Speech by Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin at UCC Lecture Series

Published on: 23 November 2015

Thank you for your invitation to contribute to this lecture series.  The Department of Government here in UCC has for many years played a positive role in national debate.  This is all the more important because there are unfortunately increasingly few places where the most important public issues are given substantive consideration.  This is a time when spin and storytelling have come to dominate and there is little space for the type of exchanges which are needed to recognise, understand and seriously address big issues.

There is no doubt that this is a moment of deep uncertainty and new challenges in international relations.  In many areas consensus built up following the end of the Second World War and the Cold War has disappeared or is under threat.  Institutions which have been at the core of bi-lateral and multi-lateral engagement have been undermined and are proving ineffective in the face of rising tensions.  Many principles which we once took for granted are under severe pressure.  An era once giddily defined by the possibilities opened up by globalisation and the reduced importance of borders is now also confronted with rising nationalist and religious extremism together with a loss of faith in international cooperation.

In response to this there has not only been a failure of leadership, more importantly there has been a failure to acknowledge the breadth and scale of the problems.

This is in many ways a new age of uncertainty in international relations.  We can take little or nothing for granted.  For Ireland the challenge is how shall we react?  Shall we be active participants or bystanders?  Will we engage the big issues or will we withdraw and simply accept whatever emerges?

I have no doubt that Ireland can and indeed must be an active and influential contributor to debate.  We have the ability to help set new directions and support new agreements which show our citizens the tangible benefit of strong international relations.  On vital issues of peace and economic governance we have a valuable role to play.

Our size and relatively peripheral location do not imply that we can opt-out of debate.  In fact the opposite is the case.  The great bulk of economic and social objectives to which we aspire as a state can only be achieved if we participate in a functioning international system.  If we want to have high standards of living and to share a world defined by peace and security we have to be outward looking and we have to give a real priority to policy in this field.

I think you can group the major challenges for Ireland into four broad areas.  They involve relations with our nearest neighbour, the need for reform in Europe, the threat of conflict in and on the borders of Europe and broader global instability.  This of course includes regional extremism which now has the ability to spread terror on a global basis.

Each of these broad areas has social and economic dimensions and addressing them fits within what I believe is the best tradition of Irish foreign policy.

Before getting into the detail I would like to briefly make a point about what I believe is a consistent and still relevant thread through Ireland’s engagement with the world.  While we have been neutral in terms of military alliances we have never withdrawn from the world and we have had an important impact in promoting respect, assistance and communication between nations.

A very important starting point for this tradition will next year mark its centenary.  The Proclamation of 1916 is a remarkable document if you set it in terms of the spirit of those times and the century which followed it.  It is a testament of republican nationalism, yet unlike many such documents produced during nationalist struggles it promotes the idea of mutual respect and peace between nations.  It explicitly rejects a narrow and exclusive idea of Irish nationalism by offering a place and recognition to people of different traditions.  It also recognises the rights of women to full participation in public life.

It is not by accident that the revolutionary generation of 1916 was profoundly internationalist when it came to power – it was part of their motivation.  This is why when you reach the 1930s they reject the growing extreme nationalism of other countries.  Under the leadership of Eamon de Valera, the most senior surviving officer from 1916 and very much a cultural nationalist, Ireland worked hard to support international bodies such as the League of Nations and International Labour Organisation.  While much of the world was retreating to a very dark period of politics Ireland adopted a constitution which explicitly bound the state to respect international law and seek peaceful relations with others.  Bunreacht na hÉireann of course also included specific legal protection for the rights of minorities at a time when the exact opposite was happening elsewhere.

This tradition continued and the last period when the 1916 generation held high office marked a dramatic opening up of Ireland to the world and a renewed commitment to positive international relations.  Seán Lemass, who fought in the GPO as a 16 year old who got in by lying about his age, created a new era in Irish/British and North/South relations.  He also committed Ireland to a future as part of a new European community of nations today called the European Union.  His foreign Minister, Frank Aiken, a major figure in the War of Independence, is still remembered internationally for his tireless work on behalf of international organisations, particularly the United Nations, as part of a commitment by Ireland to make them constructive forces for stability at a time where the cold war threatened a catastrophic conflict.

And the respect and influence which Ireland has won because of its positive role in international relations is clear to see.  In a very recent example, in 2010 the member states of the OSCE, agreed unanimously to ask Ireland to take the chairmanship of that organisation for 2012.

The history of the foreign policy of our revolutionary generation still matters because it shows that the true Irish republican tradition is not an aggressive inward-looking nationalism.  It does not see itself as standing apart from others.  It sees a commitment to international law and effective international bodies as an enabler of sovereignty not as a threat to it.

