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Ireland's bid to become an Observer to the Arctic Council

Minister for Foreign Affairs Ireland Simon Coveney, introduces Ireland’s application for observer status to the Arctic Council at a webinar hosted by the Institute for International and European Affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs on 1 March 2021. 

Read more here about why Ireland is applying to become an Observer to the Arctic Council

Keynote address by Simon Coveney, T.D., Minister for Foreign Affairs and for Defence.

It is always a pleasure to take part in events organised by the Institute for International and European Affairs and I am delighted to have the chance to speak with you this afternoon and to introduce Ireland’s bid to become an Observer to the Arctic Council. 

The Arctic Council, established in 1996, is recognised as the primary forum for international cooperation and coordination in the Arctic region. Its members are the eight Arctic states and there are also thirteen Observer states.  That is the grouping that Ireland seeks to join this year and we submitted our application in December 2020.  

Why is Ireland applying to the Arctic Council is a question I have been asked on a number of occasions in recent months.   I believe that the answer is quite simple.    Ireland needs to become involved in the work of the Council because we are an island nation at the edge of Europe in the North Atlantic and we have a culture, heritage and identity intrinsically linked to the seas that surround us.  We are not in the Arctic but we can certainly say that we are part of the wider Arctic neighbourhood.  

There are fundamental changes taking place in the region that impact directly on Ireland as a country as well as being of wider global concern.  With the changes we are seeing and experiencing year after year in our climate, there is a growing awareness that the only successful way forward is to work together with others in developing solutions to the problems and challenges we all face.   

Ireland’s foreign policy is based firmly on the belief that states working together in cohesive multilateral organisations is the best way to achieve global progress and sustainable development.   From the earliest days of our independent statehood when we played an important role in the ill-fated League of Nations to our modern day membership of the United Nations and its many subsidiary organisations and, of course, the European Union, we have worked together with like-minded countries on global issues such as disarmament, human rights, peacekeeping and fighting poverty and hunger.  Our election last year, for the second time in twenty years, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council speaks to the respect in which Ireland is held as a pragmatic and neutral actor in the international community.   

Ireland will approach Observer status to the Arctic Council, if we are successful in our application of course, in the same spirit of committed and pragmatic multilateral action.   We accept that the eight Member States of the Council and the communities that live in the Arctic will be the primary decision makers and shapers of the region’s future, but we offer ourselves as an Observer state with a track record as a respected and respectful global citizen.   A commitment to the rule of international law is enshrined in the Constitution of Ireland and is one of the core principles of our foreign policy.    We will seek as an Observer to learn, to assist and to contribute.

Working with the Arctic states to understand and address the effects of climate change is a central reason why Ireland needs to engage with the Council.  I read recently that every year the Arctic ice-cap loses an area the size of Austria.  This is a seismic change in any sense. Climate change in the Arctic threatens not only the people of the region and the wildlife and fauna, but all of us. The Arctic permafrost is a huge natural storehouse of carbon. As it melts, it releases greenhouse gases, which will accelerate global warming.   

Since 1979, the volume of the Arctic ice has shrunk by 75% and in summer it is now feasible to navigate from the Atlantic to the Pacific without needing an icebreaker. This has been compared to a “new Suez canal” through the North Pole.  For the indigenous communities of the Arctic, this development and the growing interest in the region might create jobs and economic activity and lead to extension of roads, railways, telecommunication networks and electrical grids. But new routes and increased shipping also mean risks for indigenous communities and already fragile ecosystems. This may have a negative impact in terms of accidents and pollution. Industrial accidents can have devastating effects on the environment and local communities.  

Ireland’s world class development cooperation programme has proven capabilities in empowering and giving voice to vulnerable communities in a spirit of partnership and justice. We will use this experience to engage with the indigenous peoples of the Arctic region and to build cross-cultural exchanges.   We will work to ensure that their voices are heard when decisions are made that affect the future of their region.

Ireland can bring scientific and technical expertise to the role we hope to play as an Observer to the Council.   The application submitted by the Government in December is firmly grounded in the ability of our scientific community to understand and address the issues at stake in the Arctic region today.  They are already active in many intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations working in the region.   We will hear later from Richard Cronin, head of marine environment policy in the Irish Government, who is the current chair of the OSPAR Commission, about important collaborative work that the Commission, under Irish leadership, is undertaking with Arctic partners.    

Ireland has a cutting-edge research and development sector characterised by outstanding levels of collaboration between government, industry and academia.  We believe that, accordingly, Ireland can contribute significant expertise that aligns with the mandates of the existing Council working groups.  This application for Observer status was developed as a truly national collaboration.

By contributing to an understanding of the dynamics of change in the region, the impact on all who live there and in promoting and empowering action, Ireland will be serving not only its interests as an island nation geographically close to the Arctic, but also those of the wider world.   I hope that this event today with its distinguished and knowledgeable panel from Ireland and abroad will bring our vision of an active, collaborative and engaged Observer state to a wider audience. 

I hope too that the governments of the Member States of the Arctic Council will consider Ireland’s application for Observer status in the spirit in which we have made it; as an engaged global citizen keen to play our part in helping increase knowledge of and search for solutions to the difficult ecological problems facing the region.


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