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Tánaiste’s remarks at launch of book on Frank Aiken

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Launch of ‘Frank Aiken: Nationalist and Internationalist’

Royal Irish Academy, 12 June 2014


Remarks by Eamon Gilmore T.D., Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to see this work published on Frank Aiken. I am particularly pleased that we are joined this evening by Frank’s son, Frank Aiken Jnr., and by other members of the Aiken family.

I will admit that I was a little surprised to be invited to launch this work. It says good things about our politics and our pluralism when the leader of the Labour Party is invited to launch a work on a founder of Fianna Fáil.

But I was honoured too. Aiken is a towering figure in Irish history, intimately connected to many of the defining moments in our twentieth century. For anyone who cares deeply about Ireland’s place in the world, as I do, Frank Aiken is an essential study. 

He bore witness at first hand to the events which gave birth to the Irish state - events whose centenary we will mark in the coming years – and helped shape our country’s path in the decades that followed.

A man who had known the price of conflict at home, as Minister for External Affairs he dedicated himself to the cause of international cooperation and peace.

And yet his record has proven elusive, both in the historical research and in popular memory.

This book corrects that omission, casting new light in each of its chapters on different aspects of his life.

It was a rich and varied life. There are many parts to the man – patriot, politician, international statesman, family man, inventor – and I am sure this collection of essays will prompt some lively discussions.

I would like to touch briefly on one aspect this evening – the statesman with a clear vision of Ireland’s place in the world.

The story of how Aiken and a team of dedicated officials navigated the difficult waters of the Cold War UN to secure a first international commitment to the goal of achieving a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons is well known. The ‘Irish Resolutions’ of 1958-1961 are remembered to this day as both paving the way for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and laying the basis for the world’s nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime today.

In honour of this pioneering role, Aiken was invited to be the first to sign the NPT in 1968. A photograph of that moment is displayed in the lobby of Iveagh House.

Aiken at the United Nations: 1958

In October 1958 Aiken first set out the case for nuclear disarmament at the UN General Assembly. I want to quote briefly from that speech because I think it reveals qualities and insights which remain deeply relevant today as we seek to rebuild our reputation on the world stage and to influence developments in our favour.

The most striking aspect of this speech is Aiken’s pragmatism. Faced with laudable but unrealistic demands for a complete abolition of nuclear weapons, he urged that “as this Assembly, and the great powers represented in it, are unable speedily to abolish nuclear weapons completely, they ought at least to take steps aimed at preventing the threat from becoming even greater”.

Another striking element is his firm commitment to multilateralism; in other words, to a world order governed by rules. The ultimate aim of this work, he said, “must be to foster the gradual evolution of the United Nations towards a system of world government in which disputes between nations will be settled by law based on justice rather than by force”.

The speech also reflects an unwavering commitment to principles – in this case to the principle of equality between nations, notwithstanding disparities in their power. Addressing the argument that a treaty would establish two categories of states, haves and have-nots, Aiken countered: “We are not seeking to establish any principle to the effect that some states shall have the right to these weapons and other states shall not. We are suggesting that the Assembly should ask certain states to refrain, over a given period, from the exercise of a right which they indubitably possess.” His was a principled foreign policy.

Another aspect is Aiken’s foresight, his ability to imagine the consequences of actions not taken, as he cautioned that “nothing except international measures to prevent the dissemination of such weapons can prevent them from coming, ultimately, not merely to small and poor states but also to revolutionary organisations”. “We must remain alert” he said, “to what is happening in a changing world”.

The Foreign Policy Review

Last October, I initiated a review of our foreign policy. I did so conscious of this fact - that we must, in Frank Aiken’s words, remain alert to what is happening in a changing world and be prepared to respond to it.

In the period since then, there has been a wide-ranging process of consultation, involving Government Departments, State Agencies, business organisations, and members of the public. A total of 208 submissions were received during the public consultation exercise. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Joint Committee on EU Affairs and the Joint Committee on Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has contributed.

The outcome of the review will be a policy document setting out the core objectives of Ireland’s foreign policy and to communicate clearly the purpose and value of their foreign policy.

That review will be considered by Government and published shortly. It is a review which is still inspired by the spirit and work of Frank Aiken, and I want to take this opportunity to set out some of themes which have emerged, the factors most likely to impact on our well-being over the coming years and the priority areas for Ireland’s foreign policy.

Two notable themes in the foreign policy review

The first significant theme in the foreign policy review theme is change.

Ireland’s foreign policy has always been about managing a changing world. It was a changing world which Frank Aiken and his officials set out to influence in the 1950s.

But change now comes faster and is less predictable than ever.

I see at first hand the changes that are re-shaping our world:

  • a fast-changing global economy driven by the accelerating pace of technological advances;
  • the rise to global prominence of Asian, Latin American and African countries;
  • security threats posed by non-state actors operating across borders; and
  • the emergence of individuals and networks of citizens as global actors.

