We keep being told that all resources are being marshalled to deal with Brexit, described as the greatest political and economic change to face Ireland since its independence. Whatever about the distractions of our Ministers in their ‘new politics’ arrangement, we are told that being the scenes our officials, diplomats and overseas agencies are busy working to get the best deal for Ireland and ‘special case’ consideration in relation to the North.
If this is the case why is Ireland wasting valuable diplomatic resources, energy and expertise in seeking a seat at the UN Security Council when Brexit looms? And why are we sending our most EU experienced diplomats to the US just when they are most needed in Europe?
In the now obligatory re-shuffle of Ambassadors, the Government has decided to move two key officials with valuable and recent knowledge out of crucial EU posts and send them to the United States, apparently to help Ireland secure the trophy election of a two year term on the UN Security Council.
The two Ambassadors are Geraldine Byrne Nason who is moving from Paris to the UN in New York, and Dan Mulhall who is moving from London to Washington DC.
This is a crazy disruption when we need all the contacts and goodwill we can muster in Europe, and the UK. Paris is now the second most important EU capital, after Berlin, and London is very obviously the epicenter of Brexit negotiations and British-Irish relations.
But it is not just these diplomats experience of their current postings. Before London, Dan Mulhall was based in Berlin and was in the now de facto ‘Capital of Europe’ for our crash/bailout period. Indeed, I met him there and was struck by the deceptive calm of that still ghostly city, suddenly so powerful. But it was far from calm for Mulhall (below) who hosted a stream of Irish Ministers making the Irish case. Dan is a learned, outgoing diplomat – and a poet – and he tirelessly charmed on our behalf, just as he did more recently in the UK.
Bear in mind that diplomats are not like politicians, and absorbed Ministers, who come and go. They are seasoned officials who are continuously on the ground, building up contacts and invaluable experience – and which we pay for, with public money, at considerable expense.
Likewise, Byrne Nason (pictured below). She was seconded from the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Department of An Taoiseach for the whole bailout/Troika period and was at then Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore’s shoulder when he was dealing almost daily with Brussels and the IMF. Now she’s off to New York. It is a well deserved change but is it best value for Ireland just when we need an envoy who knows Paris inside out? Byrne Nason had previously been our OECD representative in Paris
And what is the point of this UN campaign anyway. The days of Ireland having some distinct foreign policy – in tandem with our neutrality and UN Blue Helmets experience – is long gone. We are an EU member, attached firmly to a First World perspective, and all the crucial decisions at the UN Security Council are, in these fractious times, now entirely in the hands of the Permanent Five – or Permanent 3, more like, which means the big bruisers of America, Russia and China.
The Security Council has 15 members – five are permanent (the victors of World War 2, basically : they also have the power of veto) and the other ten are voted on, on a regional basis for two year terms. These are often very small countries and their election is a matter of great pride to their Governments, but rarely to their populations who usually unaware of their diplomat’s achievements.
And, increasingly, this is the case with Ireland. I wrote here in 2012 about how Ireland’s selection to the UN Human Rights Council, a seperate body, was met with almost utter indifference by the Irish public. Indeed, Gilmore, and overseas aids activists, told us that such foreign participation enhanced Ireland’s global reputation and helped investment. But this is wishful baloney. How could the two be connected?
The world is a changed place and raw economics – and regional power blocs – trump the ageing vanities of individual countries pursuing ‘national prestige’ in the multilateral sphere. Which is why Brexit is so important: it affects our everyday lives and the physical borders of our State and country.
So why aren’t we throwing the diplomatic sink at it ? After all, not only will these diplomats be diverted to the UN campaign. So will all Irish diplomats and embassies, for the Security Council campaign is international and requires exhaustive canvassing and cajolery. Wouldn’t it be better to be use this legendary Irish networking to make our case on Brexit?
But crucially, we should ask: who makes these decisions about our personnel ? Is it the Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan? Or the Cabinet and Government.? Or, more likely, is it the mandarins of Iveagh House who continue to believe in their ‘generalist’ civil service approach and the necessary rotation of important individuals from experienced posts because that is what they have always done, and no one has ever questioned this ?
It certainly seems at odds with the mantra that we constantly hear from Government, and its pliant officialdom, that all resources, expertise and focus are going into our preparation for Brexit.
Former Irish Ambassador Ray Bassett has recently been making waves by describing an almost Stepford Wives obedience within our foreign ministry (and thus our unquestioning Government) to long established views on Brussels and Irish foreign policy. Perhaps the same goes for long established procedures on postings, re-shuffles and appointments.
How else can we explain extracting the extraction of such important personnel – and resources – at this crucial time?.