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From Waterford to Washington: Four Decades representing Ireland Overseas, 1980-2020

'From Waterford to Washington: Four Decades representing Ireland Overseas, 1980-2020'

Luke Wadding Lecture delivered at WIT, 7th November 2019


It is a pleasure to be here today to deliver this Luke Wadding Lecture. In doing so, I wish to pay tribute to WIT for the manner in which has developed since it was established in 1970. WIT was in its infancy when I left Waterford in 1972, with just a single building.  Today's campus is so very different, housing as it does some 10,000 students. ITs have made a remarkable contribution to Irish education, third-level study opportunities to every part of this country.

My topic today is 'From Waterford to Washington'. Let's start with Waterford and make our way towards Washington where I now live and work.

I grew up in the parish of Ballybricken, part of a happy family that was firmly rooted in Waterford. Three of my four grandparents came from Waterford. The fourth, Dan Mulhall, was a Dubliner, who lived for many years in this city. My parents, Tom and Alice, and all my aunts and uncles spent their whole lives here. This meant that growing up I had numerous cousins all over the city, but practically no relatives anywhere else! 

I was a pupil at Mount Sion, an altar boy at old Ballybricken Church, a member of St. Francis Youth Club and a regular attender at the Saturday evening Céilis at what was called the Réalt.  My brothers and sisters all still live in Waterford and I come back here fairly frequently.

I never planned this life for myself, but more or less stumbled into it. I left Waterford for UCC in 1972. My father drove me to Cork and I can still recall the mix of excitement and apprehension I felt on what turned out to be life-changing moment, for my journey from Waterford to Washington arrived at its first, modest milestone at UCC. Throughout my years at Mount Sion I had had a desire to go to University, but when I arrived at UCC I fully intended to return to Waterford as a teacher at the end of my degree course.

UCC opened up a new world to me; one of new friends and new ideas. I was active in a range of student activities, including as a regular participant in debates at the Philosophical Society, where I learned how to express myself in a public forum.

With a BA in History under my belt, in 1975 I embarked on an MA and two years later was faced with the need to decide on a career path. Academia appealed to me and I spent a semester teaching at what is now the University of Limerick. I knew nothing of Embassies or diplomacy, but a College friend cajoled me into applying for a job at the Department of Foreign Affairs and somehow I was successful.

On the 31st of March 1978, I walked through the main door of Iveagh House for the first time to start a phase in my life. At that stage, I did not think that my spell in the Department of Foreign Affairs would last more than a few years as I still saw myself as more of an academic than a civil servant.

The civil service has changed hugely since that time. In those days, it was a world of files in which were passed around as part of the process of making decisions. Cut and paste meant what it said and scissors and gum were an essential part of a young diplomat's equipment. Multiple carbon copies were made of letters and, when you needed more than five copies of a document, it would have to be stencilled.

My first foreign assignment was an exciting one. I was put to work on our newly-established Bilateral Aid Programme and was sent on a short-term visit to Lesotho.

In Lesotho, Ireland was big news for we were one of that country's most important aid donors. I travelled all over the country visiting projects we were supporting. Looking back, this was a sign of how Ireland was changing. A member of the European Union, we were now expected to provide financial support to less fortunate countries.

Four decades on from those early years of our aid programme, we can, I think, be proud of how well Irish Aid has performed. It has made a difference to the lives of many people especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, is highly regarded internationally and enhances Ireland's reputation in the developing world.

After 2 years working in Dublin, it was time to take on my first full-time posting in New Delhi. Now that was a real challenge for a young man in his mid-20s, for India was a very different country then compared with the one we know today. For example, in those days it was not feasible to phone Ireland from India, except from the Embassy in emergency situations.  This meant that I was unable to speak with my Waterford family until I came home on leave after a year away. 

At the Embassy, we received a daily telex with a summary of the news and perhaps a handful of other messages. Other than the weekly diplomatic bag and the programmes of the BBC World Service, that telex machine was our main contact with the outside world. 

India is a country that holds special memories for me. Not only was it my first diplomatic posting, but it was also where I met my Australian wife, Greta, and where our daughter, Tara, was born. Our son, Jason, was born afterour return to Ireland.

Looking back to my first posting in India, I am struck by how much has changed during the intervening decades.

Ireland has changed dramatically in that time. In 1980, we were by far the poorest country in the EU.  Our exports were still primarily agricultural. Our presence in Asia - in trade and diplomacy - was very limited.  We did have a positive profile in India. This was not because of our economic potential, but on account of the inspiration India had drawn from our independence struggle and as a result of the contribution made by Irish missionaries, especially in the educational field.

