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Address by Minister Flanagan to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Departmental Conference


The Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade, Mr. Charlie Flanagan TD, this morning addressed the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade Departmental Conference at Dublin Castle, attended by  eighty Irish Ambassadors and Consuls General and other senior diplomats. In his remarks, Minister Flanagan highlighted some key aspects of the Department’s work and addressed the challenges facing the Department, most particularly the foreign policy implications for Ireland of the UK referendum result i.e. “Brexit”. 

Address by Mr. Charlie Flanagan TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Departmental Conference,

Dublin Castle, 29th August 2016.


Having met so many of you over the last 19 months at locations ranging from Ulaanbaatar to Liverpool, I am delighted to see you all assembled together, here in Dublin.

In 2011 the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, convened the Heads of Mission, because he recognised and valued the role that you could all play in turning around Ireland’s fortunes and restoring our economy and our reputation from the depths of failure to growth and stability.  You gathered together again 19 months ago at a time when Ireland had entered a different phase – and you were asked to play your part in consolidating and building upon our economic recovery.  Now, at another important moment following the UK referendum and at a time when Ireland and, indeed, the world, is facing many challenges, we are together again, to reflect on events and define the path forward to advance Ireland’s strategic interests around the globe.

It is great also to see familiar faces from Dublin, Limerick and Cork, from all grades and all areas of our work.  We work in some 90 locations around the world and on a very wide spectrum of issues.  But we are one organisation, dedicated to the interests overseas of our citizens and our country and we are the stronger and more effective for these periodic meetings. 

Review of recent developments

Over the past 18 months I have seen a great deal of the important work that you undertake at first hand in places close at hand like Balbriggan and Belfast, in our Embassies and Consulates overseas and in places very far from our Embassies and Consulates. 

Throughout this period I have been continuously impressed by the often extraordinary commitment to the good work undertaken. 

We can rightly take pride in much of what has been achieved since the last conference. 

Much of our discussion then was devoted to the challenges we faced in brokering agreement at the UN on the sustainable development goals.  The agreement that David Donoghue and his team at the UN in New York helped deliver last year (and more recently in relation to migration) reflects the high standards we have set for ourselves over 60 years of UN membership.  Those same standards were on display through our tenure at the UN Human Rights Council, in the visit to Dublin by UNSG Ban Ki Moon, in the programme of events here at home to mark the 60th anniversary of our UN membership and across our development programme, for example in Sierra Leone and Liberia through the Ebola crisis.

We also considered the seemingly immovable obstacles to further political progress in Northern Ireland including parades, flags, paramilitary activities and how to deal with the past.   , I want to acknowledge the team in Dublin, Belfast and Armagh, with strong support from our US and UK missions, played in securing the Fresh Start Agreement last November. 

The American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history after fall of the Berlin wall (though he has since unsurprisingly had reason to change his mind).  And while we certainly haven’t reached the end of history as far as our own peace process is concerned, we continue to make important progress though patience and dedication.  Reconciliation requires diplomacy but it requires stamina and inventiveness in equal measure.  Young diplomats and recent recruits in the room, take note.  This work will require care and attentiveness for a generation or more yet. 

And yet it seems to me that sometimes the most profound progress is that which calls no attention to itself.  Look at this year’s Assembly elections, characterised more by debates on economic and social issues than by constitutional issues.  Or at this summer’s marching season which was one of the most peaceful in political memory.  Northern Ireland continues to grapple with challenges not least the challenges posed by outcome of the UK referendum on EU membership.  But the Irish government remains totally committed to playing a positive and constructive role in the North.

And while a framework has yet to be agreed for dealing with the past, the images of Prince Charles at Mullaghmore last May certainly made a healing contribution, as did the programme of centenary commemorations in which this Department participated in recent months.  Here too new standards were set: in the innovative collaboration between our Embassy in Washington and the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in delivering the Ireland 100 festival; in the community leadership role assumed by the Consulate General in New York in delivering its commemorative programme; in the scale and quality of the engagement through social media and the academic world by the Embassy in London and in numerous innovative collaborations and programmes across the mission network. Closer to home the Rising to Reconciliation event at the Abbey Theatre was an unforgettable evening that used the medium of the arts to chart the journey from the Easter Rising to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.  The Department also assumed in the lead in an event to commemorate the lives of British soldiers who died during the Rising; respecting the diversity of narratives is an important aspect of our commitment to the reconciliation dimension of commemoration.

We spoke about the trade role that had been recently given to this Department as part of the wider government effort to accelerate economic recovery.  Speaking at our last Heads of Mission conference, my colleague, Michael Noonan, asked if we were making the most of the hand dealt to us in this regard?  In the interim, some significant changes have taken place, not least a renaming of the division – the change is subtle but denotes a scaling up of activities.  Our eight new missions, most in high potential markets or regions have become fully operational and they are making a difference.  To give just one example, our trade with Thailand has increased by 300 million euros or 60% since the newly established Embassy opened its doors. 

