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Tánaiste's remarks at IIEA: Ireland and Africa – a rich relationship



Ireland and Africa – a rich relationship


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It is a great pleasure to be here with you today, at this important centre of learning and debate.  The Institute of International and European Affairs has played an important part in the discussion of Ireland’s foreign policy over the past thirty years. However, at this time of potentially great change in Ireland’s place in the world, your thought leadership and the space this institute opens for debate is particular important.

My theme today is the richness of the relationship between Ireland and Africa and the real and exciting possibilities that flow from it.  In exploring this, I am conscious over the last few years there have been many reminders of the interconnectedness of our world, in particular our place in Europe and its neighbourhood, of which Africa is particularly important. 

Africa is a place that is close to my heart, both personally and politically.  I’ve explored it on holidays.  I have visited many countries there in my various Ministerial roles, including as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.  Africa is a place I find both challenging and exciting, a vibrant, growing place, at the centre of our future. The vitality and potential of Africa’s young people is its greatest resource - the reason why the former Ethiopian Prime Minister said to me when we met last November in Addis Ababa that this century is the African century.   

Of course, Ireland and Africa are not strangers to each other – we share a long and complex history of connection and inter-connection.

There are the frequently mentioned touchstones - the contributions of our missionaries, our NGOs, and of course Ireland’s development cooperation programme.  Perhaps sometimes there may be a tendency to imagine our relationships is primarily determined through this prism of solidarity. However, there is much more to our connections that we can and do value.

Ireland and Africa have remained connected over the centuries by the innate Irish desire to travel and migrate to distance lands, often in search of a better life but also there were those motivated to be part of a larger project of justice and solidarity. I am thinking of those women and men who have worked in rural Africa, saving lives and building communities: their commitment to mother and child health has helped many tens of thousands of people and contributed to the development of health care systems in many countries.  And those educators whose work touched the lives of so many. In my visits to Africa as a Minister I am always struck by the number of senior people I meet who have been educated by an Irish teacher, brother or sister.  Often those they educate are not the great and the good, but those most vulnerable. 

Ireland’s experience of colonialism and struggle for self-determination inspired a generation of African national leaders, including Nelson Mandela who recalled in his visit to Ireland in 1990 how inspirational the existence of the Irish State was in encouraging those struggling against Apartheid.  And in turn Mandela has been an inspiration to us, and to many around the world.

It is fitting that tomorrow Kilmainham Gaol sees the opening of an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of Mandela’s birth. The exhibition traces his life from Prisoner to President and, side by side, charts the relationship between Ireland and South Africa.  It documents the solidarity of anti-apartheid years, the role of Kader Asmal, a man we like to claim as one of our own, and others in imagining a new South Africa before it was a reality. 

It reminds us that we established diplomatic relations 25 years ago, opening an Irish Embassy in Pretoria only when the apartheid regime ended, and not before. And it focuses a spotlight on our continuing relationship, through arts, culture, business and investments – both ways – and the enduring people-to-people links that define our relationship with South Africa.   

That solidarity and commitment to principle demonstrated in relation to South Africa is one that continues to define our relationship with Africa. 

In many respects, the scale and diversity of Africa as a continent should prevent us from attempting to talk about it as one place.  Africa is not a country and yet, in our imagination, we often ascribe it the characteristics of one country, much to the frustration Africa’s leading commentators.  Africa is complex, more complex than we can perhaps appreciate – at once prosperous and poor, peaceful and troubled, a place of great potential but with interconnected and cyclical challenges that will take generations to overcome. 

In the decades since independence, we have worked with our African partners to support their post –colonial projects of state building and development.  Over this time, we have witnessed considerable progress in health and education services and in the entrepreneurship of young Africans striking a path towards prosperity.  New challenges have come into focus such as climate change and gender equality where there has been less progress and where urgent action is required if we are to secure a future for the next generation.

