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Global Ireland: Can a Small Country Make a Difference in a Troubled World?


Our Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, who took up his post in June 2017, has signalled his intention to double Ireland's global footprint during the coming decade. He has spoken of his ambition to create a global Ireland and often describes our country as an 'island at the centre of the world'. But, is there anything to this other than some comforting rhetoric masking a small country's inescapable international insignificance? I will argue that there is a role, and a responsibility, for a country like Ireland, that we can make a difference, and that it is incumbent on us to try to do so. Ireland's effort to secure a higher global profile comes at a time when the world is going through a turbulent time with an unusual air of uncertainty in evidence in both the United States and Europe.

Personal experience: 

As time goes by, memory and history tend to merge. As a diplomat of some 40 years standing, I have seen waves of crisis come and go.  When I joined Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978, the Cold War division of Europe seemed an immutable fact of life. It was well nigh impossible to envision when or how it might end.During my first year as an apprentice diplomat, the Iranian revolution broke out. Its consequences are still being felt today.I set out on my first posting to India in 1980 just months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which made South Asia a cockpit of super power rivalry. When I returned to Ireland to work in our Foreign Ministry's disarmament section, the controversy surrounding the deployment in Europe of medium-range nuclear weapons was in full cry and there were renewed fears of a nuclear conflict in Europe. Six years later, I was attending a CSCE Conference in Sofia when news broke of the resignation of East German leader, Erich Honecker, which set in train a series of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the complete transformation of Europe. 

Just six months later, I was in Bonn at the time of the elections in East Germany that paved the way for German reunification, a process that developed during Ireland's EU Presidency in the first half of 1990.In 1998, I had the privilege of being part of the Irish Government's delegation at the negotiations that produced the Good Friday Agreement whose 20th anniversary was marked this month. More than a decade later, I was in Germany during the financial and economic crash and witnessed the Brexit process unfold during my time in London. I arrived in Washington seven months after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Is today's international environment more or less threatening than it was when I was a young diplomat in the 1970s and 1980s? My answer is a tentative one: yes and no. 

On the one hand, as someone old enough to have vague childhood memories of the Cuban missile crisis, and to have witnessed the serious spike in Cold War tensions during the early 1980s, I can see that such systemic threats to world peace have receded, although we can never be complacent on that front and we are clearly going through a period of renewed friction at present. Regional conflicts and threats to peace are certainly as numerous today as ever.  Crucially, however, the domestic consensus and steady resolve that sustained the cohesion of the US and its allies, military and political, has frayed somewhat in recent years, and the world is more multipolar that at any time since the 19th century. The UK's decision to leave the European Union points to a symptom of diminished confidence in collaborative approaches.

Ireland's circumstances

Where does that leave a small country like Ireland? Ours is undoubtedly a small state in international terms with a population of less than 5 million. We are currently the 123rd most populous country in the world just ahead of New Zealand. But, of course, population does not tell the full story of a country's international standing.  Ireland has the 35th largest economy in the world which puts us ahead of many much more populous countries.  And when it comes to GDP per capita, we are ranked at 11th in the world, although it has to be said that GDP exaggerates Ireland's wealth levels somewhat. We also benefit from being located in a notably stable part of the world which means that we face little or no threat on our own doorstep, an advantage that is not available to all countries of our size. 

Ireland's global diaspora: 

Another dimension to Ireland's standing in the world is the fact that we have a very substantial Irish diaspora, in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and most particularly the United States. For the most part, these people, some 33 million in the US alone, who are spread widely throughout this country, are not Irish citizens.  Many of them do nonetheless identify very strongly with Ireland, even when they are descended from Irish immigrants who arrived in this country 2, 3, 4 or more generations back. 

