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Ireland, Europe and the Middle East.

Ireland, Europe and the Middle East. Address to the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Annual Conference, UCD, 26 June 2013

I would like to thank the members of BRISMES and the organisers of this important conference for inviting me to address you this morning. I understand it is the first time that the BRISMES Conference has been held in Ireland and we are obviously very glad that you chose to do so, in this the year of The Gathering.

I would like this morning, four days before the end of Ireland’s seventh EU Presidency, to speak about the EU’s role in the wider Middle East and North Africa region and the importance which Ireland, as a small but active member state, attaches to this role. Throughout my time as Tánaiste and Foreign Minister, I have continually emphasised, and sought to promote, a more active EU role in developing relations with the Arab world and resolving some of the major conflicts affecting the region, not least the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given the Union’s own historical background, its emergence from conflict and the values with which it has come to be associated, there can be little doubt that the EU is in a strong position globally to exercise influence and promote both the importance of conflict resolution and the democratic values which must underpin it. Our own experience of conflict resolution on this island has perhaps left us here in Ireland even more sensitive to this aspect of the Union’s external role.

The strategic importance of the Middle East and North Africa region is not something which I have to emphasise, least of all to a distinguished gathering of Middle East scholars. It is a priority region not just for the EU as its immediate neighbour to the north but indeed for all 27, soon to be 28, Member States, by virtue of history, proximity and cultural and trading ties. We all individually value our economic links to the region and appreciate the importance of close partnership for promoting our collective security. Many countries, including Ireland, continue to be highly dependent on the region in terms of energy supplies.

Consequently, when Mohamed Bouazizi, through his ultimate act of self-sacrifice, set in train what popularly came to be known as the Arab Spring, this was an act which would prove to have the most profound relevance, not just for Tunisia and the wider Arab world but, indeed, for us all. 

Two and a half years on, it is noticeable that the optimism and hopes generated by the Tahrir revolution, among others, have faded to a significant extent and have been replaced increasingly by doubts and questions.

This more sober assessment of the process of transformation which was initiated in late 2010 is not really surprising.  It was always clear that there were likely to be many setbacks as the process of democratic opening and change evolved across the countries of the MENA region.

I personally would still very much hold to the view that the overall balance is positive rather than negative -- if one assesses objectively all that has happened over the past two and a half years.

Of course, there have been many dark days – and it would have been foolish to expect otherwise.    But what remains abundantly clear is that the source for all this transformation is a deep and authentic yearning among ordinary people throughout the MENA region for greater political, economic and social freedoms.  What we have seen successfully challenged, through Tunis, Tahrir and Tripoli, is what the Financial Times referred to in early 2011 as the “Arab exception” – the notion that Arab countries were somehow just not capable, for whatever reason, of democratic governance and respect for the rule of law.

The transition to democratic rule – in Egypt and Tunisia, in Libya and Yemen – is not proving easy.  Like many, I would have particular concerns that the position of women and the promotion of gender equality in those societies undergoing transition has not advanced as it should have -- and, in some cases, could even have worsened if compared with conditions under the previous regime.  Equally, respect for the role of civil society and for fundamental freedoms such as expression and association seems still to be under threat. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge for those outside the region is how to adjust to the rise of Political Islam.  This is an issue which the European Union has had to confront in the past -- and perhaps not always successfully.

I believe, however, that the EU’s overall approach to the transformations we have seen over the past two and a half years has been the correct one.  Europe has recognised that it must be supportive;  that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and each country must adapt at its own pace;  and that, above all, the process of change must be country-led.

The internal debate over how the EU can best support through its instruments and programmes countries which are undergoing transition will continue.  For our part, however, we in Ireland recognise how much the desire for higher living standards and improved economic opportunities has provided the groundswell for much of the demand for change in the region.     Europe must respond generously, therefore, to the demands for improved market access and for greater economic cooperation.

