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Remarks at the Conservative Foreign and Commonwealth Committee

Address by Daniel Mulhall, Ambassador of Ireland
to the Conservative Foreign and Commonwealth Council
House of Lords, London, 14 July 2014

It’s a pleasure to be invited to speak to you this evening about Ireland’s foreign policy.

The ties between Ireland and Britain are strong and deep. They have been forged through centuries of contact, through economic and trade links, through the experience of generations of Irish emigrants who have made homes for themselves in Britain and through the myriad personal ties between our peoples. As near neighbours and close friends we have developed a good understanding of each other. There are few other countries in the world where the degree of familiarity is so strong. And yet, therein lies a risk: we assume that we know all there is to know about each other and may not feel the need to delve beneath the surface. That would be a pity.

A key part of my mission as Ambassador in London is to promote better mutual understanding between our two countries. I therefore very much welcome this opportunity to explain some of the factors that shape Ireland’s foreign policy.

Ireland’s foreign policy is a product of its history
A country’s foreign policy cannot be divorced from its history and, as you know, Ireland’s and Britain’s histories are very different. Britain was at the heart of an empire that extended across the continents. This global role continued well into the twentieth century. This Imperial past still impinges on Britain's present-day perception of world affairs.

By contrast, Ireland was long controlled from outside and was obliged to struggle over centuries to assert its separate political and cultural identity. That struggle has shaped our outlook on foreign policy. Ireland's story also influenced the evolution of other nations, becoming something of a model for peoples in Africa or Asia seeking to assert their independence. Our history means that we instinctively identify with others who share some of our experience.

Our size and location also strongly influence our foreign policy. As a small nation with limited domestic consumption, our prosperity and the welfare of our people depends on our capacity to export. Our economy has become one of the most open globally, behind only countries like Singapore. Free trade and the elimination of protectionism are essential to our country’s well being. As a result, completion and deepening of the Single Market and more broadly the removal of barriers to trade internationally are key objectives. Our Embassy network has been firmly focused on building trade and economic links around the globe. In times of economic crisis like ours, there is an even greater onus on Embassies to contribute to national economic well-being by leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of our country’s economic interests.

With the UK our largest trading partner and source of tourism, our Embassy here in London has an especially important economic role to play. We work closely with our Irish economic promotion agencies with offices in London - Enterprise Ireland (trade promotion), IDA (inward investment), Tourism Ireland, and Bord Bia (food export board). I am happy to report that our economic recovery is well underway. All the economic indicators are pointing in the right direction (employment is rising, unemployment dropping, industrial output expanding) and there are good growth prospects for 2014 (2.5%) and beyond.

Finally, our experience of emigration over many decades has led to the development of particularly strong links with countries where millions of Irish citizens have put down roots. Compared to countries of a similar or even larger size and population, there is a much greater awareness of Ireland, of our history, priorities, culture and people in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and in Britain. The presence of so many millions of Irish citizens, or people of Irish extraction in these countries strengthens our reach and our contacts in some of the world’s major economies.

I should also mention that in recent years Ireland has experienced net immigration. Along with Britain and Sweden, we refrained from imposing transitional measures on free movement from the member states that joined the EU in 2004. In Ireland’s case, as a proportion of the population of working age, the influx of migrants from Eastern Europe was much greater than in Sweden or in Britain. This influx helped to sustain our economy and has, in general, been seen as a positive feature. No Irish political party has sought to make an issue of immigration, even though the proportion of people living in Ireland who were born outside of our State is higher than in the UK. The welcome that we gave to our new migrants still resonates positively today in Eastern European capitals.

Six Foreign Policy Priorities
Let me say a few words about some of our main foreign policy priorities.

Europe: Ireland is committed to remaining at the heart of the EU and in the single currency. This is an area where Irish attitudes differ from those found in Britain. This is a topic to which I am sure we will return during questions. Ireland’s commitment is based on a number of factors. We are not starry-eyed Europhiles. Despite some decline in levels of support due to the impact of the economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures in recent years, the vast majority of Irish people support continued EU membership because they have calculated that it is in our national interest. EU membership has enabled us to develop and diversify our economy and is seen as fundamental to our future economic prospects. In addition, as a small nation we instinctively recognise that we can best protect our interests and promote our agenda by being part of a European club rather than by going it alone. However, as our position on other issues will show, that does not prevent Ireland from having its own distinct foreign policy outlook.

While I am on the subject of Europe, I would like to say something about the impact of our shared membership of the EU since 1973. Our partnership in Europe has, I believe, had a positive influence on British-Irish relations. Sitting around EU negotiating tables this past 40 years has underlined how much our two countries have in common. It has thus contributed to the improvement in British-Irish relations that has been a feature of our recent experience. We believe that the UK has made a positive contribution to the development of the EU and we hope that this will continue in the years and decades ahead. While Britain's future in Europe is a matter for decision here, we hope that the positive implications of EU membership for British-Irish relations will be borne in mind when the EU issue is debated here in the period ahead.

