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Irish Foreign Policy in a Globalised World - Ambassador Mulhall delivers a talk at Aston University, 24 March 2015


I am pleased to be able to visit Aston University today to speak about 'Irish diplomacy in a globalised world'.

This is an opportune time to speak about Irish diplomacy, for our Government recently published a major foreign policy review, The Global Island: Irish foreign policy for a changing world. For those with an interest in the foreign policy aspirations and performance of a smaller European State, I would recommend a reading of this document on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website,

It is now 35 years since I first served Ireland overseas. I was sent to India in 1980 as Third Secretary at our Embassy in New Delhi and stayed there for three years. I have since had diplomatic assignments in Vienna (OSCE) Brussels (EU), Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin and now London.

Ultimately, we are sent abroad to serve our people and to defend and promote their values and interests. This often means assisting Irish people in emergency situations. In London, the Embassy contributes to the running of a passport service which issues around 50,000 passports each year to Irish citizens based in Britain. We are also responsible for providing a range of consular services. I am acutely aware of the importance of supporting Irish people overseas, especially in emergency situations, having spent 3 weeks in Phuket in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

Looking back over this 35-year journey, there is an irresistible temptation to chart the extent of the change that has occurred during that time. When I arrived in India in 1980, Ireland, while undoubtedly a developed country in contrast to India at that time, was something of an economic straggler by west European standards. In those early years of our EU membership, Ireland's per capita wealth levels trailed those of our 8 European partners by a considerable margin.

Ireland is now, of course, a very different place from the country I first left in 1980 (I should add that I have spent quite a few years working in Ireland on home postings during the intervening period). Despite the travails of the past 6 years, our economy is now diverse, well-developed and open to the world. In European terms, Ireland is no longer a place apart, but it has managed to retain a distinctiveness shaped by our national traditions, circumstances and experience.

But the world around us has changed even more dramatically in recent decades than Ireland has. This is most obvious in places like the location of my first diplomatic assignment, India, and in China, a country I first visited in 1981 at a time when it was still largely cut off from the world. Those two countries now occupy positions of importance in international affairs in keeping with their size and population. Their emergence, and those of other countries outside of Europe and North America, as dynamic economies, is changing the shape of world affairs and will continue to do so in the years and decades ahead.

Because of the manner in which the world around us has been transformed, the challenge of representing a small European country like Ireland has become increasingly complex and demands a different, more multi-faceted approach compared with the traditional diplomacy of earlier decades.

Before outlining some of the key elements and instruments of the diplomacy of a small State like ours, let me say something about Ireland's profile as it stands today. Every country's foreign policy must have regard to its particular circumstances and capacities. The aim must be to take advantage of positive circumstances and to mitigate the effects of negative ones, while extracting maximum benefit from necessarily limited capacities and resources.

Ireland in an international perspective:

- Ireland has a population of 4.6 million (122nd in the world) and a GDP of €183 billion, making Ireland the world's 44th largest economy, and 15th in the world in terms of per capita income.

- We have one of the world's most open economies, with the value of our annual exports now exceeding our GDP.

- We are a member of the European Union and, as our recent foreign policy review states, 'EU membership has shaped and amplified our foreign policy since 1973.' It has also been 'central to the transformation of Ireland's economy and society.' Ireland joined the EU alongside the UK and Denmark.

- We pursue a policy of military neutrality which is a core element of Irish foreign policy.

- There is a substantial Irish Diaspora, composed of the Irish-born and those of Irish descent who identify or feel an affinity with Ireland. This is an asset for us, which serves to enlarge our national footprint in the world.

- We have a proud record of active UN involvement, in particular in the areas disarmament, development and human rights, and have five decades of extensive experience of UN-mandated peacekeeping operations.

- Irish Aid operates development cooperation programmes - mainly in Africa - which have consistently been very highly rated by international agencies. On a per capita basis, we are among the world’s leading donor countries.

Ireland's relations with the UK:

Our foreign policy is conducted through multilateral channels and by means of bilateral relations with key partners. Ireland is fortunate to have special ties with the United States, a product of generations of Irish emigration from the mid-19th century onwards, which means that up to 40 million Americans have an Irish family background. Many Irish Americans continue to identify strongly with Ireland, even when they are descended from 19th and early 20th century Irish emigrants.