Many African governments recognise that the way to change direction and unlock the inherent economic potential in their countries is to build a strong internal market for Africa, and increase intra-Africa trade as a means of creating jobs rich growth.  Currently intra-Africa trade accounts for only 12% of Africa’s total trade – compared to 60% in Western Europe.  There are interesting moves afoot to eliminate barriers to free trade across the continent – a summit in Kigali last March agreed to launch the African Continental Free Trade Area, the largest such area agreed since the formation of the WTO.

Ireland supports this initiative, and through our development cooperation programme and the EU is providing assistance to countries interested in joining, for example through Trade Mark East Africa.  Additionally, our work on the development of value chains, support for smallholder farmers, and building economies of scale is helping communities prepare – in an inclusive way – to take advantage of the coming opportunities.

An example of this is Ireland’s support to potato farmers in Kenya.  The exchange of Irish seed know how is helping increase Kenyan potato yields from 5 tonnes per hectare to something approaching the 60 tonnes per hectare we get here.  Irish storage techniques are helping preserve stocks, allowing investors to look at value addition.  Last month, some Kenyan entrepreneurs were here to meet with potential Irish partners: who knows, Kenyans may yet grow to love Tayto just as much as the Irish!

But it is true, in general terms, that for various reasons our trading relationship with Africa is not as substantial as it is with most other regions or, indeed, as it could and should be. Our history to date is not a limit to our future ambition. As with our political and security relationships, the future of European and African prosperity is inextricably intertwined, and the economies of our continental southern neighbour represent huge potential for job creation and economic growth in Ireland.


I think we have much to learn from each other, not just in terms of trade and resources, but in the sharing of experiences and best practices. I am personally very excited, for example, about the work of our Embassy in Nairobi, which has developed a framework of agri-food cooperation between Ireland and Kenya, which I was proud to launch last November. This approach goes beyond traditional development instruments, and seeks to identify key requirements within the Kenyan agriculture sector which might be met by Irish expertise, and match the two.  And the relationship should be a mutually beneficial one. Indeed, there is much that we in Ireland can learn from our African partners, through a greater understanding of how our common objectives of creating jobs, growing business opportunities and transforming lives are pursued elsewhere.


It is for that reason that I am delighted today to formally announce that the sixth Africa-Ireland Economic Forum will be held in Dublin, on 11 October next.


The Forum, which has been running since 2011, is the centrepiece of Ireland’s economic engagement with the countries of Africa. It provides a unique opportunity to bring businesses, policy-makers and influencers together, to share experiences and best practices, with the aim of building long-lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships.


And that is what we will be doing this year: highlighting to Irish audiences the many and diverse business opportunities that exist across the African continent, and providing the space for companies to come together, face-to-face, strengthening existing relationships and building new ones.


This year we have chosen to focus on two specific, and complementary, topics: the agri-food sector, and women in business. On both of these subjects, I am convinced Irish companies have a wealth of experience to share with their African counterparts.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Ireland’s relationship with Africa has often seemed to focus on English speaking countries, perhaps reflecting the spread of Irish missionaries.  Our Embassies have tended to be concentrated in East and Southern Africa, with many of our NGOs and businesses also active in the same places.  Our knowledge of and engagement with West Africa has tended to be more sporadic, anchored in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone with less attention to Francophone Africa. 

That is something which I hope to change as the Government moves to implement the strategy of doubling our global footprint.  Our Embassy in Abuja will serve as a hub for engaging with and exploring opportunities to deepen bilateral relations with the neighbouring Sahel region.  We are upgrading our office in Liberia to an Embassy.  We need to look to expand our footprint into French speaking West Africa, building on and from our existing relationships.

We want to deepen our relationships with Africa in the context also of the Sustainable Development Goals, which Ireland brokered in the UN in partnership with Kenya.  An important tool which will help us in this endeavour is the Government’s commitment to meeting the UN target of 0.7% of GNI for development cooperation by 2030.  I am working on a new White Paper on international development.  The formal launch of the public consultation process towards that White Paper will be tomorrow, 12 July, and I would encourage anyone with an interest in Ireland’s relations with Africa to make a submission.

