Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Review of Foreign Affairs Policy and External Relations: Discussion

4:00 pm

Mr. Noel Dorr:

I thank you, Chairman, and the committee for inviting me here this afternoon. I have already circulated a statement to the committee to which I will speak.

I confess that, initially, I had some hesitation about speaking at length about the affairs of a Department where I served for most of my career. However it is now some considerable time since I retired and, as I no longer have any direct connection with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I speak here entirely as an individual and on my own behalf. I begin by welcoming the announcement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade of a review of Irish foreign policy. I note that he has said he will take account of a series of other reviews. A foreign policy review nearly 20 years after the White Paper of the mid-1990s is timely and I hope it will help to build public understanding and support for our foreign policy. Ireland’s foreign policy today is diverse and multifaceted. It extends well beyond the area of work of my former Department. Through our membership of the European Union and other bodies, the Taoiseach and other Ministers are deeply involved in foreign policy. However, I hope members will understand if I focus to a great extent on the area of work of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his Department.

Most books on international relations are written from the viewpoint of larger States. They discuss the international system in terms of power, such as shifting interests and power relations, the balance of power and deterrence. I have always thought that smaller countries, especially those with a history such as ours, draw on a very different kind of experience. We are not necessarily more moral, although we might like to think so, but the concern of smaller countries like ours is less with power or so-called power projection than with stability, order, justice and the rule of law in the international system. That underlying concern has characterised our foreign relations since the foundation of the State. The policy of any state will naturally be greatly influenced by its geographic situation, its economy, its history and the character and outlook of its people. Ireland is a small, independent and democratic state in western Europe and is a committed member of the European Union. We are an open trading country. We are not members of an alliance. We have a particular sense of our own history. We are situated in a prosperous region and despite the considerable difficulties caused by the severe recession of recent years we remain relatively prosperous by comparison with most other states in the world. All of this sets the broad background for our approach to international affairs.

This still leaves a considerable margin for decisions as to the kind of policies we pursue. By way of a very general summary of my own views, I believe that Irish foreign policy ought to be directed to promoting the interests, concerns and values of our people – I stress concerns and values as well as interests. With due regard to our size, population and relative prosperity, Ireland should act responsibly as a State in every way we can whether directly or through organisations such as the United Nations to promote peace, order, justice and human rights in a troubled world. I do not wish to see Ireland join a military alliance of any kind but I think our membership of the European Union is vital to us and we should be willing to work with other member states towards closer union. I will develop these points in more detail as I proceed.

My submission sets out a brief survey of the international scene but, in the interest of brevity, I will simply touch on some of the issues mentioned. The failure to construct the new order which we had hoped for in the 1990s is regrettable. War and conflict continue in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and a dreadful civil war is being fought in Syria. There is something of a split in Islam in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni. In regard to the Israeli-Palestine problem, it is difficult to be hopeful but we may hope that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, will make progress. A more hopeful development has been the cautious movement towards dialogue between the United States and other western countries and Iran. Members will be aware of this topic given that they have been to Iran in recent days.

In the Pacific region there is contention between China and Japan over certain islands. This could be dangerous if the contention was to develop further. In Africa, there is considerable conflict. The fall of Gaddafi in Libya has released arms and fighters, who have spread elsewhere. A worrying growth of Islamic fundamentalism can be observed across Mali, Central African Republic, Southern Sudan and northern Nigeria. Issues arising at a global level include the continuing growth of world population, pressures on resources, poverty and the dangers and instabilities posed by climate change. I have not even touched on economic issues or on the current crisis of the international financial system which continues to cause serious problems.

As to specific issues in our foreign relations I must necessarily be selective. There are five in particular which I would like to touch on briefly. The first is Northern Ireland and the related but much broader issue of Anglo-Irish relations. An unhappy consequence of the settlement of 1921 which led to the foundation of this State was that certain issues were bottled up in Northern Ireland. These included the relations between Nationalist and Unionist communities and the relationship between the two islands on the narrower ground of Northern Ireland. Unionists remained fearful about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the differences which arose from time to time about how best to respond to the conflict had the effect of holding back and sometimes disrupting what would otherwise be a close, warm and neighbourly Anglo-Irish relationship. As these issues touched on the security and in some ways on the very identity of the State, they involved the Taoiseach and all Members of Government. Happily today, the fundamental issues have been resolved. The conditions for any possible future change have been agreed and institutions have been put in place to promote co-operation between parties within Northern Ireland, between North and South in Ireland and between Britain and Ireland. Most importantly, the settlement reached has been ratified by the people in simultaneous referenda. These structures are working and they have been ratified symbolically by the Queen's visit to Ireland and, no doubt, will be given further impetus by the President’s visit to London. This is enormous progress.

However, outstanding problems include sectarianism and the small number of dissidents who cannot count on deep support but can cause significant trouble. Those of us who worked for a resolution of the problem of Northern Ireland in different ways and places had always hoped that once the deep causes of conflict had been removed or diminished, the politics of the area would no longer be a zero-sum game and that the political parties in Northern Ireland would find it possible to work together towards a shared future and not just a shared out future. While I am too far removed from events to speak definitively, there is reason to be disappointed about the slow progress towards this goal thus far. The competing narratives about the past are still in contention and the Haass-O’Sullivan talks have not yet succeeded. It will be necessary for the two Governments to continue to follow closely what is happening and to contribute in any way they can towards a settlement of outstanding issues.