Today, despite the many challenges we face, from climate change to Brexit, ours is a fully developed country which ranks 4th in the world according to the latest UN Human Development Index.  We are also one of the most open, globally-connected countries anywhere.

The success of the Northern Ireland peace process is something of which we can be proud. It was the product of unstinting effort over the decades on the part of my colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs who, with the backing of successive Governments, painstakingly built up the set of ideas that run through the Good Friday Agreement. There is still some way to go in achieving reconciliation, but the death and destruction that was a grim feature of Northern Ireland for decades has happily come to an end.

The world has also changed dramatically during my time in Foreign Affairs. I arrived in India just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which brought about a new phase of the Cold War.  Later in Dublin, I worked in the disarmament section at the time of the deployment in Europe of medium-range nuclear weapons which generated enormous controversy and anxiety. Later still, I was a delegate to the last East-West Conference of the Cold War, the Vienna Meeting of the CSCE (1987-89) and visited Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall.

Today's world remains a troubled place, albeit in very different ways from the 1970s and 1980s. The Middle East is a place enmeshed by multiple tensions as it has been for decades. The economic rise of China has changed the shape of global politics and it remains to be seen how the United States, which has long been the world's paramount power, and China will cope with each other in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Russia has shown a willingness to display its muscle,  for example in the Crimea. Meanwhile, the European Union seems set to lose one of its most powerful members. The trans-Atlantic alliance has frayed somewhat, with strains between the EU and the US on trade issues and within NATO about defence spending.

This makes for a complicated matrix, which is especially demanding for a small country like Ireland. It is important to remember, however, that, even if tensions are on the rise, we are still not in the kind of perilous situation that existed during the Cold War, and the heavily-armed standoff that prevailed in Europe at that time.

We have seen dramatic economic changes in recent times, especially in Asia. It is no coincidence that so many of Ireland's newer diplomatic missions are located in Asia (Hanoi, Jakarta, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Bombay) and in Latin America (São Paulo, Bogota, and Santiago). This reflects the openness of Ireland's economy and the corresponding need for us to be active in emerging economies.

Diplomacy has also changed a lot since I first represented Ireland overseas in the 1980s. Today, there is far more emphasis on economic diplomacy. One of the key goals of our Embassies is to support the Irish Government agencies - Enterprise Ireland, IDA, Tourism Ireland and An Bord Bia - in promoting Irish exports, investment into Ireland, tourism and Irish food. A big part of the work I did in Germany from 2009 to 2013 involved aiding our economic recovery by supporting the efforts of our economic promotion agencies and by spreading the word in Germany about Ireland's determination to do what was required for us to emerge successfully from the crisis of 2009/10.

The work of diplomats these days is far more public than ever before. I am on Twitter @DanMulhall every day as are many of our Embassies and diplomats. My colleagues around the world are active in briefing the international media about Ireland and we also make use of cultural events to promote Ireland.  Our diplomatic service is Ireland's eyes, ears and voice in the world. I am proud to have been part of that effort for the past four decades.

I want to say a few words about some of my foreign assignments.

I had the task in the early 1990s of acting as Ireland's press spokesman in Brussels. This gave me a precious insight into the workings of the EU. It left me with a conviction that Ireland's best interests are served by our membership of the Union. The EU is far from perfect, of course, but for a country like ours membership makes huge sense.

I am pragmatic about Europe.  I have seen how EU membership has enabled Ireland to make considerable national progress. In 1972, we had a GDP per capita of less than 70% of the EU average.  Today, we are comfortably above the EU average.  Membership gives us access to the world's largest market and makes us attractive as a location for foreign direct investment.

I went to Scotland in 1998 to open our Consulate in Edinburgh. I was there for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.  Since then, we have built a very good relationship with Scotland, a country with strong Irish links.

My years in Kuala Lumpur were fascinating.  It allowed me to gauge how Asia had changed in the decades since I left New Delhi. Malaysia is a wonderful country with a mixture of races, languages and religions that is probably unique. It is also a country with a dynamic economy that is developing rapidly. Its economic advancement highlights the competition that Ireland will increasingly face in the years to come.

I was in Malaysia at the time of the tsunami. That great tragedy brought home to me the fact that our absolute priority as representatives of Ireland is to look after Irish citizens whenever they need our support. Irish people are now to be found all over the world and there are Irish interests to be promoted everywhere.  That is why we need a significant network of diplomats in key regions.