As one of the most globalised economies in the world, Ireland is particularly exposed to these changes – to their benefits as well as to the risks that come with them.

The societies which will prosper most against this background are those which position themselves to anticipate change, to prepare for it and to respond to it.

A second theme is that we are uniquely well placed to prosper in this emerging globalised world.

Through globalisation, our economy has been transformed. We are now the first, second or third most globalised economy in the world, depending on which survey you read.

Our resilience has been severely tested and proven: We are all too aware of the changes which have been wrought by the economic and financial crisis. Yet Irish people have been steadfast in their commitment to making the changes necessary to return our country to economic growth and recovery.

We have an extraordinary ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles: this is nowhere better demonstrated than in our peace process which has not only brought immeasurable social and economic benefits but has enhanced our reputation as builders of peace.

We are already part of a global family, a great diaspora and an invaluable asset.

And in a world where diversity is rewarded, we are home now to a growing diaspora community drawn from many countries. Many are opting to become citizens of Ireland, bringing their talents, energy and experience to bear in the life of our nation.

Setting out Ireland’s interests

The consultations have highlighted a number of factors likely to exercise a disproportionate impact on our prosperity and our well-being over the coming years and where we have a critical interest.

The first is the progress we can make towards a fully reconciled society in Northern Ireland. The peace process is arguably our greatest national asset and one that we have a profound duty to nurture and develop. North South cooperation, virtually non-existent fifteen years ago, is now a fundamental part of the work of every government department, bringing economic and social benefits which are, frankly, incalculable. But while the benefits are enormous, there are risks too – risks that ground gained may be lost; that ambition may fade or that opportunities may not be seized. We have never faced these challenges alone. The international support which has helped bring our island so far along the road to reconciliation must be sustained – now and for some time to come.

The second is the degree to which we can maintain and develop a strong, responsible and effective European Union. The benefits which have flowed from our wider European partnership are so fundamental to our economic and social well-being as to be inseparable from it. The European Union is the single greatest factor underpinning peace and stability in Europe and in our neighbourhood. We protect and advance our national economic interest through Europe. Through the EU, our voice on the world stage is greatly amplified. Ireland, working in Europe is a global player of a wholly different order. We cannot and should not take these benefits for granted. The governance of the EU has always benefited from vigilance and questioning, and even some healthy scepticism. But I am concerned that many of those sceptical voices now raised around Europe are not aimed at improving but rather at dismantling what has been achieved. We should be alert to this danger.

The third interest is in a rules-based international order with effective institutions for global governance. This is a basic objective of our foreign policy, unchanged from that articulated by Frank Aiken. Throughout my year as a public representative, I have sought to encourage a spirit of responsible citizenship. I firmly believe in the shared responsibility of all to shape a better society.

I believe this is particularly important at the international level, where it is not only the right, but also the responsibility of all nations to contribute to the functioning of the global order.

There has always been a strong internationalist impulse - a tradition of service - to Ireland’s engagement on the world stage. Aiken’s legacy is a powerful example. But even before the foundation of the state we can see that humanitarian impulse in Roger Casement’s work in the Congo and in Peru. We see it in Seán MacBride, another of my predecessors, who was instrumental in founding the Council of Europe. We see it, also, in Seán Lester, the Irish diplomat who became the last Secretary General of the League of Nations and handed over to today’s UN. It is a tradition that continues today, with Mary Robinson’s service as Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for the Great Lakes region.

The same tradition is reflected in our international service as a nation – from our peacekeepers and our aid workers, to the work during our recent EU Presidency and our Chairmanship-in-Office of the OSCE, to our service today on the Human Rights Council.

Internationalism is woven through the fabric of our foreign policy, based on a simple conviction: that we have a responsibility to be active as part of the global community.

A fourth interest is the strength of our international reputation.

In his speech in 1958, Aiken touched on the issue. To those who argued that restraint in the development of weapons would entail a loss of prestige, Aiken said: “We think that argument is based on a false idea of how ....the good opinion of mankind – is likely to be won today.” Those who act “in the interests of peace......will win the admiration of mankind, and their influence will be greater, not less, by reason of their wise example”.

I have been conscious that as we worked to rebuild our economic reputation, our standing remained high in many other respects. Through our culture, we have a reputation and a visibility that remained undamaged, undiminished. Our national day gives us a global platform that is truly unique – and of course no other country has the virtual copyright on a colour as we do on green.

Irish values in the world

But our reputation rests firmly on our values too, and on the way these are reflected in our foreign policy: - in our commitment to the world’s poorest, to the reduction of hunger and to a fairer world through Ireland’s international development policy; in our work for a more just world through our engagement on human rights; in our work for a more peaceful world through our commitment to peace-keeping, disarmament and conflict resolution; in our work for a sustainable world through our engagement on issues such as climate change.