Relationships with strategic partners have been significantly strengthened with visits by Prime Ministers of China and India (not to mention the US Vice President and Presidents of Germany and France). We have begun the process of recruiting trade attachés, bringing new skills on board.  Of course the local market teams continue to play a central role and to deliver impressive results: in China for example, dairy exports have increased by 20% in the past year making China the second largest export market for dairy produce.

But we shouldn’t overlook the fundamental importance to this economy of the work undertaken by our whole of Government team at the Permanent Representation in Brussels. Their work in recent months – on climate change and the digital single market for example – has been immensely important and positive for our economy. Yesterday’s discussions have given us a sense of the additional challenges which now lie ahead of them.

At our last conference we could already foresee a change in both the scale and complexity of our citizen services, notably our passport and consular services.

This year the passport service will issue close to 100,000 additional passports over last year’s figure.  I want to pay tribute to our colleagues in Mount Street, Balbriggan, Cork, London and across the mission network who have not only managed an enormous workload calmly and efficiently but oversaw the introduction of the new passport card – only the second of its type in the world - virtually without let up for the past year – and have taken significant steps towards combatting fraud and modernising the passport application process.

Last year I quoted a letter from James Dillon to one of his constituents as an example of the common touch and the empathy which characterises the Irish public service at its best.  That empathy was most visible in the response of Philip Grant and his team to the Berkeley tragedy in June last year but it has been quietly evident in the difficult and often distressing consular work undertaken across the mission network. The number of consular cases has increased by over 50% this year but, as everyone in this room knows, statistics are an imperfect metric of the effort invested in ensuring the best care for our citizens. A single case can require care and attention over years as our Embassy in Cairo can testify.

Where our citizens are travelling further, more often and to more dangerous and unpredictable places, these demands will grow.  One of the issues for this conference is whether and how we can maintain these high standards against a background of sharply rising demands and increasingly complex and dangerous operating conditions. Certainly one element in any response must be a greater emphasis on preparation and prevention.

Here too, it is not so much what is done and seen but the work done and not seen which has helped to keep our citizens safe in a much more dangerous consular environment.  The consular support prepared through our Embassy in Paris for the Euros also set new standards, characterised by meticulous crisis planning exercises and by a new diplomatic instrument not foreseen in the Geneva Conventions – the “pop-up consulate”.  And this was accompanied by the launch of the new consular app TravelWise, which is a wonderfully innovative and helpful tool for our citizens – my compliments to Colm O’Conaill and all the project team who delivered this excellent application.

Although thankfully there were no major security incidents during the Euros themselves, the period since our last conference has seen Irish citizens killed, injured and otherwise affected by terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Paris, Nice, Istanbul and Bangkok.

I want to acknowledge the great work of Pat Bourne and his team; their service has been exemplary even in the face of increasingly complex and demanding challenges.

In the meantime too we have worked smartly to extend our leverage and influence, nowhere more so than with our diaspora.  I want to acknowledge the work which Jimmy Deenihan did to develop this and the energy which Joe McHugh is now bringing to this work.  Since we last met we have published our first ever diaspora strategy, hosted a fourth Global Irish Economic Forum, convened community support organisations for the first ever Global Civic Forum, and taken the first steps towards the development of a Global Parliamentary Forum.

I have never understood how diplomacy can be sometimes be characterised as removed from the concerns of most citizens when our work brings us into more contact with more citizens, more frequently, than most public services.  We cannot do enough to address those perceptions and remove the barriers to understanding.  And we have being doing a lot.

Last year, over 8,000 people attended events in Iveagh House.  They included colleagues from other government departments, business networks, universities and interested members of the public, here for lectures or for tours during heritage week.

Two particularly important groups were the transition students, drawn from schools across Ireland, North and South, with measures to ensure schools from disadvantaged areas were represented, who participated in our work at first hand last year and again in April this year.

I hope the Iveagh Scholars initiative will play a part in inspiring our best and brightest to aspire to a career in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  I say this acutely conscious that some of our most well-known and accomplished diplomats are retiring next year.  They will leave big shoes to fill behind them and I hope they will continue to work with the Department informally and, in particular, to share their vast experience and expertise with younger diplomats.

Challenges ahead

So what of the future?  Of course there are multiple challenges arising from the UK referendum result which has, to a large extent, dominated my agenda for the last several months.   Inevitably these challenges are emerging across our discussions this week – yesterday on North South and British Irish relations and on the European Union; today on the future of trade.  I want to focus on this issue in my remaining remarks.

