Representing Ireland – multitasking in a multilateral world

Ireland’s foreign service is relatively small, with 80 representations, and comparatively thinly spread, with an average of one to two people in each post. But it is talented, flexible and normally led by generalists well able to represent the State in a great variety of international settings.

It has been in the news this week as a thematic conference of its senior personnel was held in Dublin, coinciding with a review of its activities, the most comprehensive for years.

In a speech to those who attended the conference, President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to "our diplomats' dexterity as negotiators, their ability at cultivating good relations with their foreign counterparts and at building flexible alliances in order to broker deals".

He advised them to remember Ireland’s colonial past and pioneering path of independence in the last century as they encounter a changing multipolar world in which North-South relations are being transformed.


The mediating role Ireland can play in that change is illustrated in the fact that, along with Kenya, this State is chairing the United Nations negotiations on replacing the Millennium Development Goals which expire this year with a new set of objectives more closely geared to the new Global South. It goes beyond older models of development aid towards a more equal and reciprocal set of relations.

One of the external speakers at the conference was Amina Mohammed from the UN secretariat, who outlined the task involved. So did Mary Robinson. Officials from the Irish Aid development programme were very pleased to be fully involved in these foreign policy discussions which touch on wider geopolitical changes.

Ambassadorial role

As in other large organisations, there is a tendency for thematic and functional sections to work separately. And when resources and personnel are limited, many ambassadorial careers are spent mostly out of Ireland, without the intervening spells of duty in Dublin that can enhance the department’s capacity to guide and judge developments.

This was an enervating and stimulating opportunity to swap ideas across policy “silos”. Although costly to hold, a department with a new Minister and secretary general seems committed to do these conferences more regularly. A greater willingness to publicise their activities can engage public opinion more, encouraging accountability and review.

The strong ministerial direction towards promoting Ireland’s global trade and employment opportunities clearly emphasised the interests involved in foreign policy, recalling an old debate about how they should relate to values. It is a false antithesis, as both need to be defined and communicated in a successful foreign policy for a small state that needs to be smart as well if it is to be influential.

Development, fairness, equality, justice, human rights, security and sustainability confronting climate change are prominent values in the review of foreign policy published this week. The foreign policy agenda is presented under five headings: “Our people, our values, our prosperity, our place in Europe and our influence.” Signature policy issues are defined as: combating hunger and poverty; advancing human rights; promoting disarmament; a commitment to the UN’s multilateralism; and sharing Ireland’s experience of peace and reconciliation.

Analysts refer to Ireland’s position as a “middle power”. The term was developed mainly to describe the foreign policies and diplomacy of Canada, Australia, Austria, Sweden, South Africa, Indonesia, Norway and other Nordic states. They are mostly middle-sized and usually richer powers, though not defined just by size or wealth. Their influence arises from active foreign policies, often drawing on concepts of soft power rather than a commitment to military force, using development aid, willingness to act as peace mediators and peacekeepers, or having high profiles on issues like landmines or human rights. They are often called on to chair or lead multilateral initiatives.

That is a useful role model in a European Union setting that is itself changing rapidly. An impressive address from the new EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, to the gathering, resonated with these themes. She emphasised equality between smaller and larger states in EU policymaking; the importance of multilateralism in the UN and global forums; the need for strategic inter-regionalism between the EU and other centres of power; and her determination to create better internal and external coherence in and communication of the EU's work as a "superpower".

As the Irish policy review says, the world is no longer foreign. In the European setting of shared policymaking this is even more true and should be taken much more into account by Irish public opinion and media.