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Keynote address by Minister Flanagan at DFAT Conference: Representing the Global Island

Keynote Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan TD
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Conference: Representing the Global Island
13 January 2015

It is an honour and a privilege to give a keynote address at this Conference as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I would like to begin by thanking the Taoiseach for appointing me to this coveted Cabinet position last July!

It is a mere six months since I became Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade but it has been something of a whirlwind 27 weeks. From Belfast to Boston, Brussels to Beijing, Oxford to New York, Washington DC to London, Strasbourg to Cairo, Luxembourg to Milan, Yonkers to Ruislip, and, of course, inevitably, back to Belfast again – I have had the opportunity to work closely with many of the Department’s diplomatic, administrative and clerical staff. Without exception, I have been impressed by the dedication, professionalism and genuine sense of patriotism evident in how staff at all levels of the Department, at home and abroad, go about their daily work - whether it is dealing with a difficult consular matter or sitting down with the US Secretary of State.

I am conscious of the modest size of our mission network compared to fellow Member States of comparable size – 60% of Ireland’s offices abroad have only one or two diplomatic officers and, similarly, we have far fewer embassies than other European foreign ministries.

Many of our diplomats work in very challenging environments yet are widely commended by other Governments and missions for their effectiveness and capacity to influence and deliver. I have met many of you and spoken to others over the phone in recent months and, indeed, yesterday and I am pleased to have the opportunity to put faces to names and discuss a wide range of issues with you over the course of this conference.

The pace for my ministry was set on the afternoon of my appointment when I came directly to Iveagh House from Áras an Uachtaráin, having just received my seal of office from President Higgins. The Secretary General, Niall Burgess, and the Second Secretary General, Adrian O’Neill, were standing by ready to brief me on the situation in Northern Ireland on the eve of the twelfth of July, and, that evening, I spoke by phone to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a number of N.I. Executive Party Leaders.

At my appointment, the Taoiseach instructed me to dedicate particular attention to Northern Ireland and, with the help of a dedicated team from my Department and his, along with the support of our Embassy in Washington DC, we did just that, in particular during the period October to December, culminating in the Stormont House Agreement on the eve of Christmas Eve. Our challenge now is to ensure the implementation of that Agreement but this will be a positive task for 2015.

I make these remarks by way of introduction and I will now reflect on where we have come from and the challenges that lie ahead for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The last four years

The global spread of our interests, particularly our economic interests, requires a round-the-clock operation. As we meet this morning, the working day for our offices across Asia is drawing to a close while, in a few short hours, our offices in the Americas will begin their work representing Ireland. Faced with these needs we must make the most of these rare opportunities to take stock of our work as we are doing this week.

The last time this conference took place was at a time of unprecedented challenge for this country. We had lost our economic sovereignty. We had entered an economic programme, commonly referred to as ‘the bailout’. Our international reputation had fallen through the floor. Unemployment had reached 14.5%. Our young people were emigrating again in large numbers. People across this country faced the realisation they would have to make do with less.

This Department was no exception experiencing a budget cut in the order of 30% since 2009 and a 13% reduction in staff.

However, on a positive note we now meet at a time of great opportunity. This country has turned the corner. The recovery which is now taking hold has been hard won. It required a great deal of sacrifice by the Irish people – but the policies pursued by this Government have worked. A comprehensive range of measures, including our annual Action Plan for Jobs, have helped to create thousands of new jobs. Unemployment has fallen every month for 30 consecutive months. Economic growth is strong, exports are increasing and consumer confidence is rebounding.

The task of Government now, at the start of 2015, is to build on the recovery so that its positive effects are felt throughout the country. This year, our number one goal is to create 40,000 more jobs during the next 12 months and reduce the unemployment rate to below 10%. By doing this we will reach the target we set when entering office of 100,000 new jobs. Many talented people have left our shores, many of you here in this room will have met with those young emigrants, indeed I have met some of them myself in your company – we want them to come back – their talents are needed at home and their families and friends want to see them back in Ireland, as, indeed, we all do.

I am proud that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through you, its personnel, has played, and continues to play, an important role in Ireland’s economic recovery. In some respects you have been to the forefront of the change I have referred to. You are the eyes and ears of the Government abroad, influencing outcomes that affect us; navigating international relationships, institutions and business cultures; and managing both risks and opportunities.

In 2011, you were asked by the Taoiseach to take a leading role, in partnership with Government Ministers under the Taoiseach’s leadership, in restoring our place at the heart of the European Union and repairing our international reputation. You took that challenge on with the dedication and professionalism that we have come to expect of you. The professional manner in which you supported Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union – and also role as Chair of the OSCE and on the Human Rights Council - played a very important part in this as did the support provided to Ministers preparing and managing the relentless trade missions that have taken place over the last few years.