Ireland is applying for membership of the African Development Bank, a process now underway. Joining the African Development Bank will see an Irish diplomat posted to the Bank’s headquarters in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire – which I visited a number of years with a large business delegation and found to be extraordinary in opportunity. 

We do this at a time when the EU is looking to deepen its relationship with Africa, something which I believe is essential as we cannot meet the interconnected challenges of our modern world without a more dynamic and deeply cooperative political relationship.  The EU-AU Summit in Abidjan last November was an important moment in this regard. Negotiations will open shortly on a new framework for EU cooperation with Africa, and also Caribbean and Pacific states: getting these negotiations right will allow us to make progress on shared objectives. There is an opportunity in this regard to see how we can strengthen regional organisations and regional integration on the continent, and also how we might build a more effective political dialogue between us. 

Given that Ireland shares with many countries in Africa a lived history and experience of colonialism, and of a struggle for independence, as well as being a latecomer to development, there may be times when we might help bridge gaps in those negotiations.  Also, as an English speaking country at the European table, we may also be able to represent perspectives from our friends in Africa in new and dynamic ways.


Our experience of conflict, of peace, of economic and social transformation inform our long-standing commitment to internationalism, to multilateralism and a rules-based global order, and to the United Nations in particular. This commitment is at the heart of the Government’s decision to campaign for an Irish seat on the UN Security Council.


Our commitment to the UN is more than rhetorical. Over the more than 60 years of our membership we have continuously worked, at no small cost, to ensure that the principles of the UN Charter are upheld, building and sustaining peace and security, human rights and the rule of law, and, in particular, giving a voice to small nations across the world.

And Africa has been a constant part of that work. During our last term on the Security Council, for example, a central focus of our efforts was to foster and support the peace process in Angola. More recently, as I mentioned, Ireland, in partnership with Kenya, helped broker the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals.  These goals, agreed by the entire UN membership, are an agenda for a better world by 2030.  Each country, including Ireland, is encouraged to make progress against the 17 goals.  Ireland’s first voluntary national report, on what we have achieved so far, will be presented to the UN later this month.

Above all, though, I think it is through our role in peacekeeping, that Ireland’s commitment to the United Nations is most evident. It is certainly the area most visible to the general public.

I am very proud of the unbroken record of service of the Irish Defence Forces as UN peacekeepers since 1958. We are Europe’s largest per capita contributor of troops to UN Peacekeeping Operations.  And, again, it forms a central part of our history of engagement with Africa over the past half-century.

Today, Irish peacekeepers are again in the Congo, as part of the MONUSCO mission, and also participate in the MINURSO mission in Western Sahara, and are also in Mali.    And over the past decades, the Defence Forces have served with distinction as part of UN missions across the continent, in countries and situations as diverse as Namibia, Somalia, Liberia and Chad.  Irish military doctors helped in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone.  Irish civilians too work to build peace, including in the Sahel and Libya.

We must recognise, though, that we are not alone in our support to the UN, and our willingness to commit personnel to its work. It is a principle shared by many of our partners across Africa. Indeed, while Ireland lost our first troops as part of a UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, so too did the then newly independent Ghana, as part of the same Mission.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Looking to our future relationship with Africa, it is clear that building peace and prosperity will continue to be a central feature of our engagement, and will drive what I hope will be an ever deeper set of political relationships. 

We must use all available mechanisms to build those relationships: at the UN, through the African Union and regional organisations, and through the European Union, as well as at the bilateral level.  There is nothing like face to face contacts, which I feel are always the most productive. Our dialogue will be, should be, indeed must be, based on mutual respect, on empathy and on an openness to listening and responding to each other’s concerns, as Ireland has always done.

These are the conversations that we need to have, conversations that we will have, in Dublin, in Africa, at Ministerial level, using our Embassies, in multilateral forums.  Conversations which we will have in formal settings but also as friends, over an Ethiopian coffee or an Irish beer.  These conversations will determine the next phases of Ireland’s rich relationship with the countries of Africa.

Thank you