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Opening Address by Minister Flanagan at the RIA’s annual International Affairs Conference

Opening Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan TD., at the Royal Irish Academy’s annual International Affairs Conference

Identity and Values in Irish Foreign Policy
Monday, 30 May 2016

President and Members of the Royal Irish Academy, Delegates

Good morning to you all. It is a pleasure to join you here this morning in the elegant surrounds of the library of the Royal Irish Academy. I want to thank Prof Mary Daly, President of the Academy, for her very warm words of introduction.

When I received the invitation to open this conference some time ago, I was delighted to accept. Of course, the vagaries of political life meant that the organisers had to wait until very recently for confirmation that I would in fact be able to join you. So let me assure you that I mean it most sincerely when I say what a genuine pleasure it is to be here today!

In addition to this conference, I know that today marks the launch of the 26th edition of the RIA Journal, Irish Studies in International Affairs. My congratulations to all involved in the production of this fine publication, which is indispensable reading for all who are interested in international relations. I am sorry that I won’t be able to join you at this evening’s launch in Iveagh House, but I know that my Secretary-General, Niall Burgess, is very much looking forward to hosting the launch on my behalf.

This is the first time that I have had the honour as Minister to open the RIA’s International Affairs Conference, but I know that this has been a staple engagement for a number of my predecessors over many years. Past conferences have focused on important regional or cross-cutting themes of foreign policy and international relations. Today’s event upholds that tradition by examining two concepts which are key to foreign policy in the 21st century: identity and values.

Looking down through the programme for this conference, we see examples of how identity and values lie at the heart of a wide spectrum of themes and issues of foreign policy. You will hear today about the values that lie at the heart of Irish UN peacekeeping and our approach to the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

You will learn more about the role of identity in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, and how national identities interact with security practice in the EU. The experience of humanitarianism and the dilemmas of interventionism will be explored. And a roundtable of experts will close the conference with what I am sure will prove a spirited exchange on how identity and values are reshaping foreign policy in the 21st century.

To kick today’s proceedings off, I would like to offer some personal reflections on the role that identity and values have played in shaping Ireland’s foreign policy, and how they continue to influence our efforts to meet the challenges facing the international community in a time of rapid change.

Historical context

For us in Ireland, identity and values are integral to how we engage with the world. They represent a common thread which runs through our foreign policy from the foundation of the State. And they can be traced back much further to earlier times in our island story.

But for the centenary year that is in it, it is perhaps appropriate to begin by acknowledging how the 1916 proclamation links our identity as Irish men and women to values such as equal rights and equal opportunities and religious and civil liberty. For the Irish people, inheritors of a proud but often troubled history, it was natural that these values should find expression in the foreign poIicy of our young small state, allied to an advocacy of peace and justice founded on a rules based international order. These core principles lay at the heart of Ireland’s commitment to the League of Nations and later the United Nations, and our support for human rights, disarmament, peacekeeping and development.

I believe that those same principles remain as central to Irish foreign policy today, as at any time since the foundation of the state.

The American writer George Packer described principles in the context of foreign policy as “a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances but not compromised away”

Today, the task we face is to adapt an Irish foreign policy based on these essential values to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

A world in flux

In 2014, my Department, initially under the leadership of former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and later myself, engaged in a root and branch examination of Irish foreign policy, assessing our priorities and capabilities against the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing world.

We did so in the shadow of an economic collapse unprecedented in modern times.

We did so at a time of enormous political upheaval and renewed international insecurity.

Consider that, in addition to the severe economic impact of the international financial crisis, we have seen, in the last few years alone:

- The rise of new transnational security challenges, including threats in cyber space, health security threats and deadly new forms of terrorism, exemplified by the appalling slaughter in Paris and Brussels in recent months

- A new crisis in Ukraine, and Russian actions which have posed a significant threat to the post-war international order

- The hopes raised and dashed in the Arab Spring, with increased conflict and destabilisation across the Middle East and North Africa spurring the largest movement of refugees since the second world war

- The gravest refugee and migration crisis to face Europe since 1945, which has helped to drive the number of people displaced worldwide to an all-time high, and has presented an unprecedented challenge to the capacity and cohesion of the European Union

More broadly, we are living through an era of enormous and complex societal change, driven in part by the rise of social media which connects people and ideas, and which poses new challenges for the relationship between government and the citizen.

This is a picture of a world in flux, at once more interconnected than ever before, but characterised too by increasing fragmentation at state level, and by a growing atomisation of society.

Responding to the challenge: The Global Island

For those of us engaged in Irish foreign policy, the challenge is to better understand and interpret this uncertain world, and to shape our foreign policy accordingly to reflect the enduring values of the Irish people and best serve their interests.