You were asked to develop new and more integrated ways of working across government. This has been reflected in the secondment of officials to the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance in support of their critical roles at EU level.

You were asked to place a stronger emphasis on economic diplomacy as this department took on new responsibilities for trade and for the management of the work across government of the Export Trade Council.

I am conscious that these new skills have been “in addition to” rather than “instead of” the traditional skills of diplomacy which remain at the core of everything we do. These skills are founded on a deep understanding of local context, on the importance of gaining trust and building influence – often over years rather than months. New economic skills are important but they must be accompanied by the traditional skills that rely heavily on a feel for language and the role that it can play in building understanding. Success or failure in this world is so often determined by interpersonal skills. To my mind, this is politics but, of course, with a small ‘p’ – like the Taoiseach, I have been a politician for many years, and like the Taoiseach, I grew up in a political household. We are both, therefore, acutely aware of the importance of language and of strong personal and professional relationships in achieving goals and affecting influence – true in a constituency context and also in a national and international context.

I have seen these skills deployed over long weeks and many late nights at the Stormont House talks before Christmas where a good outcome was critically important for this island. I have seen them deployed at the European Union, at the United Nations, during the State Visit to China and in the Middle East. We need to value and protect those skills.

You have met all of the challenges and done so admirably. The importance of the role you continue to play in delivering this Government’s priorities is reflected in the presence with us today of the Taoiseach, Minister Noonan and Minister Bruton and in the fact that Minister Howlin and the Tánaiste will be joining us tomorrow.

But before we look to the future, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, and to Niall Burgess’ predecessor, David Cooney, for the manner in which they addressed these challenges while reducing costs and numbers. Their approach preserved the core skills while protecting and developing the great asset that is our mission network. Their legacy includes the foreign policy review which was initiated in 2013 and which Niall Burgess and I have carried forward.

New global and regional challenges......and old ones too

Indeed, earlier this morning the Taoiseach and I launched that Foreign Policy Review which is the result of a comprehensive consultation across government. It sets out starkly the scope and scale of the challenges that we face. It also sets out a clear statement of our focus, namely: our people, our values, our prosperity and our place in Europe and the world.
The emphasis on our values is timely given the assault on freedom of thought and expression in Paris last week. The attacks in Paris resonated strongly in many countries, including Ireland, where freedom of expression is highly prized and violence is rightly abhorred. Pluralism, tolerance and equality are also essential values and it will be a challenge to prevent the aftermath of these horrific attacks from being reduced to a simplistic binary narrative. As the EU High Repesentative, Federica Mogherini, stated last evening: “This is not a fight between Islam and Europe and the West, it is a fight between terrorism and everyone. President Hollande has set the right tone in his emphasis on national unity and solidarity and these are values I know you, as Ireland’s representatives abroad, will promote and uphold.

Europe faces significant and complex difficulties at this moment in time and the most effective way to overcome these difficulties is by working together in partnership. The centrality of our EU membership to our foreign policy is reflected in HRVP Federica Mogherini’s presence with us in Dublin and her opening address to the conference last evening.

Having restored our Ireland’s position as a committed and fully engaged EU member state, we must now maintain and consolidate that place. Good progress has been made in stabilising the Eurozone and the creation of the Banking Union, but further efforts will be needed to return Europe to stability and growth.

The question of the UK’s relationship with the EU as well as the debate within the UK on devolution will be major issues for Ireland in the period ahead, with strategic implications for our country.

We face complex global challenges which require global solutions. These range from climate change and food security, to human trafficking and the Ebola outbreak.

2015 is a pivotal year in international development, as we negotiate a new global framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals. Development is central element to our foreign policy. Our ambition is to achieve a transformative shift to sustainable development goals, including a commitment to end extreme poverty and hunger by 2030.

We have been asked by the UN to co-facilitate these negotiations, together with Kenya. This is a significant honour for Ireland and recognition of the quality of our aid programme. We will have an opportunity tomorrow to consider these challenges in greater detail with former President Mary Robinson and the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning, Amina Mohammed, tomorrow afternoon.

The Sony hacking starkly revealed both the damage that can be inflicted by a cyber-attack and the complex technical, legal and human rights issues involved in keeping cyberspace open, free and secure.

The rules based international order that we benefit from and uphold is under assault from numerous quarters, by those who do not share our view of a world based on cooperation and consent.

Longstanding challenges remain unresolved and intractable – not least the conflict in the Middle East, while the crisis in Ukraine has shown that we are not immune to instability in our own neighbourhood. I will be visiting both regions in the coming weeks.

We have a long and proud tradition of principled and active engagement in areas such as international development, disarmament, human rights, conflict prevention and UN peacekeeping and the search for peace in the Middle East. We are known for our principled positions and our voice carries integrity and weight as a result. Few countries our size - or many that are larger - can claim such a record.