As a nation and as a state we have progressed when there has been an international community which works constructive together – agreeing limitations on unilateral actions and rejection the ‘zero sum’ model of negotiation.

In almost every country in Europe there has been a rise in extreme nationalism.  This has distorted debate and paralysed bodies which we desperately need to be dynamic and forward thinking.  At all costs Ireland needs to avoid this trap.  It would cause potentially enormous to our interests if we marginalise ourselves with the sort of destructive approach to international relations seen elsewhere.

And just in case anyone is being complacent, it is worth looking at recent debates in Dáil Éireann and voting in the European Parliament.  There you find that we now have a significant minority who are absolutely consistent in an approach which is the direct opposite of the best traditions of Irish international relations.  This is a matter which is too political to go into in a forum such as this, but it is important for people to realise that there is a division in our politics in relation to international policies which deserves a much greater attention.  For example, we have four MEPs who believe that Europe and the United States are more to blame for Russia’s invasion and partition of Ukraine than Russia itself is.  In a situation like this it can no longer be said that we have even a mild consensus on foreign policy.

Ireland’s place in the world since the start of our independence revolution has been to promote solidarity between nations and strong international organisations.  Now more than ever these should be our guiding principles.

As I have said I believe that there are four broad areas which we need to consider when reviewing what Ireland wants and needs to achieve international relations.  I will leave the area of relations with our nearest neighbour to the end as our approach to this relationship has to be seen in the context of our broader perspective.  For example, our approach to Brexit has to be formed in light of what we want the European Union to be able to do.

Since Seán Lemass lodged our application to join what is now the European Union the most intense and important set of international relations which we have is with the other members of the Union.  The Union, for all its flaws, remains an organisation founded on noble principles.  Its core purpose must always be the creation of a shared future of peace and progress for European states.

Even after a long and profound recession, living standards and the population in our country would be nowhere near where they are today without our membership of the Union.  The one and only sustainable future for us is one where we can trade with major markets on a level playing field which guarantees fair competition and protects vital social rights.  Europe’s critics in Ireland have never come close to offering a long-term alternative.  Were we to be outside the Union we would inevitably lose market access and face irresistible pressure to compete by undermining pay and working conditions.  On top of this we would have no way of attracting the type on inward investment which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs.

This has to be said because first of all we do have a significant political element which opposes all EU treaties and membership.  More importantly, we have to remember first how much the Union matters before we can give the required attention to seeking a Union which works better.

Working for a reform of the working of the European Union must be an absolute priority in our foreign policy.  This applies to both its formal powers and the more informal dimension of how states treat each other.

There is now a near absolute consensus that at the core of the Eurozone crisis and the continued high levels of unemployment and poor working conditions are major flaws in the powers and policies of the Union.  Most of the bailouts, including Ireland’s, would not have required if these flaws had been acknowledged and addressed.  While these flaws relate mainly to the Eurozone, they are not exclusive to it.

Ireland’s policy to date has been to push for as little change as possible.  In the negotiations before the adoption of the very-limited Fiscal Treaty the only publicly revealed negotiating demand of Ireland was that whatever might emerge not require a referendum in Ireland.

Instead we should at least have been supporting those who have proposed a more meaningful set of reforms.

Ireland and Europe need a genuine banking union which can avoid the sort of contagion which caused so much damage here and elsewhere.  What has emerged is at best a half measure – and this is one which is already under threat by pushes for delays and opt-outs.  Families and small businesses throughout this country and in other countries are experiencing every day the pressure which comes from having a banking system which is not underpinned by comprehensive, cross-currency union policies.

We also need the European Union to be able to assist regions which suffer major shocks on a short and long-term basis.  This happens as a matter of course in America, for example, where states are responsible for dealing with their own fiscal problems, but automatic transfers from the federal level play a huge role in helping states to stabilise and return to growth.

We should support a significantly larger European budget.  Unfortunately we’re actually going in the opposite direction.  The budget agreed under our presidency represents a cutting of the Union’s budget.  At a time when the Union is getting more and more of the blame for failing to help, its budget is less than 1% of the size of Europe’s economy.

Ireland would most likely not be a short-term beneficiary of such an enhanced fiscal dimension, but we would absolutely benefit from being part of a Union which had the capacity to tackle slumps and avoid dramatic economic adjustment with their enormous social cost.

This is obviously not something which could happen immediately, but it could be reflected in long-term policies and it should be a part of our bi-lateral discussions with other European states.