Above all, Europe needs to be pragmatic and recognise that transition in the MENA region will inevitably take time.  While comparisons between what is taking place in the Arab world today and the events of more than twenty years ago in Eastern Europe are difficult, there is no doubt that in terms of historical timelines we are still, even after two and a half years, very much at the Gdansk shipyards rather than at the Berlin Wall stage of the process of transition which is now underway. 


If the critics of this process have increasingly held sway in recent months, it might be reasonably argued that this is, in large measure, due to the appalling situation with which we are now confronted in Syria.

The bare statistics behind the headlines underline the scale both of the emergency and of the challenge faced by the international community in addressing it.   More than 93,000 dead, according to the latest UN estimates;  the total number of refugees likely to reach 3.5 million by year-end;  roughly one-third of those within Syria either displaced or reliant on humanitarian assistance;  and the largest funding appeal in the UN’s history --  $5.2 billion for the remainder of 2013.

Confronted with such a situation, ordinary people justifiably ask:   how could such a situation have been allowed to come about?     and could it have been averted?

While this is a matter ultimately for the historians, there appears little doubt that Syria need not have descended into this abyss. When the ordinary people of Deraa first took to the streets of their city in March 2011 to protest at the imprisonment of young people who were guilty of nothing more than daubing graffiti, any genuine efforts made by Assad and his Government to respond locally to popular grievances would have probably prevented the protests from developing into the nationwide movement which they quickly became.

Russia’s President Putin has remarked that, if President Assad had had the foresight to introduce some modest reform measures back in 2011, the current crisis need not have escalated as it did.  That Assad failed to do so is even more regrettable now in hindsight -- but perhaps not surprising, if one recalls how previous uprisings were dealt with in Syria, including the events in Hama some thirty years ago.

I took office as Minister for Foreign Affairs on 9 March 2011, a mere five days before the first protests unfolded in Deraa.   Since the inception of the crisis, I have argued consistently for peaceful reform, for an end to repression by the regime and for a political settlement achieved by dialogue.  I have been strongly supportive of an active role for the UN in the efforts to achieve progress.    I have backed the good offices missions of firstly Kofi Annan and more recently, Lakhdar Brahimi, on behalf of Secretary General Ban.    Ireland was proud to contribute to the UNSMIS mission last year and also fully supported the earlier monitoring mission deployed by the Arab League.

Unfortunately, international diplomacy has been unable so far to advance the prospects for a peaceful settlement.  I remain convinced, however, that this lack of success should not deter us in any way from pursuing a political solution.  On the contrary, the EU and the wider international community must redouble its efforts to chart a political way forward.

We cannot ignore the incredible dangers in the present situation.  As one persuasive analyst of the crisis has recently suggested, a particularly explosive mix of forces is at play in Syria.  It would be foolish to think that matters could not get worse and that the death toll could not rise dramatically even beyond the current estimates of 100,000 fatalities.  Given the vast quantity of arms now within the country and the Assad regime’s sizeable armoury of chemical weapons, this is no idle threat or possibility.

Clearly then, the overriding imperative is to get the violence reduced, if not ended; to defuse the crisis; and to redouble efforts being made to promote a political settlement.   That is why Ireland and its European Union partners are fully supportive of the US/Russian initiative to convene a Geneva II conference.   We hope that such a conference can build on the not insignificant progress which was made in Geneva twelve months ago in terms of identifying the elements of an effective plan for transition.

No one is underestimating the complexities of the crisis or the challenges that will be involved in convening such a conference. The reality is that there are no easy solutions to what we face in Syria and the neighbouring region. However, there can equally be no doubt about the risks of doing nothing or of seeking to deepen or widen the conflict at this stage. Lakhdar Brahimi has tellingly described the risks of “Somalisation”, of Syria becoming a failed state. Moreover, the really frightening prospect we are confronted with is that, if Syria goes this direction, it may not be the only state in the wider region to do so.

It might well be asked what role can the EU credibly play in seeking to promote a political solution, when only a month ago we were unable to agree on the issue of providing arms to opposition groups in Syria.