In a very real sense, the UK referendum result brings us all into unchartered waters. It is an immensely significant development and this is reflected in the fact that it features inevitably in most of our policy considerations this week – on North South relations, on the European Union, on the future of trade. 

As a young country we are used to dealing with major shifts in the institutional framework that determines our international engagement.  It happened in 1955 when Ireland joined the United Nations and in 1973 when we joined the European Economic Community.  The Good Friday Agreement provided a fundamentally new framework for managing the three strands of relationships on these islands. 

We are facing now into a challenge of a similar order – one that will reshape the institutional framework in which we as a member of the EU engages with a United Kingdom outside that Union.  The particular challenge we face now is to protect the institutional gains of recent decades, most particularly those of the Good Friday Agreement.  

As we prepare to chart a new course for the future, I want to set out some considerations which I believe must inform our approach.

First, our approach must be firmly anchored in our position as committed member of the EU and to the success of a project that can and should be made more effective and more responsive to the needs of its citizens but has nevertheless been transformative for the better in Ireland.  In mitigating the risks arising from Brexit, we have to be conscious that we face one risk even greater – a diminishing of the EU project itself.  The UK referendum result is one of several major challenges to European cohesion – the challenge of economic recovery and job creation; of public questioning of the EU and its relevance to their concerns; of insecurity within our borders and in our neighbourhood; of developments globally and in our own neighbourhood that challenge our values and test our determination to uphold them.  Addressing these challenges is the business of every member state.  We should play our role to the full.

Second, optimising this role must engage the network of bilateral relations with our European partners. It has often been said that when times were good, governments scaled back their investment in EU business, reducing their presence at the table for issues seen as non-essential. That has not been the case under Enda Kenny’s stewardship as Taoiseach – his Ministers are under clear instruction to, at all times, play an active and constructive role in European affairs.   In this context, I recognise that equally important for the future, perhaps, is our investment in the bilateral relationships that support the understanding and collaboration that allow us to tackle the biggest issues.   The relocation of EU experience to this department from the Department of the Taoiseach will greatly assist this work.  So too will the breadth of our embassy network in Europe which we must use to the full in support of this. The Taoiseach’s recent meetings in Ireland with President Hollande and in Berlin with Chancellor Merkel, the visit last month by Italian FM Gentiloni and tomorrow by the Dutch FM Bert Koenders and the conversations I have had with all of my EU colleagues have to be seen not as a phase of engagement but as a normal and necessary mode of operating; not alone as an opportunity to communicate our concerns but also to listen attentively to our partners.  Our meeting with Foreign Minister Bert Koenders on Wednesday will be an opportunity to do this.

It goes without saying that a successful negotiation requires a keen understanding of the factors at play on the other side of the table.  But it equally requires a keen and empathetic understanding of the concerns on your own side too.  That is an insight as old as the 6th century BC when the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote his treatise on strategy.  But it is easily forgotten.

The third element relates less to Brexit than to the global context in which we operate. Notwithstanding the multiple challenges of managing a British departure from the EU, we should be alert also to the risk that this preoccupation might lower our gaze or reduce our horizons. 

We have always seen our foreign policy reach as a long one, our voice carrying far, our weight greater than our size.  Our stature at the UN is as high as it has ever been over our 60 years of membership. Irish Aid has maintained and in some respects enhanced its status as one of the most effective programmes in the world.  We are acknowledged as a world leader in efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition. We will not allow the mobilisation that will be needed to respond to this Brexit challenge to diminish, however inadvertently, our role as a constructive global player.

This is not solely a matter of promoting our values, though we should never shirk from that.  It is a matter of promoting and protecting our fundamental interests.  The UK referendum has highlighted the importance of enhancing our market diversification.  Of course we will aim to protect our UK market, while protecting our competitive advantage over the UK and I look forward to examining these issues later today.

But we have to ask what more we can do to draw down more of the great potential in mature markets on our doorstep such as Germany and France, on the continent of Africa where we already have a strong mission network, in Asia-Pacific where we have significantly increased our investment, and in Latin America and new and rapidly growing markets such as Iran where our investment is perhaps not equal to our potential. The Secretary General and the Management Board have been examining how the Department best matches these vistas of opportunity with the necessary enabling resources and I look forward to seeing the fruits of this work in the near future.

In conclusion, I want to thank all of you for the work you are doing for the Department and indeed for the citizens of Ireland. Some of it is done in the full glare of the public eye and can be easily badged as diplomacy. A lot of it is done behind the scenes – crafting the PQ replies; making payments to grantee organisations; providing routine consular services to citizens; providing the corporate services that support the work of colleagues in the field; and much more besides. All of it has considerable value; all of it contributes to the overall and exceptional corporate performance of the Department; and all of it makes me proud to be Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Thank you.