This raises the issue of how the Union operates on a more informal level.

With the 2004 enlargement the Union completely moved away from its traditional reliance on informal contacts between leaders and ministers.  At its current size it is no longer possible to have consistent memberships and close relations across the Council and the ministerial councils.  At a European Parliament level, the development of strong cross-Union relations has become increasingly difficult.

One of the great strengths of the Union in the past was how representatives of smaller nations could have a disproportionate influence and could develop strong relations with a majority of colleagues.  In the new situation there is a growing tendency for small groups dominated by the largest member states to meet separately and downgrade the importance of the collective discussion.  This is not sustainable.  If it keeps going in the present manner it will cause considerable damage to the public legitimacy of the Union’s activities.

Donald Tusk has tried to reverse this drift since assuming the Presidency of the Council, but much more needs to be done by individual countries.  The most important thing which is required is for countries to put more effort into bilateral connections.  I suspect that today there are actually fewer bilateral visits outside of Council meetings than there were when the Union was much smaller.

During my time as a member of the Foreign and General Affairs Councils I saw how important building personal connections.  David Miliband of Britain, Bernard Kuchner of France and Radek Sikorsky of Poland, for example, were consistently friendly towards Ireland and open to hearing from us on broader international issues.

In practical terms I think we need to fully embrace the larger Union and to give the development of a broader range of bilateral relations a higher priority.

If we want to secure our role and influence in Europe we can’t just focus on the centre, we have to expand our focus.

Quite simply we do not have enough people working for us in other countries.  Our diplomats and experts working in embassies and offices throughout the Union do immense work on our behalf, but we need more of them and we need to give a greater priority to the work which they do.  Outside of our diplomats and our investment and trade officials, we need to deepen our relations with other countries on specific issues.

Our agriculture representatives deliver a huge return through their building of contacts and development of expertise.  We should be doing much more in this field and in others.

For example, to sustain and build on our success in science and research we need to invest more in our relations with researchers and innovators throughout Europe – an also to develop contacts at government level.  Where we have done this it has been a huge success.  However it is difficult to see how we can reach our targets for research funding or how we can win the recognition our researchers deserve without increasing the number of people working on building our international relationships.

Culture has always been central to our influence in the world.  We can’t let our cultural impact be increasingly limited to promoting events.  There is a huge return to Ireland for supporting cultural exchange and Irish-focused cultural programmes in other countries.  Every embassy has a long list of activities which would strengthen Ireland’s standing as an admired country were funding available.  The retrenchment in this area in recent years has gone too far.  Ireland’s strongest calling card is a combination of its cultural vitality and its innovative spirit.  We need to invest in this or we will lose this standing.

Many countries saw the expanded competencies of the European Union and the doubling of its size as signalling a move away from the important of bi-lateral relations.  I think the lesson of the complex, flawed and often divisive policy debates of recent years is that these bilateral relations are actually more important than ever.

If we are to secure Ireland’s influence within our most important international commitment then we have to be active advocates for a more ambitious reform of the Union in general and the Eurozone in particular.  And we also have to be willing to provide a larger and broader personnel commitment to our bilateral contacts with fellow member states if the Union.

Conflict on Europe’s Borders
Following the end of Cold War and the overthrow of repressive regimes in nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe there was a core understanding that the cause of peace and prosperity required the expansion of the European Union.  I believe that this has been a great benefit and it has been central to securing democracy and civil rights in many countries.

In terms of the new borders of the Union the situation was always complicated.  However the neighbourhood policy was a positive development and one which Ireland was a strong voice in support of.

Today it is not possible to ignore the fact that there is conflict on the European Union’s borders and the biggest reason for this is opposition to the idea of countries being allowed to decide their own destiny.  In fact, for the first time there is major country actively sponsoring extremism within Europe and seeking to split the Union.  As one of the earliest beneficiaries of enlargement and a country which has one of the world’s longest records of uninterrupted constitutional democracy, this has to be a major concern for Ireland.

In retrospect the attack by Russia on Georgia in 2008 should have been a much more profound wake-up call for us all.  The cause of that conflict was purely and simply the desire of a former imperial master to retain a veto over the actions of another state.

Georgia was invaded and partitioned because it wanted to assert its internationally recognised independence and unity.  Since then the ethnic cleansing of two of its regions has been completed and Russia has embedded its military within sovereign Georgian territory.

This is the sort of behaviour last seen in Europe in 1968 and unprecedented for a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory of various rights declarations.

