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Address by Tánaiste, Departmental Conference, 16 January 2018

Departmental Conference, 16 January 2018


Address by Tánaiste


Thank you, Niall. And welcome home to all colleagues. It’s terrific to have you back with us as we plan for a busy year ahead. I hope you all had relaxing and peaceful Christmases, free from conversations about “sufficient progress”, “restoring institutions” or “global footprints”!


There’ll be plenty of time for all of that over these few days. And it is important that we make this effort to come together as a collective at regular intervals. Technology ensures we are more in touch than ever: by video-conference, by email, by text – the ordinary phone-call has somehow survived too. But there is an abiding need to meet in person, abroad or at home, to get a real feel for the challenges we share. To network, to take stock, to hear new perspectives and glean new ideas. Most fundamentally, to ensure citizens are getting best value for money in how we operate and influence and argue internationally on their behalf.


So, this is a good juncture to take stock – and not only because it is the beginning of the year. We hit a landmark point in the Brexit talks last month, so we are embarking on phase two now with renewed hope for the closest possible EU-UK relationship. We will be working hard in the coming weeks to finally get the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly back up and running. And on a range of issues – from our UN Security Council Campaign to Ireland’s role in the Middle East Peace Process or in Africa – it is vital we don’t simply plough ahead without taking the time to reflect on the direction in which we’re ploughing.


As you can see, my years as Minister for Agriculture still impact on my metaphors…


In terms of the political climate at home, I can assure you that foreign affairs is back at the centre of government and parliamentary life. And that is not only a product of our leadership on Brexit, which I will return to in a minute. It is also a consequence of a Taoiseach who shares my assessment in terms of the importance of the work you do and who is determined to portray Ireland as “an island at the centre of the world”. It is the product of the leadership Helen McEntee has shown in the Future of Europe debate and the gathering realisation that Ireland has to be a sharer and shaper of ideas, rather than just a critic when they land on our desks. And it is the result of the direction provided to our overseas aid team by Ciaran Cannon, as he works with Ruairí (de Burca) and all of our Heads of Mission and other staff in Africa and elsewhere to implement and grow an outstanding Irish Aid programme.


On a range of issues – from Palestine to Yemen and from Catalonia to China – the interest of the Oireachtas continues to surge, as those of you who contribute to parliamentary question replies or Dáil or Seanad speeches will know well. On any given day, half the stories on Morning Ireland will be international or will represent issues that we, and you, in some way, look to shape, influence or gain for Ireland from. And whether it is for the increasingly sophisticated online services offered by our Passport Office, or the outstanding assistance you provide in thousands of consular cases, cross-party appreciation for the work of the staff of this Department has been a regular feature of my period thus far as your Minister. I hope you will return to your postings abroad after this Conference and share my gratitude in this respect with both diplomatic and local staff in your Missions.


It is, of course, on Brexit that we have been most visibly front and centre in recent months and this work will continue – and intensify even – deep into 2018. I want to pay tribute to the teams led at HQ by Rory Montgomery, Fergal Mythen and James Kingston; and to the work of all of our Heads of Mission and teams across Europe – and especially the leadership provided by Declan (Kelleher) and Émer (Deane) in Brussels and Adrian and his team in London. This has been a huge, collective effort to achieve our goals in writing for phase one, with unflinching support from fellow EU Member States and the key institutions throughout. And work has already begun on ensuring these achievements are translated into the Withdrawal Bill which is to be negotiated by October.


Attention is now shifting as to the shape of the future EU-UK relationship. And we have been clear at every point since last summer as to what we wish to see – the closest possible trading relationship, one which sustains the €65 billion in trade across the Irish Sea each year and the 200,000 jobs in Ireland that depend upon it. As the Taoiseach and I have said on numerous occasions, the UK staying in the Single Market and Customs Union – or something very similar – is very much in the interest of businesses across these islands, just as it would clearly be the best solution for Northern Ireland.


Ahead of what will be a critical European Council meeting in March, this debate on whether the UK should opt for a relationship akin to Norway’s with the EU – or a less ambitious trading relationship comparable to Canada’s – that debate is now set to intensify. Across European capitals, I would like you to be making the case that we all stand to gain from the closest possible economic relationship and that we should leave the door open to that possibility for as long as possible. UK positions on a number of Brexit issues have evolved over time and we should not close off the possibility yet of a Brexit which sees the entire UK continue to benefit from rules they helped design to create the world’s richest and most successful free market.