Our diaspora gives Ireland a profile that we could not otherwise expect to enjoy. This is particularly so in the United States and the best illustration of that positive diaspora dividend is the annual St Patrick's Day visit to the United States by our Taoiseach (Prime Minister). This entails a meeting in the White House, a Speaker’s Lunch attended by the President and senior members of Congress, a reception hosted by the President and a breakfast at the Vice-President's residence.  No other country of our size, or even much larger countries, enjoys such extraordinary access at the highest levels in the United States. I recently had the privilege of accompanying our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, during his visit to Washington and had first hand experience of the value to Ireland of the unique phenomenon that is St Patrick's Day in America. 

The most essential expression of Ireland’s international positioning is our membership of the European Union.  

The European Union

It may seem paradoxical to some that Ireland, a country that struggled so long to assert its independent political identity, should be such a keen adherent of the value of EU membership, but we are. EU membership is one of the ways in which a country like ours deals with the challenges of a troubled world. Membership has helped transform Ireland in all sorts of ways. It has made us realise that sovereignty is not something to be admired in its purest essence. It is something to be used to obtain better outcomes for our country. By pooling part of our sovereignty with our fellow EU members in carefully defined areas, we are in a position to generate superior results for Ireland including in terms of our international relations.The collective weight of the EU, for example, puts us in a stronger position in trade negotiations than we could ever hope to have by acting alone. It is hard to think of any international issue on which the EU is not capable of making a stronger mark than even its larger, more influential members.        

Domestically, Ireland’s economy is manifestly stronger than it was when we joined in 1973. The opportunities of the European single market have enabled us to catch up economically with our European neighbours. In 1973, our wealth levels were about two-thirds of the then EEC average and we were trailing well behind the other 8 member States. Today, we are above the EU wealth average while our economy, once dominated by food production and dependent on exports to Britain, is now diversified, fully developed, globally-connected, and driven by exports of high technology goods and services. The Irish economy has recovered strongly from the travails of the great recession and last year we had the strongest growth rate in Europe for the fourth consecutive year. Part of the success of the Irish economy has been based on our ability to attract high-quality foreign direct investment from the United States. Today, there are more than 700 US firms with operations in Ireland, including some of your leading companies in the ICT, biopharma, medical devices, digital and financial services sectors.

Moreover, on the back of the enrichment of the Irish economy, Irish companies have begun to invest heavily in the US where four hundred Irish companies currently employ some 100,000 people across all fifty US States. This gives us a strong two-way relationship with the United States, that is fairly unique among the world's smaller countries. 

The UK's departure from the EU and its implications for Ireland:

On account of our unique relationship with the UK and the fact that we are the only remaining EU country with which it shares a land border, its decision to leave the EU poses serious challenges for Ireland. It was not something we ever wanted to see happen, but we must cope with the consequences of this UK decision. First, the departure of a major member state is a blow to the EU which has been an anchor of stability and prosperity for all of six decades. In the process, Ireland will be losing the negotiating weight of a powerful, like-minded country. This has caused us to seek to deepen our partnership with those northern member states, from the Nordic and Baltic region, who share our commitment to an open, liberal economic model.Second, its departure from the EU will serve to complicate our relations with our nearest neighbour which remains a vital market for Irish businesses, and with which we have joint responsibilities with regard to Northern Ireland. It is ironic that this should occur at a time when Irish-UK relations, freighted with much historical baggage, have never been better. And third, Brexit has unsettling implications for Northern Ireland and for the border in Ireland which we are determined to keep as it is today, an invisible frontier. In this objective, we enjoy the full support of our EU partners who have stood four square behind Ireland and the preservation of the gains made on the back of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

We are committed to remaining in the European Union and this decision enjoys overwhelming public support. As the EU-UK negotiations proceed, we will seek to minimise the disruptive impact of the UK's exit from the EU and to take advantage of any upsides. I believe that there is an enhanced role for Ireland to play in the trans-Atlantic space, both as a productive location for US firms within the European Union and as a bridge between the US and the EU. This is because, among the member States of the European Union, Ireland probably has deeper affinities with the United States than any other country. 