We recognise that our security, our prosperity and the wellbeing of our people are connected to the wider world as never before.

Today, nothing is entirely foreign or wholly domestic. The issue of a potential Brexit for example encompasses a range of domestic and foreign policy concerns.

Our foreign policy is therefore more important to the Irish people now than at any time in our history.

Through it, we safeguard our peace, security and economic prosperity, and promote reconciliation and cooperation at home. At its core are the protection of Irish citizens and the promotion of our values abroad.

These goals are central to the statement of our foreign policy priorities which the Taoiseach and I launched last year: the first such statement in almost two decades.

Titled “The Global Island”, it offers a progressive and forward looking vision of our foreign policy and our place in the world, and calls us to realise this vision through both our bilateral diplomacy, and our active engagement as members of the European Union, the United Nations and other multilateral organisations.

With a focus on our people, it rededicates us to the work of pursuing peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. It underlines our commitment to support Irish citizens travelling, working and living abroad. And it prioritises further development of our engagement with our global diaspora, and the promotion of Irish culture abroad.

Building on our enhanced emphasis on economic diplomacy during the years of economic crisis, the statement directly connects the national and global efforts in support of recovery, growth and job creation. Our global efforts to safeguard our prosperity will prioritise in particular the promotion of trade, tourism, education and investment, and the continued enhancement of Ireland’s reputation abroad.

And directly addressing our values, it declares our principled support for a fairer, more just, sustainable and secure world, and sets out how we will undertake to deliver on these principles, including through our development programme and our human rights, peacekeeping and security policies.

Values and Interests in today’s Irish Foreign Policy

It is perhaps unsurprising in a time of such transformative change and challenge that there are many in the world of foreign policy who see a fundamental tension between the pursuit of interests and the promotion of values. There have been some interesting discussions in this context at European Union level, as the EU considers its own future strategy in the area of foreign and security policy for the coming five years.

I acknowledge that the external challenges facing both Ireland and the European Union present us at times with very difficult choices. In making difficult decisions, I believe that it is important to always remain mindful of both our values and our interests. Even where there are tensions between the two, we cannot lose sight of who we are and what we stand for.

With this mind, from an Irish perspective, I do not subscribe to a binary “either/or” view of values and interests.

For there is a great deal of commonality between Ireland’s values and our interests.

As a small state, we are instinctively sympathetic to the problems faced by those whose size, situation or history leaves them relatively powerless; as well as those who are afflicted by poverty or prone to natural disasters. This can be seen in our approach to issues of justice and human rights; and in our strong commitment to development and humanitarian aid for least developed and disaster and conflict afflicted countries.

This is an expression of our solidarity, but as a small state, we also have a strong interest in working for the maintenance of a rules based international order, based on human rights, justice and development for all. A multilateral rules based international order is our best guarantee of security, independence and freedom.

And if our prosperity relies on our ability to export goods and services, this in turn depends on the security and predictability of agreed multilateral rules, and on conflict prevention and resolution. The economic wellbeing of our trading partners, on whom we as a trading nation rely for our own prosperity, also depends on global security and stability.

If in an increasingly globalised and interdependent world, Ireland is “a small cork bobbing on an open sea”, we must do all that we can to help ensure that the sea remains as calm as possible.

Irish people are deservedly proud of our tradition of principled engagement on issues such as peacekeeping, development, human rights and disarmament. Such engagement is more important now than ever before, and it will remain an integral part of our foreign policy and a distinctive element of our contribution to international relations.

Because Ireland’s foreign policy is more than the sum of its engagements with the outside world. It is also a clear statement of who we are as a people.


Our challenge is to ensure that the values which matter to us inform our decision making in the area of international relations, as elsewhere. This is a difficult challenge for all foreign policy decision makers, and I freely acknowledge that we are not talking about a counsel of perfection.

More than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of his admiration for “the man in the arena who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming”. Today’s leaders find themselves in a global arena, facing a world of complex problems in which there sometimes appears to be no good choices, no evident right option.

Recently, after more than seven years in office dealing with complex international crises, President Obama offered these candid personal reflections on his experience of the role of values and interests in foreign policy decision making:

“We should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values, because not only do they serve our interests…but because it makes the world a better place….Having said that, I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hard-headed at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognise that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it…”

The world is assuredly a tough and complicated place, on whose problems we must bring both the head and the heart to bear. As a bighearted people with the intelligence, skills and experience to ‘pick and choose our spots’, I believe that Ireland can continue to shine a spotlight where it is needed and to work with other wherever possible, to solve our mutual problems. That is who we are as a people. That is our identity. Those are our values.

Thank you for listening, and I wish you all a very enjoyable conference.