Foreign policy review a good opportunity for citizens to raise issues of concern
Opinion: Ireland has been described as a first world country with a third world memory
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamonn Gilmore with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. Photograph: PA
Foreign policy is normally defined as the pursuit by a state of its interests and values in relations with other states and international actors and how it is defined there. Political and academic debates ask if foreign policy is determined by ministers and diplomats and how much they are influenced by domestic or other non-state actors.
The current public consultation on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s review of Ireland’s foreign policy is a good opportunity to raise these issues. They get uneven attention despite Ireland’s deep international involvement and economic openness. Many domestic policies are determined by wider commitments and obligations; but equally there are real choices to be made. Ireland’s foreign policymaking is relatively open to influence compared with others.
This review takes place in terms of the department’s statement of strategy for 2011-2014: promote Ireland’s economic interests in Europe and internationally; deliver on global development commitments, focusing on poverty and hunger; advance reconciliation and co-operation on this island; contribute to international peace, security and human rights; provide consular and passport services for Irish citizens and engage with Irish communities abroad; and strengthen our ability to deliver our goals (see dfat.ie).
Art of diplomacy
These goals, and the interests and values they project, are subject to change in substance and priorities as circumstances and the balance of political argument determine. The economic focus of the first listed goal tells a tale about escaping from the troika – and also about how trade interests relate to human rights values, as during the Taoiseach’s recent Gulf trip. Stated goals and state behaviour may diverge. The arts of diplomacy, policy and media analysis should largely be to do with unmasking this.
In that spirit one might suggest Irish foreign policy faces choices involving five paradoxical dilemmas in coming years. A dilemma is a state of indecision between two alternatives that may be equally undesirable while a paradox is a seemingly absurd but well-founded statement.
The first dilemma is the positioning one. Ireland has been aptly described as a first world country with a third world memory. Our development over the last 50 years has brought us from the periphery to the core of the European and world systems and the seventh listed member of the UN’s Human Development Index – even though an Irish Times poll showed most voters place us 35th. Peripherality arose again during the financial crisis but coming out of the bailout points us clearly at the EU’s northern creditor core, even though our interests remain with the states needing debt relief. Promoting Ireland’s wellbeing in Europe means choosing to insist that relief be provided.
The second dilemma is one of size. Ireland is one of the world’s smaller states but our history and experience makes us one of a group of “middle powers” that have achieved considerable influence without necessarily being medium- sized. Canada, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Indonesia and India are mentioned in this category. It is a real resource, affecting development aid, peacekeeping and conflict mediation. But such priorities now need to be projected in the setting of a more co-ordinated European foreign policy, defence and security regime. Ireland’s public debates keep these spheres artificially separate.
The third dilemma concerns Ireland’s relations with Britain. Real independence for Ireland from continuing economic and cultural blanketing by Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s was achieved only when membership of the European communities allowed a diversification of interests and affinities from the 1970s. We now have a more healthy and complicated interdependence with our large neighbour. But Britain is going through its own positioning crisis as it decides whether to withdraw from the EU and Scotland decides on independence. That means Ireland needs a foreign policy towards the UK to protect interests as we aim for the EU’s euro zone core. It cannot be determined only by Northern Ireland.
That relates to the fourth dilemma – migration. Irish emigration is in full flow again – and largely to the English- speaking Anglosphere, since we are largely monoglot, a source of increasing non-competitiveness in a more multipolar world. Despite that, we demand much more from the Irish diaspora than we are prepared to give, including voting rights. And Ireland’s asylum system is disgracefully restrictive and oppressive, despite our generous development commitments.
The final human rights dilemma agonises over what priority this part of foreign policy should have compared to others.
These are all major political choices deserving more public debate.