I am proud that, despite the unprecedented challenges of recent years, we have maintained strong cross-party support in the Oireachtas for Ireland’s development aid programme, which remains firmly focused on some of the poorest countries and communities in Africa. This support reflects the solidarity of the Irish people with those less fortunate than ourselves. It reflects a real sense of global citizenship and responsibility. And it recognises that in our world today, the gap between national and common interest has narrowed, if not disappeared entirely. It has been recognised internationally that we have protected our aid programme over the past three years and that we have focused it rigorously on delivering results in the fight against global poverty and hunger. This achievement is worthwhile in its own terms, and it gives us real influence internationally.

Over the past eighteen months in particular, Ireland has played a leading role within the European Union and at the United Nations in the work to develop and agree a new framework for sustainable development after 2015 and the Millennium Development Goals. We will continue to prioritise this work, with a view to agreement at the United Nations next year on a new transformative global agenda – an agenda which will include the now credible objective of ending extreme poverty and hunger in a generation. It is an obligation of which I believe Frank Aiken would have been proud.

Economic Diplomacy Matters

Samuel Johnson once cautioned that “a man should keep his friendship in constant repair”. Our experience of the financial crisis has proven the value of investing in relationships with each of our EU partners, irrespective of their size, and with the European Institutions. In my experience, there is no substitute for having a direct channel on the ground, able to go in and argue for Ireland.

This is equally true elsewhere in the world. Strong bilateral relationships underpin our ability to pursue our objectives in multilateral settings, and our ability to pursue our trade, tourism and investment goals.

While Europe and North America are an important focus for these efforts, there is also a need to deepen our investment in emerging markets in Asia, Africa and South America.

Recognising this fact, I recommended to Government earlier this year that we expand our embassy network, with an emphasis on increasing our representation in Asia, Africa and the Americas in particular.

Those relationships matter and they are growing. Frank Aiken’s commitment to the equality of nations underlay his strong commitment to the admission of China to the United Nations. Keeping people out just because you don’t agree with them, he said, would have kept Saint Patrick out of Ireland.

In three days time, Liu Yunshun will be the third senior Chinese representative to visit Ireland since 2012. His visit follows the significant visit of Xi Jinping to Ireland in 2012, who was confirmed as President of China in 2013. This visit was followed by Vice Premier Ma Kai in late 2013. It is a good time therefore to recall that relations between Ireland and China, strong, flourishing and vital, have their origins in part in principled steps taken and supported over 50 years ago by Frank Aiken.

The promotion of our trade, tourism, education and investment is an essential function of our foreign relations, and of the work of the State agencies and the Department, including the embassy network.

That network is a national asset, promoting our values, supporting our business, providing services to our people and standing up for our interests. Promoting Ireland is a round-the-clock operation, reflecting the global nature of our economy, our outlook, our culture and our people.

As we gather here this evening, at the end of the working day in Europe, our embassies and consulates in the Americas are at work supporting Irish business, pursuing our interests and values and building relationships. In a few hours, our embassies across Asia will begin their working day.

We also need to influence discussions in places where Ireland is not present. More issues which affect our interests are now addressed by groups of countries outside the main multilateral organisations, in formats such as the G8 and G20, a trend the global financial crisis has accelerated.

A whole of government approach to foreign relations

The challenges that have faced us in Government – placing the country’s finances on a sound basis; rebuilding our banking system; negotiating a successful exit from the EU/IMF Programme and a return to the markets; growing our exports to boost recovery and create jobs at home; returning Ireland to a place of influence at the heart of the European Union; and restoring our good name abroad; securing and developing the benefits of our peace process – all required extensive external engagement.

It is no different with the great challenges facing us in the future such as managing climate change, energy flows and migration.

There is no aspect of government that does not have a significant external dimension in this increasingly complex and interconnected world. Foreign affairs cannot be boxed off or dealt with discretely. I believe that external relations must be at the heart of government. Our well-being and prosperity depend on it.

Good governments think and act internationally, across government. As we continue to modernise our public service and our structures for government, we must find ways of reflecting this.


Aiken’s accomplishments at the UN illustrate a fundamental point: that small countries do exert real influence on the world stage.

Now more than ever, we need to be thoughtful and imaginative about how we exert influence and where we do so.

At its core, that is about exerting influence to promote our values, ensure our prosperity, and providing the best for our people.

The means by which we achieve these goals need to be continuously reviewed and updated. That is what the Foreign Policy Review sets out to do.

Roddy Doyle, born the same year that Aiken made his speech to the UN General Assembly, set out the case in a particularly striking way.

"When you grow up on an island," he said, "what matters is how you stand to the sea".