As our closest neighbour with whom we have had centuries of intensive interaction, the UK is, I would say, Ireland's most important international partner. We have a comprehensive set of connections and engagements with the UK. In particular, we have worked together quite intensively in recent decades to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Our collective efforts, and those of the parties in Northern Ireland, have given rise to a successful peace process which during the 1990s brought almost 30 years of violence to an end. Our two governments have a continuing, joint responsibility with regard to Northern Ireland. In December last, a concerted push by the two governments helped to bring about an agreement between the Northern Ireland parties on outstanding political issues – including parades, flags and the past - and we will continue to be active in urging the parties in Northern Ireland to ensure that the agreement is fully implemented.

The success of the peace process has lifted a weight from our relations with the UK and these have developed very positively with reciprocal State Visits in 2011 and 2014, the first of their kind in 90 years of Irish independence. We recently introduced a joint British-Irish visa scheme and in 2014 organised a joint trade mission, two initiatives that would scarcely have been conceivable just a few years ago. In November, I had the privilege of being the first Irish Ambassador ever to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, which was yet another symbolic expression of this new and very positive era in Ireland’s relations with the UK.

We also have a special economic relationship with the UK, which accounts for 40% of the exports of Irish-owned companies and is the source of 40% of all visitors into Ireland. The economic link between us is illustrated by the fact that there are some 55,000 Irish directors of British companies and that Dublin-London is the second busiest international air route in the world. Two-way trade between us amounts to more than €1 billion each week.

The European Union:

There is, however, one cloud on the horizon of our relations with the UK. This has to do with the current debate about this country’s future in the European Union. We sincerely hope that the UK will decide to remain in the EU. This is because our shared membership has been beneficial for our bilateral relations. Our habit of working together within the EU has, for example, facilitated the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland.

We value the British contribution to EU policy debates as our respective national positions on European topics tend to coincide to a substantial degree. It would be a considerable loss for Ireland if Britain were to leave the EU. It would also, for example, have potential implications for Northern Ireland.

In light of our unique relationship with the UK probably no other EU country would be as seriously affected by a British exit. We will therefore do what we can to support reforms sought by the UK that we consider to be reasonable and achievable. But one thing is clear: Ireland intends to remain at the heart of the European Union. This is a firm strategic objective for us. We hope that our good neighbours will continue to be our close partners in Europe.

We see EU membership - access to the world's largest market, the EU's role as a trading power and the collective weight of our countries' pooled influence - as an essential asset for Ireland as we consolidate our economic recovery and look to the future with confidence. We see ourselves as having benefited from EU membership this past 40 years and believe that we have made our contribution to the Union's evolution. EU membership is one of the important ways in which a country like Ireland seeks to cope with the many challenges of today’s world.

Multilateral diplomacy:

Like many smaller countries, Ireland values the international norms promoted by the United Nations. The UN is therefore a cornerstone of our global engagement. In our 60 years in the UN, we have been an active, committed member. In particular, we have given unstinting support to the multilateral system of collective security. For more than five decades, we have committed significant numbers of Irish military to peacekeeping operations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America and the Middle East. Within the EU, we are a strong advocate of an active EU commitment to peacekeeping.

We have also taken a leading role as advocates of disarmament and arms control, and especially in the area of nuclear non-proliferation.

Ireland also takes a strong position in defence of human rights. Our record in this area was acknowledged when we successfully stood for election to the UN Human Rights Council in November 2012.

Ireland has a longstanding position as an advocate of the eradication of poverty and hunger in the world. This is expressed through our development cooperation programme, Irish Aid. We have developed a strategic partnership with 8 Key Partner Countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Vietnam in Asia. On a per capita basis, Ireland is one of the world’s top 10 bilateral donors. Despite the economic difficulties experienced since 2009, Irish Aid’s budget has been preserved to a substantial degree.

Economic diplomacy:

One of the most obvious changes in Irish diplomacy during my 35 years of diplomatic service has been the increased focus on economic diplomacy. This reflects the evolution of the Irish economy and our substantial reliance on exports (whose value now exceeds Ireland's GDP) and inward investment. This shift of emphasis is given full expression in our recent foreign policy review, which contains a chapter on Our Prosperity. This highlights the role of our overseas diplomatic network in advancing Ireland’s commercial and economic interests.