It seems clear to me that as the challenges to the international order grow, our investment in strengthening these institutions must also be increased.

To bring greater focus and coherence to our work on human rights I intend to establish an Inter-Departmental Committee on Human Rights. As part of our commitment to providing leadership, and to seeking solutions to the challenges facing the global community, Ireland will seek election to the UN Security Council for the period 2021-2022.

Economic opportunities and challenges

Of course the central objective of this government is to build now on the foundations of economic recovery to create new jobs and opportunities including for our young people who have left this country in recent years.

Your role is set out clearly in the foreign policy review and its range is as impressive as it is challenging.

For some of you it will involve helping to remove barriers to trade, investment and mobility, whether in helping to open new markets – for Irish beef in the US and China for example – or in realising the potential that will flow from new EU comprehensive trade and investment agreements.

For some of you it will involve supporting our deepening engagement with new markets – including through the new missions we are establishing in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo and Nairobi.

For most of you, it involves chairing the local market teams and sustaining critical support to the state agencies and helping to build Ireland’s image as a place to visit, invest, do business or be educated. That image is an extraordinary national asset and you are its custodians.
In today’s world, nothing is wholly foreign or entirely domestic. On an ever increasing number of issues, your international engagement an essential element in the work of all Government Departments.

The need for a whole-of government approach is reflected in the programme for this conference and indeed in the way it has been developed. It is collaborative, as never before, a hugely positive development and great credit is due to Niall Burgess in this regard. This across-government approach is a key goal for my ministry – I want to see this Department develop its capacity to coordinate across Government at home and overseas.

Concluding comments

We will spend much time at this conference addressing difficult and complex issues – from global challenges to the regional challenges facing the European Union, while always maintaining focus on the national challenge of reconciliation on this island.
But ultimately all of our work has a clear objective – the well-being of our people and the promotion of our values. I take great pride – we all should – in the priority given to the care and protection of our citizens.

I could cite the work of our colleagues at the Passport Office who have seen their numbers reduced by 10% yet delivered a record number of passports in each of the past two years. In that period costs and waiting times have been reduced while a new passport booklet, one of the most advanced in Europe, has been developed. This innovation is continuing and I look forward to launching a passport card in the near future.

I could cite the dedication of our Embassy team in Cairo and at our consular unit in Dublin in support of Ibrahim Halawa and his family. I could note that this is only one of over 1,600 cases involving Irish citizens that you handled last year.

I could cite the work of our emigrant support programme, of our Embassy in London, and our consulates in the US in support of Irish communities abroad. But instead I might tell a story which illustrates my concluding point.

It is often noted, with pride or with envy – depending on the commentator – that Ireland punches above its weight in international affairs. What is the secret of our success? To my mind, we are fortunate as a people, that most of us possess the common touch. We come from a small island with close ties of kith and kin. We know our neighbours and can trace our family and everyone else’s for generations. We are not inhibited by barriers of class in how we relate to other people at home and abroad. We are at ease with ourselves, good company and easy to relate to.

Growing up, a frequent visitor to my home was the late James Dillon, a colourful and significant political figure, with a stellar capacity to communicate his unique outlook. Maurice Manning’s biography of Dillon describes an incident where, in 1951, while battling illness and at his busiest at the Department of Agriculture, he continued to personally read and answer every letter he received – often replying in great detail. One such letter berated him for allowing monthly fairs in Cahir, Co. Tipperary, which crowded the streets with animals and created a mess which had to be cleaned at considerable cost to the taxpayer.

Dillon’s personal response was thoughtful, honest and eclectic. “In this regulation-ridden world” he wrote, “I have a horror of pushing people about.... Rural life in Ireland has much of tedium in it, and I am convinced that the monthly fair is for many of our people all that the spectacle of the Place de la Concorde for those fortunate enough to have experienced this recurrent delight”.

“My annoyance at trying to drive my car through multitudes of bullocks and their proprietors evaporates in the realisation that in your country and mine there are no uniformed representatives of authority to push people about but rather that on this day they push me and I push them in friendly assertion of exclusive rights which neither of us really have any title to at all.”

“I know this devotion to liberty at the cost of order will not shock you”, he concludes, “but I know you will wish me to give you the facts as I see them”.

What does a cattle fair in Tipperary have to do with diplomacy, you might ask?

Well, it is this. I have referred to it as “the common touch”, but our accessibility to our citizens, our ability to empathise and our eagerness to engage at a human rather than an official level – these qualities exemplify the very best of our public service, whether in politics or diplomacy.

Whether you work at an Embassy or a passport counter, you have that common touch. Value it, protect it and develop it. It sets you apart from so many other foreign ministries.
It will stand us in good stead as prepare for the challenges to come.

Thank you.