Glossy message of St Patrick’s Day ministerial trips hard to reconcile with reality

As the second century of an independent Irish foreign policy dawns, questions must be answered about the country’s place in the world

Unsurprisingly, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is not modest in its positioning of Ireland on the international stage. Its announcement this week that an unprecedented 36 ministers and ministers of state will travel abroad to 74 cities in 44 countries for St Patrick’s Day trips was accompanied by the usual mantra of “an unmatched opportunity to promote Ireland abroad”. But there is an added layer this year; a celebration of a century of Irish foreign policy; 100 years of “Ireland in the world” incorporating the centenary of Ireland joining the League of Nations, the 50th anniversary of its accession to the EEC and the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

Those struggling with Ireland’s dysfunctional housing and health systems might be irked at the gulf between their experiences and the Taoiseach’s assertion that the other aim is to stress Ireland is “an outstanding location to live, visit, work, invest in, trade with and study in”. It is indeed for many, but its attraction is also generating tensions and exposing fault lines. As well as long standing social contract failings, dealing with integration, refugees, asylum seekers and racism is a challenge that requires clarity, maturity and leadership. What does the Taoiseach’s recent talk of a “fair, firm and hard” approach to migration mean in practice and what is the difference between firm and hard?

Ireland has been “in the world” for a lot longer than 100 years. Migration has been central to the Irish experience. The DFA can launch an annual greening crusade because 10 million people have migrated from this island since the early 18th century, more than the historic peak of Ireland’s population in 1841. The embracing of the globalisation inherent in the annual March message will appear hollow in the contemporary era if only the Irish diasporic aspect of it is stressed.

This year certainly offers an opportunity to appraise a century of foreign policy. The annual greening exercise is the culmination of something that began modestly in 1952 when the Irish ambassador to the US, John Hearne, dropped a gift of shamrock at the White House. The aim was to take Ireland off the international naughty step arising from its neutrality during the second World War; to bring it back into the Western Fold and dilute hostility towards its perceived self-interest. Irish diplomats showed considerable skill subsequently in finding ways to suggest Ireland had things of significance to say about geopolitics and conflict.


But it took until 1996 for the first White Paper on Irish foreign policy to appear; it focused on the UN, the EEC, peacekeeping, human rights, the environment and development aid, but the thorny issue of Irish neutrality continued to surface regularly.

The second century of Irish foreign policy is set to be far trickier and the glossiness of the annual marketing message is likely to come under increasing strain. Part of this has to do with an exaggeration of Ireland’s heft and perceived moral right to be thought of as a restraining influence as a “middle power”. In truth, as observed by veteran foreign policy historian Michael Kennedy, we are not entitled to such kudos: “too often the self-satisfied comfortable argument that, particularly at the United Nations, Ireland punched above its weight internationally fits an international self-image of a helpful, concerned Ireland. Ireland survived, Ireland looked after itself and its fear of empires and encumbering alliances led it to follow a very singular stance which did bring with it international recognition”. That was accompanied by an oftentimes insensitivity to the plight of international refugees and a tortured ambiguity about defence commitments and dependence.

Highlighting that is not to make the case that Ireland’s military neutrality should be abandoned. Last year’s Irish Times/Ipsos poll left little doubt about public support for neutrality, with two thirds in favour of retaining it and 24% in favour of change. Both Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin have been adamant since the war in Ukraine started that debate on neutrality is needed, with Martin ambiguously asserting neutrality needs to “evolve”. If they believe there is a case to be made for Ireland to be militarily aligned, why don’t they explicitly make it?

At the same time, rowing in behind the big guns and the increasingly belligerent rhetoric from the EU about common defence- permanent secretary at Finland’s defence ministry Esa Pulkkinen, who was a member of the commission on the Irish Defence Forces, insists traditional neutrality is “over” – seems to provoke little response. To return to the assessment of Kennedy, does Ireland at the dawn of its second century of foreign policy have “a very singular stance” in relation to refugees and neutrality or is the Ireland the DFA hails as a “Voice Among the Nations” devoid of independence internationally? That question seems to get lost in the breathless assertions about the March global greening.