An Embassy is not a sales operation, but we are tasked with assisting our national economic effort in every way we can. This is done through using the contacts and prestige of the Embassy to assist Irish companies seeking to make headway in foreign markets. This task is particularly important in Britain on account of the extent of our economic interests here. The Embassy works in tandem with Irish government agencies, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, An Bord Bia (the Irish food board) and Tourism Ireland, who are charged with promoting trade, investment, food exports and tourism. The economic ties between our two countries are of mutual benefit, sustaining significant numbers of jobs in Ireland and in the UK.

Public/Cultural diplomacy:

I am a strong believer in the power of public and cultural diplomacy. Ireland is fortunate to have a good story to tell in the cultural field. Our traditional music has wide international appeal as has our dance culture. As an English-speaking country, we have produced many writers with a global following. Every year our Embassies organise Bloomsday events commemorating James Joyce's Ulysses and this year we are marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize winning poet, WB Yeats.

Exponents of the realist school of international relations will probably scoff at the soft power pretensions of cultural diplomacy. A country like Ireland, however, cannot aspire to deploy hard power and nor should it. In any case, recent experience tends to highlight the limitations of hard power in today's world.

Our cultural diplomacy strives to promote a positive image of Ireland around the world, enabling us hopefully to avoid the fate of invisibility which can tend to be the default status of smaller States in a crowded, competitive world.

Our public diplomacy aims among other things to take advantage of the influence of the substantial Irish Diaspora. Our Government has recently appointed a Minister with special responsibility for the Irish Diaspora. Here in Britain, we have up to 600,000 Irish-born, many of whom have lived most of their lives in this country. There are also many millions of people born here who have recent Irish roots. Our Embassy runs a programme of support for emigrant groups, who receive funding to the tune of £5 million each year.

We also seek to draw on the influence of prominent Irish people around the world. The Embassy cooperates actively with the many Irish business and professional networks that exist in Britain, of which there are some 20 in London alone. Our Government has also formed a Global Irish Network so as to enable us to connect with 350 of the most influential Irish people. Members of this alumnae network have come up with some very helpful suggestions which have aided our national recovery. Wherever I have served, I have always found Irish emigrants to be highly supportive of Ireland and invariably willing to support their home country in any way they can.

The recent economic and financial crisis brought home the value of our international reputation. It was inevitable that our economic plight from 2009 onwards should have impacted on Ireland's image and standing in the world. A concerted effort was required to tell our story and to limit the collateral damage. Our diplomatic service was deployed to good effect in defending Ireland’s international image. These efforts have helped to turn things around during the past few years. It is good to again be able to tell a highly positive Irish story, with GDP growth nearing 5% last year, unemployment dropping, exports increasing and Government debt and the annual deficit coming more and more under control.

I make use of social media as a means of communicating with different audiences which are of interest to Ireland. As a diplomat, it is part of my responsibility to tell Ireland's story fairly and accurately, and social media facilitates this by expanding the reach of our information activities. When I started out on this road, the job of diplomats was essentially to engage in dialogue with other diplomats. I welcome the manner in which the focus of our diplomacy has broadened and the wider audiences with whom we now engage.


The international arena has always been a challenging place for smaller states who cannot hope to shape their environment to the extent that they might wish. Each country’s circumstances are different, and each must find its own way of pursuing its goals.

In Ireland, we view the European Union as our principal framework within which we seek to advance our external interests. That is why it is so important for us that our neighbour and closest external partner should remain a member of the European Union.

We also prize multilateral arenas such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). We try to work through those organisations to make the world in which we live a safer, fairer, and more just place.

Drawing on Ireland’s individual national experience, we seek to avail of the influence of our Diaspora and to use cultural diplomacy in order to help secure Ireland’s place in a changing world.

The essential goal of our diplomacy – advancing Irish interests internationally – is, I would say, fundamentally unchanged with the passage of time. But today’s global environment is very different and this requires a more concerted effort on the part of government and more flexible responses on the part of diplomats. I like to think that Ireland has shown itself over the years to possess notable reserves of resilience, flexibility and imagination, all of which remain precious attributes in our globalised world.