What has happened to Ukraine in the last 2 years must be a defining moment for international relations.  This is a country which became one of only two in history to give up nuclear weapons and did so, on the basis of a treaty where Russia promised to respect its international borders.  It is also a country where the people were actively working to overthrow a corrupt and deeply undemocratic government.

This is behaviour which no democratic state should be silent about yet there were enormous pressures within the Union to do nothing – and these same forces are today lobbying for such action as was agreed to be rescinded.

Ultimately what this comes down to is whether or not Europe is to stand for any values.  Do we believe that democracy and human rights should be protected or not?  Should everything come down to a short-term calculation about energy and defence deals?  This is the same issue as our handling of humanitarian issues which I will come to.

This may be the defining debate in relation to the international policy of Europe at the moment and for the foreseeable future.  And it is also has important implications for the ability of the Union to work.

The efforts by Russia to undermine the Baltic states have been aggressive and threatening.  As a small state which had to struggle for its own independence against a powerful neighbour we must stand with them against the attempt to re-impose the dominance of the strong over the weaker.

The funding of extremist and anti-Union parties by Russia also cannot be ignored.  The money which has flowed to neo-Fascist parties in France, Greece and Hungary is not a side issue it is illustrative of a wider agenda of undermining a Union the effective working of which is profoundly in our national interest.

Ireland has largely been a by-stander in discussing the growing threat to the European Union on its borders – this is not sustainable.  We should stand with those who insist that Europe has a right to support and protect democracy.

This is likely to become a domestic political issue here as Dáil debates show that there are significant voices in Dáil Éireann who believe that Europe has no right to extend membership and trade benefits to countries if Russia is against it.  These voices believe that supporting democracy in Ukraine is an aggressive act.

We should become more active participants in efforts such as the European Endowment for Democracy.  We need to end the policy of playing both sides on the energy debate and reverse the decision to downplay a sustained and ambitious effort to tackle climate change.  And we also need to work against the marginalising and undermining of the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

The Council has a noble history in asserting the values of human rights in Europe even in the toughest days of the Cold War.  It was the most important moving force in the abolition of the death penalty in Europe and the challenging of torture.  Increasingly some members have worked to undermine the Council’s effectiveness.  It’s time for national leaders to pay attention to the Council of Europe and support those who want it to be true to its history.

Ireland in the Wider World
Europe and its immediate neighbourhood must necessarily be a focus for Ireland but we also have a positive and important role to play in the wider world – particularly as an advocate on multi-lateral cooperation and strong international institutions.  We must be advocates for core humanitarian values and supporters of efforts to bring peace to regions suffering from conflict.

There is a huge issue in terms of the undermining of the effectiveness of key international institutions and the growing timidity in the face of massive humanitarian crises.

We can’t be naïve enough to believe that we can solve the world’s problems, but we have a constructive role to play just as we have done in the past.  Our central role in the development and adoption of non-proliferation resolutions at the United Nations should always be a source of national pride.  This approach has continued, with the treaty on cluster bombs adopted in 2008 a recent confirmation of the positive role we can play in world affairs.

Where we see an issue of concern developing, or more importantly a humanitarian crisis emerging, we have a duty to speak up and to work constructively for a resolution.

The recent refugee crisis is the inevitable outcome of a failure of international cooperation and a limited commitment to humanitarian aid.

The millions who have fled their homes in Syria do not want to be refugees in camps on the border of their homeland or anywhere else in the world – they want to live in their own homes, in their communities, in their own country.

Over two years ago it became clear that what was unravelling was a humanitarian disaster unprecedented for decades.  The refugee camps provided shelter but little else.  No schools, no jobs and no future – so of course people have left in search of a better life.

Every part of the international community failed to react, it isn’t just Europe.

I think Ireland is right to stand with those who advocate solidarity in dealing with the refugee crisis.  Equally we must understand the wider principle that you have to intervene to help before things reach a crisis level.  That means supporting a dramatic increase in the scale and quality of humanitarian aid for displaced people and a support for active conflict resolution policies.

It is unfortunate that the issue of refugees has been linked to the rise of fundamentalist terrorism.  The principal victims of ISIS are Muslims in the Middle East.  We cannot let them destroy the thing which should Europe should value most – our shared commitment to humanitarian values.

And we have more reason than most to oppose the idea that you can label all because of the actions of the extremes.  The Provisional IRA’s bloody and illegitimate campaign of terror was not waged with the consent or support of the Irish people and thankfully there we only very few who labelled all Irish people as terrorists.