My years in Germany were memorable and eventful. I went there at the start of the financial crisis and during my time there dealt mainly with Eurozone issues. The time is spent there taught me the importance of Germany as a partner for Ireland. It is the strongest economy in Europe and has the largest population in the European Union.  With Britain's departure from the EU, Germany is set to become an even more vitally important partner for Ireland. It will be important for us to get to know Germany better, including by encouraging our young people to learn German.

I served as Ambassador in London at a momentous time for our relations with our nearest neighbour. Our connections with Britain are wide and deep. Our histories have been intertwined for centuries, and this has bequeathed a complex, often fraught legacy. 

The burden of Brexit notwithstanding, relations with Britain are in far better shape than at many times in the past. Three developments have helped improve Irish-UK relations.

The first was the success of the Northern Ireland peace process in which the Irish and British Governments continue to have a vital role to play as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. 

The second was Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland in 2011 and President Higgins's State Visit to Britain in which I had the immense privilege of participating. The two visits were huge success and made a big impact on the public on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The third factor was Ireland's emergence as a fully-developed economy which has made us more attractive as a partner for the UK. British-Irish relations are a two-way street, conferring benefit in both countries.

There is no doubt that Brexit has stirred things up in so many ways. I was in London in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the 2016 referendum and did everything in my power to point out the risks that the UK leaving the EU would pose for Ireland, north and south, and for Irish-UK relations. At that time, I spoke frequently about the particular problems Brexit would pose for Northern Ireland, on account of the border in Ireland. We did not want Brexit to happen, but we must cope with the new reality it will bring into being.

Since the negotiations got underway between the EU and the UK, our Government's position has been steadfast. We had two aims: to minimise the economic damage to Ireland and to protect the Good Friday Agreement. The negotiations have been long and arduous, but we now have an agreement which respects our interests. Crucially, the agreement reached in Brussels a few weeks' back will preserve an open border on this island. The agreement has yet to be ratified by the Westminster Parliament and we must now await the result of the British General Election. The topsy turvy nature of the past few years means that nothing can taken for granted, but I am hopeful that the most damaging version of Brexit, the so-called 'no-deal' Brexit, can now be avoided.

When I crossed the Atlantic a little over two years ago, I expected that I would largely be leaving Brexit behind, but it has not turned out like that. There is huge interest in that issue, especially among Irish Americans who fear its consequences for Ireland and the risks it poses to peace in Northern Ireland. As a result, everywhere I have been in America Brexit has been a key point of discussion.

It is well known that President Trump has a certain fondness for Brexit and he is entitled to his view. My job this past two years has been to explain the complexities of Brexit to US audiences which I have done through regular media appearances, social media activity and the many speeches I have delivered at Universities, chambers of commerce and think tanks all over the USA. Our Embassy also engages actively with the Administration and with key members of Congress.

My message to Americans is simple. I am not looking for the USA to take sides on Brexit. Naturally, they will want to have close ties in the future with both the EU and the UK. My only ask is that nothing be done as a consequence of Brexit that would damage the cause of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. And there has been a very positive response to our overtures, especially from Congress. It was a major development when, in April, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during a visit to Britain and Ireland, made it plain that, if Brexit were to damage the Good Friday Agreement, a US-UK free trade agreement, which Brexiters view as a priority for the future, would be a non-starter.

I am sure that many in the audience will be interested to know what it's like working in Washington at this time with an administration that is distinctly different from its predecessors. In truth, you just have to get on with it. We don't decide who runs the US and we need to deal with the situation as we find it. My job is to connect with the Administration and make sure that they understand the issues that concern Ireland. I do not have very regular contact with President Trump, but I do deal with his Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, and his National Security Advisor, Robert O'Brien and I have a good rapport with them. It does no harm that quite a few individuals within the US administration have Irish family roots. 

The great resource Ireland has in the USA is that so many Americans have an Irish heritage, 33 million according to the last census. A lot of these Americans, and they are Americans first and foremost, have a genuine fondness for Ireland and this is a big advantage for us. It means that we have a highly positive profile in the US.

Because of the significance of Irish America, St Patrick's Day is a unique experience in Washington where every year our Taoiseach gets a meeting with the President, the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House, who are the top three figures in America's political hierarchy. No other country has such as annual opportunity to connect with Washington at the highest level.

I grew up in this city and feel a continuing attachment to it. It was a source of great joy for me when in March of this year I was conferred with the Freedom of Waterford. The scroll I was given that day now hangs proudly in the Embassy residence in Washington DC. Like me, it has made its way from Waterford to Washington. 

Thank you for your attention.

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