My answer is that it would be wrong to underestimate the depth of commitment and unity among all 27 Member States to achieving a political solution to this crisis.  The Conclusions which the Foreign Affairs Council adopted last month made clear that the EU will spare no effort in helping to create the appropriate conditions for a successful convening of the Geneva II conference. This political commitment is also reflected in the communiqué which was agreed at last week’s G8 meeting.  If there are some differences of opinion among the 27 (and I do not believe that these should be exaggerated), the differences we are talking about are over tactics rather than fundamental objectives.

This is ultimately a Syrian conflict.  It grew out of an entirely legitimate demand for political reforms and for greater freedom which was met with what can only be described as savage repression on the part of the regime. That it is a conflict which now resonates with sectarian tensions and threatens to engulf the wider region is only because of a regrettable lack of unity within the international community, and particularly within the UN Security Council.

Equally, it can only be the Syrian people themselves who decide how to end this conflict.   All that we in the international community can try to do is to facilitate a genuine political dialogue, one which is inclusive of all strands of Syrian opinion and is aimed at bringing about a transition and a new democratic political order within Syria.  What I have always argued is that, if any genuine process of dialogue can be initiated among Syrians, it will quickly become apparent that there is no place in this for those such as Bashar al-Assad who have engaged in warfare and repression against their own people.

There must also be accountability for what has occurred in Syria.  We owe no less to the Syrian people.  The International Criminal Court exists precisely for this purpose. This is an issue which will have to be addressed in any process of dialogue that can hopefully be initiated in Geneva in the coming months.  


Against the background of the profound changes taking place across the MENA region, one conflict continues to stand out:  that between Israel and its Palestinian and Arab neighbours.    More than two decades after Oslo and the Madrid peace conference, depressingly little progress has been made in resolving this most intractable of conflicts.

The strategic importance, indeed necessity, of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be in doubt.   I genuinely believe that no other step would do more to foster development, promote stability and security and unleash the true economic potential of the MENA region than a just negotiated peace deal which would end the historic quarrel between Israeli and Arab.

It would be a catalyst which would profoundly transform the region for the better. That is why it remains profoundly in everyone’s interests, and not just the two parties directly involved, to resolve this conflict.

The EU, of course, has been centrally involved in the search for peace in the Middle East for many years, including as part of the Quartet.  Ireland is proud of the role it played in fashioning the Venice Declaration of 1980, which saw formal EU acknowledgement of the need to fulfil the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. Since the Berlin Declaration of 1999, the EU has collectively been committed to help bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state.

For some time now, I have been calling for the EU to become even proactively engaged in the search for peace in the Middle East. It is clear that there is a role for the EU to play in this regard as well as a strong expectation among many international partners that it should do so.   

Of course, we must remain fully committed to the closest possible coordination of our efforts with those of the United States. The EU has made clear its full support for the initiative recently undertaken by Secretary of State Kerry.   We welcome his strong personal involvement and commitment.   We all know that ultimately peace and a just solution involving Israel and Palestine living side by side in prosperity, harmony and security can only be realised through negotiations and a peace agreement which addresses all the core issues.  We must use whatever influence we have to persuade both sides to return without delay to the negotiating table.

Equally, however, we cannot ignore what is happening on the ground.  The increasingly harsh reality is that a just solution based on two States co-existing in peace and security – the solution in which the international community has invested so heavily over many years -- is close to being extinguished as a viable option if current circumstances on the ground do not quickly alter for the better.

That is why the EU has been so actively pursuing what has come to be called the ‘viability’ agenda over the past year or so. Starting with the Conclusions which we adopted in May of last year, the Foreign Affairs Council has recognised that it is not sufficient merely to underline the need for peace talks.  We need also to address those circumstances on the ground -- and, in particular, the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- which, if not checked soon, will make it virtually impossible to negotiate the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian State.   

