the Irish side of the fiscal narrative.

One approach might be to change the narrative by becoming a constructive partner. Ask around in Berlin and you sense a positive underlying vibe towards the Irish, but no one can remember the last time Dublin came up with innovative policy suggestions or solutions to problems that lay beyond its own narrow, national interest.

Is Ireland’s relationship to Germany – and, indeed, the EU – too transactional, too focused on what we can extract from or sell them?

“That would be a big part of it, yes,” says Alan Dukes, former Fine Gael leader and chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, who is part of a delegation in Berlin this week from Ireland’s Institute for International and European Affairs (IIEA).

He sees potential to boost Dublin’s ties to Berlin through energetic membership of Pesco, the structured integration of European armed forces that Ireland and 24 other EU member states launched last year.

“We are at a point,” he said, “where we are going to have do something positive anyway about the [Irish] armed forces if Ireland is going to continue to participate in UN operations. Pesco is a platform to make a greater overall contribution.”

One starting point for redefining Ireland’s relationship with Germany is to explore how other countries of a similar scale do so.

Being proactive beyond its immediate neighbourhood is one way Finland, with a population of 5.5 million, evens out its asymmetrical relationship with Germany. Helsinki has a long disarmament tradition, including disposing of chemical weapons in Syria, and being outside Nato hasn’t stopped it working with Germany in the western Balkans and Afghanistan.

Finland’s ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde says Finland doesn’t have a bilateral strategy with Germany.

“We concentrate on implementation of our . . . multi-annual action plan, which is updated yearly,” she said, in co-operation with all state bodies and other players with interest in Germany.

The need for closer co-ordination of Irish state bodies is mentioned often in Irish-German community consultations, along with the hope that Dublin will move beyond a perceived transactional relationship with its disenfranchised emigrants.

Others bemoan a lack of coherent thinking in Ireland about how to nurture the next generation of children raised in Germany with one or two Irish parents. A recent test run of Irish language classes in the Irish embassy in Berlin was a big success, but the Dutch are far more ambitious.

A state-founded foundation subsidises Dutch language and cultural lessons for children abroad. In Berlin alone, over 120 children in two locations take 12 hours of lessons a month for which their Dutch parents pay €400 a year. The lessons cater for Dutch families staying here, who want a grounding for their children, as well as for transitory families who want their children to slot back into the Dutch school system with recognised language skills.

Ask Danish Ambassador Friis Arne Petersen about his country’s relationship with Berlin and he summarises it as “developing the art of surviving in this globalised world”.

With a narrow, 68km border, Denmark’s relationship with Germany is far broader than Berlin. Instead it has identified federal states open to co-operation with on its key policy priorities, from renewable energy to digitalisation. Danish diplomacy in Berlin has a private-sector feel, selling embassy expertise to Danish firms interested in cracking Germany – at €130 an hour.

This approach raises three-quarters of the embassy’s annual €2 million budget. As Petersen says: “Who better than an ambassador to advise companies on who to talk to here?”

Beyond Riverdance

Outside of our Berlin embassy, there are no shortage of cross-cultural ambassadors between Ireland and Germany. Take Jörg Widmann, the German star clarinetist, composer and principal conductor with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, based in Limerick.

Having an Irish orchestra bringing classical music to Europe, in particular to Germany, has an air of coals to Newcastle about it. But the Limerick ICO attracts ecstatic reviews here and is one important, perhaps under-appreciated, cultural bridge.

“We get standing ovations in Berlin because the ICO is a very special orchestra that is uniquely Irish, but no doubt more can be done to build on that,” says Widmann, suggesting an exchange between young Irish and German musicians.

“When young people come together through art and music, it can change a lot. I would love to see an exchange programme, and to contribute however I can.”

Buried in Germany’s arts world is an Irish army of well-trained, world-class singers, musicians and dancers, like Munich-based soprano Tara Erraught and Berlin-based Wagner tenor Paul McNamara.

Ireland contributes a lot more to the European cultural context than Guinness, Riverdance and Kerrygold, but it's not always realised at home

He is a founding director of Opera Collective Ireland (OCI), a platform for young performers, which will this year present Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses. The production is directed by Patrick Mason, and, in a cultural coup, features the world-renowned Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.

Rather than appointing a top-down cultural manager in Germany throwing around funding in the hope it will stick, McNamara suggests working to finance smaller cultural strands that allow individual practitioners to activate their networks in their artistic fields.

Project funding combined with the cachet of embassy involvement, he says, can be a golden ticket into Germany’s sprawling cultural infrastructure – from opera house subscriber lists to friends of galleries. That, in turn, opens doors for further co-operations and the prospect of a real exchange and two-way, cultural traffic.

"Ireland contributes a lot more to the European cultural context than Guinness, Riverdance and Kerrygold, but it's not always realised at home," he says. "Celebrating the Irish who are out there in Europe, and enabling them to do more, is part of the solution."

No matter how wisely spent, cultural diplomacy cannot be done without money. The Irish embassy in Berlin’s cultural budget – after a recent funding boost – is €82,000 a year for all of Germany.

Denmark’s embassy spends five times that, while the Finnland Institut has a cultural budget of €700,000. Its director, Laura Hirvi, sees the institute as a matchmaker between German institutions and Finnish artists, shielded from direct government control.

“We don’t do a piano evening hoping to get well-known German politicians in the audience,” says Hirvi. “If that happens, great, but we are about creating networks and thinking long-term, so people work together long after we bring them together.”

After the review of Irish-German relations is completed in March, rather than start with the hard stuff, Dublin could consider launching a soft power push.

When the curtain comes down on the 2018 Imagining Ireland festival in the UK, maybe it will be time to push at the open door to Germany.

Perhaps Christy Moore can even be persuaded to bring back Joxer to Stuttgart.