The United Nations

As a small country with an intrinsic interest in a rules-based international order, Ireland has for the past 60 years devoted itself wholeheartedly to the United Nations. Our UN commitment is widely-recognised. When the UN was drafting the Sustainable Development Goals some years back, Ireland was given a key role when we were asked to supervise the drafting process alongside Kenya, with Ireland representing the developed world and Kenya the developing countries. We have a particularly proud tradition in peacekeeping. This goes back to the very early years of our UN membership, to a cable sent by our Government to our permanent mission in New York which read:  “Please inform Secretary General agreeable in principle STOP. Details being settled. Will wire later STOP.”

That dramatic message was dispatched in June 1958 for the purpose of informing the then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld of our decision to deploy our first-ever peacekeepers to the UN observer group in Lebanon. Thus, just three years after our young state joined the United Nations, we were already demonstrating a practical commitment to international peace and security. And since that deployment, not a single day has passed without Irish participation in UN peacekeeping. For six decades, the blue helmets have always carried a touch of green. At present, Ireland is contributing to 19 crisis management and peace support missions around the world. We are the highest per capita EU contributor of troops to UN Peacekeeping. 

We are proud of the courageous professionalism of our peacekeepers. Proud also that we have on twelve occasions provided the Head of a UN Peacekeeping Mission. Proud, above all, of the humanity and selflessness of our peacekeepers, whose deployment with the UN enjoys a very high level of public support. 

Development Aid:

Another key feature of our small country's international profile is our development cooperation programme, Irish Aid. Last month, I joined our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, when he visited Oklahoma to meet Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation. In March 1847, that Native American people contributed $170 - tens of thousands in today’s money - for famine relief in Ireland. Having made their own brutal trek along the ‘‘Trail of Tears’’, the Choctaw understood the despair of those who faced starvation in Ireland or journeyed across the Atlantic to settle in this new world. Our experience of the famine underpins Ireland’s commitment to working for the eradication of poverty and hunger in the world today. While easy to forget this, recent decades have seen tremendous progress in this area. As Steven Pinker observes in his new book, Enlightenment Now, the improvements globally have been such that, if they were minded to do so, newspapers “could have run the headline THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years.” 

Sadly, I have never seen such a headline anywhere and there is scepticism in many quarters about the utility of development aid. That view, I am happy to say, is not one that has any currency in Ireland where there is considerable public support for our aid programme. Ireland has long been a significant international donor, ranking amongst the world’s most generous nations on a per capita basis. In 2016, Ireland provided €724 million overall for Official Development Assistance and our Government has committed to achieving the UN target of 0.7% GNP over the next decade. But what you do matters more than what you spend. As a country, we’re recognized as a world leader in effective aid. In an analysis of the quality of official development assistance, benchmarking thirty states, the Brookings Institute judged Ireland to have the most impactful aid programme. 

The OECD, through its peer review framework, has also judged Ireland to have one of the world’s most focussed, coherent and effective aid programmes. Our programme concentrates on those countries that need it most, with over 80% of our aid going to Sub Saharan Africa. Irish Aid is entirely untied and, importantly, aims not to impose solutions but to empower local governments and communities to own and lead their development. Finally, it is focussed on a narrow range of sectors in which we have genuine expertise - reducing hunger and improving resilience; supporting inclusive and sustainable economic growth; and enhancing governance, human rights and accountability. These are Ireland’s soft sources of comparative advantage – areas where we can aspire to make a real difference globally.


Sixty years ago, in the year of those first Irish peacekeepers, Ireland made another significant contribution at the UN, when we introduced the first of what would become known as the ''Irish Resolutions'‌‌', laying the groundwork for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In recognition of that pioneering role, Ireland was the first country invited to sign the Treaty when it was adopted in 1968. Today, the Treaty has 191 State Parties and remains the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. And that aim – disarmament, non-proliferation and regulation of new weapons – remains a cornerstone of Ireland’s foreign policy. Small as we are, Ireland played a key role in adopting the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.