We have been forthright in making this case – and in emphasising the need to protect the Northern Ireland peace process – in recent months. And, over Christmas, there were various newspaper articles saying “well, ok, we got a good outcome in phase one, but what kind of damage has been done to our relationships with London, and with unionists in Northern Ireland, in the process?”


I think this argument has been over-stated, if I’m honest. These are, of course, unusual times for British-Irish relations – we desperately didn’t want Brexit to happen, and would be delighted still if British voters changed their minds. But absent any opportunity to do so, we accept the result and have absolutely prioritised key relationships with the island which will remain our closest neighbour and friend. I had an excellent relationship with James Brokenshire, who I was sorry to see step down last week, and I had a really good meeting with his successor, Karen Bradley, in London on Friday. Towards the end of last year, I was in London for meetings with Philip Hammond and David Davis, as well as Jeremy Corbyn, and then we hosted Boris Johnson for a really substantive engagement in Dublin, however some chose to report it. I’ll be back in London to meet the Chancellor and David Davis in two weeks’ time. So the personal relations are strong, and with the help of Adrian and Don and Gerald and all our great team in London, that’s the direction in which they will continue to evolve. It just won’t be at the price of silence on issues that impact us deeply – and all the politicians I’ve met in London or elsewhere understand and respect that.


In a similar fashion, we should be understanding that in the context of Brexit there will be constituencies in Northern Ireland who view the issues differently. And, to some degree, the seriousness of what was being agreed in phase one of the Brexit talks was always going to bring some of those differences in outlook to the surface. What is important now is that we return to all trying to do our utmost to ensure the peace and relative prosperity which has characterised the last two decades continues long into the future. And there is no better way to ensure that happens than to help restore the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly as soon as possible.


We are marking 20 years this year since the Good Friday Agreement, an achievement so many of your colleagues and former colleagues did so much to help bring about. I want to say we will be “celebrating” this milestone anniversary rather than merely marking it – but it will be hard to celebrate it if the institutions are still in abeyance. The greatest gift we could give the people of Northern Ireland in 2018 is a return to the system of power-sharing which George Mitchell, John Hume, David Trimble and so many others helped piece together that Easter weekend of 1998 and which voters would go on to ratify themselves in such overwhelming numbers.


Decisions in Northern Ireland should be made by representatives elected locally – the people who know the issues best. So I share Karen Bradley’s determination to get these institutions restored as soon as possible on the basis of respect, parity of esteem and sustainability. We came close on this in October – closer than many realised – and I am convinced the ingredients are in place to get this done sooner rather than later. And at this time when governments in Scotland and Wales are making their voices heard on Brexit and other issues, Northern Ireland – which is so affected by everything in play – should certainly not be the region without a voice for any longer.


In terms of our voice, when we have a lot to say on Brexit and on Northern Ireland, the question has been asked – “well, is there bandwidth for more?” I have a very unambiguous answer to that question – absolutely! In fact, I would go further – it is vital, including in the context of building alliances with Nordic, Baltic, Dutch or other like-minded Member States, that we are not defined by Brexit particularly. Ireland has to become an even more articulate, vocal and engaged actor on a broader range of issues if we are to influence the Future of Europe debate and successfully position ourselves internationally as geo-political plates realign.


That is the reason, for instance, why I have made two lengthy visits to the Middle East since taking up office – because I am firmly of the view that Ireland can be right to the forefront in charting a new, more assertive EU role on the Middle East Peace Process. I have discussed this with Federica (Mogherini) on a number of occasions and we have her strong support – we will be discussing where things stand with Palestinian President Abbas in Brussels on Monday and I will be in Paris with my Foreign Minister counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in 3 weeks’ time to discuss how Ireland and France can work together on this. We need to build on shared EU principles and develop a plan of action that can increase EU leverage and pressure to move towards a peaceful and secure two-state solution. We will also be increasing our investment in Palestine, in both Gaza and the West Bank, to provide services, opportunities and hope to a people who have suffered for too long with very little in this regard. And wherever you are in the world, I want you to be conscious that we are looking for a stronger Irish voice on the Middle East Peace Process – and that voice is you, insofar as you can help raise our profile within EU discussions or locally.