The EU must use its undoubted influence to persuade Israel to halt and reverse the worse features of the policies it pursues in occupying the Palestinian territories. Particularly in relation to settlements, we must persuade Israel to change course on a policy which is so blatantly in conflict with international law.  We must encourage both sides to desist from actions on the ground which undermine confidence in each other’s intentions and which damage the environment for successful negotiations.

That is why Ireland is a strong supporter of High Representative Ashton’s laudable initiative to produce EU-wide guidelines on the correct labelling of settlement produce.  I want to repudiate any suggestion that this initiative is in some way prompted by anti-Israeli animus.  On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the correct labelling of settlement produce will actually help to legitimate Israeli exports to Europe by creating greater confidence on the part of the European consumer about what they are purchasing.

It is no secret that I would have no difficulty supporting an EU-wide ban on settlement products entering the EU market, if that could be agreed among partners. However, there is no prospect of such agreement at present.

I believe that the EU must do more to uphold its clear position that settlements are both illegal under international law and constitute probably the major impediment at this stage to a negotiated peace agreement and the realisation of the two-State solution.  Work is continuing on further possible initiatives in this regard, including guidance to European citizens and businesses on the dangers of investing in or financially supporting the settlement project.  The growing threat posed by settler violence is also one which I believe can no longer be ignored by the EU.

Israel is a valued partner of Ireland and of our EU partners.  The trade and economic links between our two countries are strong and I believe will only become stronger over time.  I welcome the fact that one of the achievements of the Irish Presidency is the final signature and implementation of the “Open Skies” agreement between the EU and Israel.

I equally recognise how important security is to Israel.   No European Minister needs to be persuaded about the unacceptable violence which the people of Sderot and other towns in southern Israel have faced for too long from indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza.  Israel should also need no assurance about Europe’s absolute commitment to upholding Israel’s security, including under any peace agreement.

It is precisely because we take Israel’s security so seriously that we in Ireland wish to see rapid progress made towards the goal of peace and the realisation of the two-State solution.   I believe passionately that there is no alternative to the two-state solution and that all our efforts must be directed towards achieving it.

The cold, hard reality is that the current situation is unsustainable.  The occupation cannot continue indefinitely.  It can only do so by depriving Palestinians of their basic rights and extinguishing their legitimate aspirations for a state of their own. Nor is a one-State solution compatible with any vision of a democratic Israel.

Time is not on our side.  Many are increasingly questioning whether the moment has already passed when a viable Palestinian state could be realised.  The ‘window of opportunity’ for progress in the Middle East has been spoken about so often that it has acquired cliché status.  However, many now fear that this time the window really is closing. The EU can, and must, play its part in ensuring that that calamity does not happen.


I would like to conclude by making some brief remarks on Iran.  Through High Representative Ashton and the E3+3, the EU has of course been playing a lead role for some time now in the international efforts being made to resolve the concerns which exist about Iran’s nuclear programme and activities.

No one in the EU or in the international community generally enjoys subjecting Iran to the very heavy sanctions regime which it has been necessary to impose in the past number of years.  It remains very much in Iran’s own power to alter this situation and to create the conditions in which sanctions can begin to be progressively lifted through serious and genuine engagement on Iran’s part in the E3+3 negotiations.   

I sincerely hope that President-elect Rowhani, who has received a clear mandate from the Iranian people, can use both his experience of the nuclear issue and whatever nfluence he has in his new office to encourage Iran to change course and to pursue a more constructive attitude in negotiations.

The E3+3 framework is one which, though the active involvement of the P5, is flexible and robust enough to address not only the very serious issues regarding Iran’s nuclear activities but, in turn, any legitimate concerns Iran has regarding its own security.  

As with the Middle East Peace Process, we have seen negotiations within the E3+3 framework continue for some considerable time without any discernible progress.  We need to see such progress soon.   President-elect Rowhani’s victory has created hopes that Iran may now re-engage seriously in the process.  This is in the Iranians’ own best interests and I very much hope that it will happen – and happen soon.

I thank you again very warmly for this opportunity to address you this morning and I wish you every success with the rest of your important conference.