In 2008, we hosted the world’s diplomats in Dublin in adopting the Convention on Cluster Munitions. And we were amongst the first UN members to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013. We are proud of these achievements, but acutely conscious of the risks that still confront us. That is why we played a leading role in drafting the UN resolutions which led to the recent negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017, and we were among the first countries to sign the new Treaty in September.  We hope to ratify the Treaty later this year. While we regret that the nuclear weapons' States did not engage with the negotiations, it is our hope that, in time, the new Treaty will establish a similar norm against possession and use of nuclear weapons as has been the case with other equivalent Treaty processes. 

Human Rights:

The UN Charter does not begin with the words, “We the Member States”, but with “We the Peoples”. Advancing human rights is one of Ireland’s signature foreign policies, central to all our engagements, from the EU and UN through to bilateral trade and development partnerships. In recent years, we have placed a special emphasis on gender equality. We played a leading role in the establishment of UN Women, the UN body dedicated to promoting gender equality, and our Ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, has just assumed the chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Nationally and internationally, we have also taken major steps in safeguarding the rights of LGBTI individuals. Three years ago, we became the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality by way of popular referendum. We prioritized LGBTI rights on our election to the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and during our EU Presidency in 2013, when EU guidelines on those rights were first agreed. On St Patrick’s Day in New York, I was delighted to join our Taoiseach and his partner as they marched in that city's famous parade. 

Concluding remarks:  

It goes without saying that the UN provides no panacea for securing good global order, but it is hard to think of a better or more effective alternative. Like Churchill’s famous statement on democracy, the UN may be "the worst form of (international) Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’’  As a small country, we know that we are fated to cope with rather than to shape our international environment. But, of course, in a multipolar world, no one country has the capacity or the entitlement to write its own rule book. Larger countries are sometimes tempted in that direction, lured by the belief that they are powerful enough to make their own destiny. One has to wonder if a world of competing, aspirant hegemons offers any sensible prospect for a better future. 

I expect that Ireland will always be, as it has been throughout its independent statehood, an ardent proponent of a rules-based international system in which bodies like the UN and, on a regional basis, the EU and the OSCE, put a brake on the temptations that invariably beset the powerful. That is why we are offering ourselves for election to the UN Security Council for the years 2021 and 2022, a period that will coincide with the centenary of Irish independence.  As a small state that struggled long and hard to assert its separate national identity, we see ourselves as having much in common with a big majority of UN Members with similar historical experiences and consider that we are ideally placed to give effective voice to their concerns within the Security Council.  

The situation in Northern Ireland gives Ireland a hands-on experience of conflict resolution. The success of the peace process was down to the patience, persistence and perseverance of those who sought a way out of the 30 year conflict that cost some 3,500 lives between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s.This month we mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This milestone has encouraged us to look back at all that has been achieved and to dedicate ourselves to the continued search for political accommodation and reconciliation between the two main political traditions in Northern Ireland. The fundamental first step on Northern Ireland's protracted journey towards a better future was the ending of violence with the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994. I have already made mention of Dag Hammarskjöld, legendary UN Secretary General.  Once, during the height of the Cold War, during a heated debate about one of the issues separating the two blocs, reporters grew exasperated with Hammarskjöld’s taciturn responses. 

Could you say, one of them demanded, whether the compass points left or right? East or West? Hammarskjöld replied, ‘‘It points forward’’. So it is with Ireland.  Ours is a confident, outward-looking nation, anchored in the European Union and with a deep commitment to the multilateral system and to an open liberal economic order conducive to international flows of trade and investment. We are idealistic enough to aspire to a better international order but sufficiently realistic to know that its pursuit is likely to be a long hard slog, with no guaranteed destination. We believe in soft power and multilateral approaches because these are our only options. Besides which, we know that hard power and unilateralism are overrated. 

So, yes there is a place for small powers to make a difference. We can never change the world, but we can help change the way the world does its business. We can, and should, be advocates of a rules-based system, and, using the resources and diplomatic capacities available to us as a prosperous, developed country, we can help to make that system more effective that it would be without our efforts. 

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States of America

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