Similarly, in Africa, where we have superb aid programmes and an increasing focus on trade, there is also – I believe – scope for us to use our connections and experience in support of closer EU-AU political dialogue. Put simply, neither the frequency nor ambition of current EU discussions with the African Union match the urgency of the shared challenges we face. I had a chance to discuss some of these issues with African counterparts in excellent visits to Ethiopia and Kenya in November, as well as in a range of meetings in New York in September. And I can tell you our frustration is shared by many who feel there is scope for a much stronger political partnership of equals across our continents. As we face into post-Cotonou negotiations, I believe there is opportunity for Ireland to be assertive and articulate and a leader on these issues.


At home, I hope to bring to Government in the coming weeks an outline of our upcoming review of our Irish Aid programme, as well as a pathway towards reaching our longstanding target of 0.7% of Gross National Income going towards ODA by 2030. We are at about 0.3% currently – a long way off, for all that that €707 million is very well invested.  And this may mean new thinking on how Ireland can become a world leader in areas like the education of girls, and agriculture and economic development, to propose just two examples. But together with bilateral partners, with NGOs large and small, and with the multilateral organisations who are strong partners, we should again be ambitious about Ireland and its role in the developing world, as an exemplar, as a partner, and as a country which sees both its values and its interests at stake in what we are seeking to achieve.


All of this is also in the context of our campaign to win a UN Security Council seat for 2021 and 2022, a race we are determined to win. We haven’t been lucky enough to land easy opponents – Canada and Norway, both great friends of Ireland, are also countries of calibre and strong networks in international arenas. But Ireland brings unique strengths and experience to this contest. And we have had a major impact at the UN in recent years. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development would not have been agreed without Ireland at the helm. We were pivotal in securing agreement on the New York Declaration on Migrants and Refugees and in delivering the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Our peacekeeping record – with not a day having passed since 1958 without Irish men or women engaged in UN peace support operations – is second to no-one’s. And there is a broad recognition – as I realised at UNGA in September – that Ireland brings steadfast principles and values to senior UN roles.


So our message is strong and resonates – as with any political campaign, now we need to step up our knocking on doors. We need all of you engaged on this, nailing down promises of votes, taking no reciprocals for granted, exploring new approaches or trade-offs where pledges have not yet been made. And I know you will be doing this not simply because Geraldine (Byrne Nason) and Frank (Smyth) will hound you mercilessly if you don’t. It will also be because you share my conviction that Ireland can be – as it has been before – an independent but authoritative voice on the major political and security issues impacting our world. I will say a little more about this later on.


I am reluctant to talk for so long this afternoon that I disrupt your programme, even if this curtails my ability to speak about many other critical issues for Ireland – our relationships with major powers like the US and China; new trading opportunities in Asia, the Gulf, Africa and the Americas; the agenda in areas where we’re rightly renowned like disarmament and human rights; and the strength of our diaspora and how we harness it to maximum effect. I also know there are issues around how we work that I don’t have time to touch on today but that I was pleased to hear you debated yesterday – issues like how we equip ourselves with the people and technology to do what we do to best effect and – in terms of gender, equality and diversity – how we ensure we, as a Foreign Ministry, better reflect the society we are here to serve.


I wanted to touch on one final issue before I conclude however, and that’s the question of our global footprint. As you saw, we were able to announce the opening of six new Missions in October – new Embassies in Chile and Colombia as we step up our presence in Latin America in a major way; an Embassy in New Zealand, where there is a significant diaspora community and major trade opportunities; and an Embassy in Jordan, a key player in the Middle East Peace Process and a humanitarian hub. We will also open new Consulates in Vancouver and Mumbai, both with very clear trade and business mandates.


But this is only the start of the journey – as the Taoiseach has said, we need to be ambitious and should be aiming to double our footprint if our story of a globalised island at the centre of the world’s commerce is to be sustained. So we need you to remain on the hunt, as always, for new opportunities and offering your best advice as to how our presence can or should grow – or not – in the regions in which you work. There is an inherent compliment about what you do and how you do it in this focus on the advantages to Ireland from increasing the resources available to this Department and our sister state agencies. But I know you are more interested in planning for the future than in dwelling on what’s already been accomplished. And our future, as the only English-speaking country in the EU after 2019, and as that island at the centre of the world, remains ripe with possibility and opportunity.


Enjoy these few days. This Conference should provide an opportunity to tease out some of the biggest policy and operational challenges facing all of us. But a big part of this gathering is also the opportunity to network, catch up and share stories – some, even, of relevance to the issues at hand! I hope you find this to be a productive Conference and I look forward to working with you in 2018.