Parochial political class has failed on foreign policy


OPINION:Ireland’s position in the EU is in grave danger – a position that owes much to the neglect of complacent politicians, writes DAN O'BRIEN

IN ARTICLES in recent weeks, Garret FitzGerald concluded that Ireland’s conduct of its foreign policy has been in stark contrast to its poor record of economic management. This conclusion is wrong. Just as in economic affairs, the foreign policy failings that were submerged under the high tide of prosperity are now re-emerging into view.

Most pertinent is Europe. Should the forthcoming referendum sink the Lisbon Treaty once and for all, Ireland will place itself in the path of a historical dynamic of enormous momentum. There should be little doubt about what will happen if that irresistible force meets the fragile object that is Irish rejectionism. That the country is in such a perilous position owes much to the neglect and complacency of the political class.

There were abundant signs before the first Nice Treaty referendum in 2001 that the vote could be lost. Those risks were ignored and Nice I was defeated. If the political class could claim to have been blindsided in 2001, no such claim can be made of the Lisbon Treaty campaign in 2008. The failure yet again to step up to the plate during the campaign has resulted in one of the smallest member states becoming the largest obstacle to the implementation of reforms agreed by 27 governments. This is a dangerous position for a small and powerless country to be in.

But it is not only in leading and informing public opinion on Europe that politicians have been found wanting. In December 2003, on the eve of Ireland taking over the rotating presidency of the EU, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern conceded that Ireland was perceived as having drifted to the periphery of Europe.

That the man at the country’s helm for the previous six years could observe such drift, in the manner of a casual bystander, says much about the importance the political class attaches to foreign matters and the unwillingness and inability to pursue the country’s vital interests.

European engagement is a core national interest for Ireland; guaranteeing security is an eternal interest for all states. And here Ireland’s record is unique. When Nato was established in the aftermath of the second World War, Ireland remained neutral.

But unlike those other European countries who voluntarily chose that stance – Sweden and Switzerland – Ireland made no effort to guarantee its neutrality. Where the Swedes and the Swiss committed resources to their militaries, Ireland left itself undefended because it knew that its allies would protect it.

This is called free riding. No Irish person should be proud of it. But rather than being clear about this, self-deception took hold.

Non-participation in the Atlantic alliance came to be portrayed as noble aloofness from the conduct of the cold war. Implicit, if not explicit, in this position was that alliances among states for the purpose of enhancing security were in some way morally suspect.

Sustained self-deception more often than not has serious consequences. It certainly has for Ireland. As the EU logically expands its role in the provision of security, the decades-long failure of the political class to educate, persuade and lead comes home to roost. Fantasies abound of the EU morphing into a war machine and of Irish youth being press-ganged into some Euro-imperial army.

Ireland ties itself in knots with triple locks, protocols and opt-outs to appease the peddlers of these fantasies. The result is growing marginalisation from this increasingly important dimension of the EU.

The failure to meet security challenges extends to energy. Despite the intensification of global competition for resources and the need to find new sources of energy (Britain, Ireland’s main source of supply, is rapidly running out of North Sea oil and gas), far too little is being done. One of the few real options, nuclear, has been shied away from by successive governments since the 1970s, and in 2007 an energy White Paper explicitly ruled it out. Nor have renewable sources of energy been prioritised. In the energy mix, they account for just 3 per cent of the total – one-third of the EU average. If there is ever a crunch in the world’s supply of energy, the lights will quickly go out in Ireland.

Economic security has suffered even greater neglect. Multilateralism is the organising principle that every small country wishes to see operate in world affairs because it internationalises the rule of law. The weak benefit most from enforceable rules because they provide protection from the arbitrary actions of the strong. The World Trade Organisation is the most effective global multilateral construct that has ever existed.

The interests of any small, politically powerless country that is highly dependent on foreign trade dictate that it support ardently that organisation. Ireland does the opposite; consistently working against its own interests. Each time an effort is made to advance the Doha round of trade talks, Ireland is the most vocal opponent among the EU 27.

This position is seen abroad, by those who care to look, for what it is – the granting to a small vested interest (in this case farmers) of the power to determine policy to the detriment of the wider economy.

If trade policy was long ago surrendered to the IFA, aid policy has been victim of domestic mismanagement. After the 2002 election, when excessive pre-poll spending necessitated post-election cutbacks, the commitment the then taoiseach had given the UN, of reaching that organisation’s aid target of 0.7 per cent of national income, was postponed. The current chronic fiscal crisis means it will not be met for at least a decade. This is bad not only for those who benefit from Irish aid, but for the country’s reputation as a reliable partner on development issues.

What accounts for these failings? One must look first to the calibre of the country’s politicians in general, and foreign ministers in particular. The current Iveagh House incumbent is a school teacher. His four immediate predecessors were, respectively, a solicitor, a solicitor, a barrister and Ray Burke. None had any background in international relations or diplomacy. None had ever lived, worked or studied abroad. None had ever worked for a foreign company in Ireland. No other developed country entrusts its foreign relations to unqualified amateurs with no experience of the world.

In recent decades the international political and economic environment has been benign for Ireland. The years to come will be far more challenging. The most parochial and least cosmopolitan political class in western Europe has not been up to the task of conducting a strategically coherent foreign policy in the good times. One must fear for how it will fare in the stormier times ahead.

Dan O’Brien is a senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit. This article is an edited extract from his forthcoming book, to be published by Gill Macmillan