There have to be resolute steps taken to destroy the new terror networks wherever they appear.  There can be no middle ground on the need to challenge and defeat the extreme evil which ISIS, Al Qaeda and similar groups represent.  And they can only be defeated if countries cooperate intensively and permanently.

The situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories is not the cause of fundamentalist terror in the region.  To say it is serves only to downplay the responsibility of the terror groups.  However the broader situation should not stop countries speaking up for the need for a peace settlement and respect for the rights and needs of innocent victims.

When I visited Gaza in 2009 I saw first-hand the horrendous conditions people are forced to live in there.  I have no truck with Hamas.  They are an extreme group which has no interest in reaching a peaceful settlement.  However the world cannot stand by and see the people of Gaza suffer in this way.

Our role as international peacekeepers is one we must remain committed to.  So too our tradition of generous and active involvement in international development.

In terms of the wider world Ireland has a positive contribution to make.  Our history shows that we can have an impact when we speak up and show commitment to an issue, particularly when working on behalf of oppressed peoples.

We must never lose this important aspect of our international relations.

Relations with Britain
Our engagement with our closest neighbour will continue to be our most important international relationship.  I believe it is a relationship which we need to renew so as to prevent it being one based more on formality than substance.

We have enormous unfinished business in relation to building a lasting peace and meaningful reconciliation on this island which can only be addressed through active work by both governments.

The drift and growing sectarianism which has defined the peace process in recent years has at its core a decision by Dublin and London to step back from the type of active engagement which defined the work of previous governments.  It’s impossible to miss the fact that there has been no momentum whatsoever in relation to a range of key issues following the decision of the Taoiseach and Prime Minister to reduce their involvement in the process.

There are no obvious disputes between the governments but there does appear to be a greater formality in relations and a lack of a common agenda.

The possibility that Britain may vote to leave the European Union within two years is one of the most immediate and pressing international issues for Ireland.  I believe that this is far more complex than has been acknowledged.

First of all there is the issue that the British Tory vision of a Europe which concentrates on free trade and steps back from its work on other areas is the exact opposite of what would serve Ireland’s interests.  We want a more effective and active Eurozone.  We should support budgets which can help countries at times of economic crisis.  We rely on common rules for decent employment conditions to give us the ability to avoid a socially destructive race to the bottom.

It has yet to be seen what the actual final demand of Britain is.  The devil surely is in the detail.

If it is a deal which does not require treaty changes then it is unlikely to involve a significant move away from policies we support and, therefore, it will be a price worth paying to secure Britain’s membership of the Union.

Were the final deal to be serious enough to require a treaty change then it is quite likely that it will involve measures which Ireland has previously opposed, such as the watering down of basic employment rules.  You could then end up in the situation where Ireland is faced with a referendum on whether or not this is still a price worth paying for keeping Britain in the Union.

Should the referendum in Britain result in a decision to leave the European Union we will face a much more complicated set of choices.  Firstly there is the issue of what the ongoing relations are between Britain and the rest of Europe.  Membership has to carry some benefits, so the idea that Britain would retain everything it likes and lose everything it doesn’t isn’t credible.

There is also the likelihood that an overall vote to leave will be accompanied by a vote to stay in Scotland at very least, and possibly also in Wales and Northern Ireland.  It’s difficult to see how the United Kingdom could remain intact in such a circumstance.

Under every possible scenario we need to maintain strong relations with the other governments on these islands – however many there may be.  We should seek to protect the common travel arrangements and the mutual recognition of broader social, economic and politic rights which we extend to each other’s citizens at the moment.

The decision on remaining or leaving is one for the voters in their referendum – but we need to have a much deeper engagement with the issues involved and to understand that we have choices to make too.  At a minimum we should understand the need for strong relationships in London and with the devolved administrations.  We must be ready for whatever happens.

Ireland’s role in the world
As I have said throughout this lecture I believe Ireland should and must play an active role in a range of international forums.  The international issues which concern us are becoming more complex and they cannot be addressed by taking a passive approach.

We must increase our commitment to building relations within the European Union.

We must stand up for the values of democracy and freedom on Europe’s borders and stand with smaller states which are threatened.

We must renew our commitment to supporting the cause of peace and humanitarian aid in the wider world.

For our closest and most important international relationship we have to understand the need to broaden and deepen our connections so that we are ready for all developments.

Ireland has a lot to be proud of in its foreign policy as an independent republic.  The tradition established by our revolutionary generation represents an outward-looking approach which sees nations as active partners not as threatening enemies.

This is a tradition which has achieved a lot for our country and one which I believe we must continue to renew.

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