World View: Next government could bring real shifts in Irish foreign policy
Post-Brexit and with UN seat, Ireland could find itself wielding real clout on the world stage
The next government must navigate how to manage the relationship with London in a world in which officials and politicians from both sides no longer work closely together through EU institutions.
Depending on your view, the absence of foreign policy from the Irish general election campaign is either a sign of the sensible bipartisan consensus that has served the State so well or a symptom of the stultifying, cosy groupthink that inhibits fresh thinking about Ireland’s place in the world. It’s also a reflection of two facts. First, as a small, neutral state in a relatively sleepy neighbourhood, the geopolitical stakes are low. Second, a centrist political culture has produced remarkable consistency in parties’ handling of international relations. Power changes hands every few years, but the Department of Foreign Affairs continues to steer the same course, seemingly impervious to the laws of the political game. Even when a potential disrupter takes power, as did the Greens – staunch opponents of EU treaties embraced by the large parties and the foreign policy establishment – in 2011, that centrism seems to exert a gravitational pull to which every party, once in government, eventually submits.
But the next government will face some big decisions in foreign affairs. In general, there is little between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on foreign policy, but it’s possible that a Fianna Fáil-led administration could attempt to revive the occupied territories Bill, which would ban the sale of imported Israeli goods from the occupied territories in Palestine. Fianna Fáil supported the Bill in opposition but Fine Gael opposed it, citing a potential backlash from Israel and the US and legal advice saying it would contravene EU law. Fianna Fáil has in the past pledged to recognise a Palestinian state, while Fine Gael has said it would do so only as part of a negotiated settlement.
Greens and Sinn Féin
More intriguing still would be the impact of two smaller parties who could end up with influence in the next government: Sinn Féin and the Greens. Sinn Féin would almost certainly seek the Department of Foreign Affairs in a coalition deal. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, assuming they were the larger partner, would almost certainly say no. But even without its own minister in Iveagh House, Sinn Féin would bring a broadly Eurosceptic perspective to government and its presence in Cabinet would alter the dynamic of the relationships with London and with the other northern parties.
The Greens’ influence in the 2007-2011 coalition with Fianna Fáil was limited by its Dáil numbers. If it were to return with more bargaining power, its impact on foreign affairs might be more apparent. But whereas 15 years ago officials might have fretted about the Greens’ history of opposition to EU integration, today they would see the benefits of a Green-tinged cabinet. Ireland’s status as a laggard on the climate crisis is a problem for Irish diplomats overseas, not least when dealing with developing countries most exposed to it. Having the Greens in government – as Austria does and Germany probably will quite soon – would presumably give new impetus to the climate action agenda.
In opposition, Sinn Féin, Labour and the Greens have called for a more assertive Irish approach to human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia and China. They have also opposed the development of a maximalist EU common foreign and security policy. On both issues, there is the potential for friction with coalition partners.
In the briefing papers of the next minister for foreign affairs will be a range of urgent questions that have been little-discussed during the campaign so far. The first is Brexit. The UK’s formal departure on January 31st will shift attention towards talks on the future EU-UK relationship. Simultaneously, Dublin will have to work out, with London and its EU partners, how the “border in the Irish Sea” will work. Boris Johnson’s claim, to mystification here and in Brussels, that no checks will be required on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Britain, shows the scale of the task ahead. More broadly, the next government must work out how to manage the vital relationship with London in a world in which officials and politicians from both sides are no longer working closely together every day through EU institutions. At the same time, Ireland cannot stand aloof from the debate on the EU’s future, speaking up only to reject ideas it doesn’t like – on corporate tax, for example – but offering no constructive thinking of its own.
The incoming administration could have more power on the international stage than any Irish government in 25 years. That’s because, in June, the State’s long campaign for a seat on the United Nations security council will culminate in a vote of the general assembly in New York. Ireland stands a very good chance of winning, but while huge energy has been expended in the campaign, the outgoing government has given much less thought to what it actually hopes to achieve if it wins – especially when the State would assume the rotating chairmanship of the council, with all the responsibility that entails.
There’s a wider lesson there: in foreign affairs as in every other area in government, achieving power is of no use unless you know what you want to do with it.