United Nations: As a small country, Ireland’s impact on global foreign policy issues and our contribution to international harmony is amplified through membership of the UN. We have made a particularly strong and internationally-recognised contribution to UN peacekeeping. Since the late 1950s, there have always been Irish personnel on UN peacekeeping duties. This is despite the fact that we have a small army and very small navy and air force. As the UN moves more towards involving regional bodies such as the European or African Unions in the coordination of peacekeeping operations, an increasing number of missions will be undertaken in conjunction with NATO. As you know, Ireland is not a member of NATO and has no intention to join it. The key requirement from our perspective is that, in order to permit Irish participation, a peacekeeping mission must have a UN mandate.

Development Aid: Ireland’s official development cooperation programme, Irish Aid, focuses mainly on alleviating hunger and poverty in some of the poorest and least developed nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite our economic difficulties, Ireland has managed to maintain funding at 0.46% of GNI. Against the backdrop of austerity, this is a considerable achievement.

The Government’s commitment to achieving the 0.7% target is underpinned by strong public support which stems from a strong belief about the importance of assisting those less fortunate.  The emphasis on hunger too is inspired in part by our history and in particular the devastating impact of famine in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century.  The high quality and effectiveness of Ireland’s aid programme has been recognised internationally by the OECD and earlier this month was ranked by the Brookings Institute as the world leader in development aid programmes.  Irish Aid was the only one of 31 international aid programmes which was ranked in the top four against each of the four criteria which Brookings uses to measure the quality of aid.

I should of course acknowledge the UK’s contribution to development aid. The UK is one of a small club of countries that have reached the UN target for aid of 0.7% of GNI. To achieve that against the backdrop of public expenditure cuts in other areas is admirable. I am confident that in time, Ireland will also join that élite group.

Disarmament and Human Rights: Historically, Ireland was heavily involved in establishing the Non Proliferation Treaty and remains active on this front. We hosted a major initiative on cluster munitions in Dublin some years ago, which led to an international convention on the subject. The priority which we accord to human rights derives from our national struggle to assert our own rights. Ireland’s election in 2012 to the Human Rights Council, ahead of others with much larger budgets and with much larger Embassy and lobbying networks, highlights our international standing and reputation in this area.

Diaspora: Ireland’s global influence and recognition is, I would argue, greater than that of countries of similar size and population. Our history of emigration and the presence of many millions of people of Irish extraction around the globe is a major factor in this. We maintain strong links with our diaspora, drawing on their expertise and their influence with the Governments of the countries in which they have settled. Some years ago, our government set up a Global Irish Network, which brings together about 400 Irish people or people of Irish descent who occupy positions of influence around the world. This has contributed in no small way to our economic recovery which after some very challenging years is now well underway.

Our Embassy network has played a key role in the recovery by maintaining and strengthening ties with the diaspora. Irish people in positions of influence throughout the world can assist our economic recovery by promoting Ireland as a good place in which to do business and in supporting companies seeking to access international markets. This role is particularly important in London, where we have an extensive and influential Irish community. Promoting economic links, including through harnessing the power of the Irish community, will remain my top priority for the duration of my assignment.

Northern Ireland: Although not a foreign policy issue per se, Northern Ireland has been and remains an issue of enormous significance for both Governments and a key area of responsibility for Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Successive Irish and British Governments have achieved an enormous amount over the past twenty years. They have managed to persuade the political parties in Northern Ireland to participate in a process which has consigned violence to the past. The Northern Ireland Assembly is representative of both communities and includes participants from all parties. In addition, the establishment of the North-South Ministerial Council has facilitated practical cooperation between Governments while the involvement through the British Council of both Governments as well as the administrations in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey has helped to normalise relations. There are a number of North-South bodies which manage aspects of public policy on an all-island basis. A good example is Tourism Ireland, which promotes tourism internationally for the whole island of Ireland.

The Peace Process and the signing and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement are achievements of which we can all be proud. The people of Northern Ireland can now live in peace, no longer having to live through the pain and anguish that years of violence brought. However, despite the achievements, we must not be complacent. Our work is not yet complete and there are some residual issues which remain to be resolved, notably on parades, flags and dealing with the past. It is important that we continue to make progress on these issues lest over time they serve to undermine what we have gained.

This has been a quick outline of some of Ireland’s main foreign policy priorities. If there were more time, I could tease out some of the complexities involved but I am keen to leave some time for discussion. I hope that I have explained too how our relationship with our nearest neighbour and most important partner has evolved, and how that relationship itself has influenced the way in which we look at the world around us. Thank you.