The second issue is the European Union, which is of such central importance to us that our EU membership is best seen as the over-arching framework or horizon within which many other foreign and domestic policy choices are now made. It is regrettable that we have come to associate the Union with austerity as much as with solidarity but we should remind ourselves of what the EU is and why we want to be part of it. The EU originated in an idea by far sighted European leaders in the 1950s, and the then Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, was also far sighted in his decision in 1961 that Ireland should apply for membership. However, the European Union of today is not just the creation of those early leaders. It is the work of generations of leaders of different political outlooks, who worked first in western Europe and later in the continent as a whole over more than 60 years. In the 40 years since we joined in 1973, Ireland has played a full part in the creation of this Union. It is not something over there; it is our Union which we helped to build. What has emerged is an organic growth, shaped according to what was politically and economically feasible at various times over more than six decades. It involves a pooling of sovereignty in specified areas by 28 States based on the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The legal order it has established applies to citizens as well as to member states. This Union of states and peoples is something quite new in international life. It is a structure which accommodates a creative tension between the direct national interests which member states naturally pursue and the more generous ideal which the very concept of the Union represents.

I am aware that what I have been saying may appear rhetorical or idealistic. It has been difficult to detect much vision in the response of the Union to the economic and financial crisis of recent times. What we now see too often is apparent disarray and lack of solidarity and in Ireland we tend to see the troika as imposing austerity rather than as a body through which EU institutions were fully represented and which was prepared to help us with funding when we could not raise funds elsewhere. At this time of low morale in the Union, it is important to remind ourselves of what it is we have created together in Europe. In June 2014 it will be 100 years since two shots fired in Sarajevo started a chain of events which included the carnage of two World Wars and the frozen hostilities of nearly half a century of Cold War. I do not know whether the European Union, as distinct from individual member states, is planning to commemorate this event but I suggest that we need an EU event of particular significance in this centenary year to remind us of our dark past and to point out the contrast between a millennium or more of warfare and the Europe of today, a continent which, notwithstanding its economic and financial difficulties, is democratic, committed to human rights and at peace with itself for the first time in its history.

I am not saying we should be starry-eyed in our approach. There will be a tension at times between our national policies and EU commitments. We should argue our case forcefully and always work for agreement, because if there is agreement the EU can carry great weight in international negotiations. We have generally found that member states are flexible and willing to accommodate national positions where vital interests are at stake.

These are likely to be testing times for the EU. There has been progress about the financial and banking crisis but the result and effects of what we have gone through have tended to divide the union and weakened the solidarity that was characteristic of an earlier time and from which we have benefited. The concept of free movement is being questioned in some countries because of migration from eastern European countries. New parties have taken an essentially disruptive approach and they could do well in the European Parliament elections. There is the significant issue of what the UK will do regarding its membership of the EU. Even the lead-up to the proposed referendum there could cause difficulties because of the need to negotiate and the question of how far we should go to accommodate the UK's remaining in the EU and worries that we might diminish the fabric we have created in the Union.

While Oireachtas committees have done a great deal of good, we probably need better scrutiny of European legislation. I sometimes wonder if the Seanad, which we have voted to retain, might not have a role. Perhaps there could also be a revision of the system of election and nomination and something done to bring in expertise. We seem to always need to have referenda because of decisions of the Supreme Court. That is difficult when dealing with a treaty which can be necessarily complex. It is healthy too that people have a feeling of ownership of our Constitution and that they are asked to discuss and debate our membership every so often. If and when there is a new treaty I would like there to be a clear explanatory memorandum, of the kind that we get with Irish draft legislation, drafted by the secretariat of the Council, the legal services, and perhaps even approved by the European Court, which would have authority to say in plainer language what the treaty means.

On security and defence, I do not wish Ireland to join NATO or any military alliance. If that is what neutrality means, I am all for it. However it would be healthy if we had more of a debate about the content and meaning of neutrality. It is not helpful to understand neutrality solely in terms of the Hague Convention of 1907, although some aspects are relevant. We have commitments under the UN Charter. We have to impose sanctions if the Security Council so decides and, in principle, we could be called on to provide troops if the Security Council decided on enforcement action. That has not happened in practice and is unlikely but is there as a principle. In 1946 Eamon de Valera, in proposing to the Dáil that we join the UN, brought out very clearly what we were committing ourselves to. We have also the commitment to the common foreign and security policy of the EU, which has been endorsed in successive referenda. The Irish people are proud of what the Irish Defence Forces have done in so many peacekeeing operations under the aegis of the EU and otherwise and would want it to continue. I doubt if all these activities would be seen by the old-fashioned statesmen of the late 19th century as compatible with the kind of neutrality they were talking about in 1907.

I understand the triple lock, I sympathise with it and it is important to have the legitimacy of the UN mandate, but I sometimes wonder if the way we have tied ourselves into that might not be loosened just a little. It is possible to imagine that where there is a block in the Security Council, but where everybody here thinks a contribution to an EU peacekeeping operation would be desirable, we could have a rule that it would require a two-thirds majority in the Dáil. A two-thirds majority would be substantial. Without being facetious, Article 28.3.1o seems to envisage that a simple majority in the Dáil could allow the State to declare war. God forbid that we should ever come to that.

There is strong public support for the United Nations. The UN is a product of a war time alliance and was originally intended to maintain the alliance and enforce the peace in the post-war years. The record is very patchy because the Security Council was divided for nearly half a century. The UN has grown into something very different. It is now a universal organisation of states, the first in history. It brings some degree of order and is the nearest thing we have to an international authority in a world which would otherwise be anarchic. We have a network of specialised agencies around the UN. We have conventions and agreements on human rights which the member states which have ratified them regard as binding. We have UN peacekeeping operations. Above all we have the UN Charter, a core document of international law, a code of conduct for relations between states, which they all accept even if they do not always observe.

Ireland has always been committed to that kind of international organisation. On 11 April 1919, before the League of Nations was established, the first Dáil passed a resolution declaring Ireland’s readiness to enter a world League of Nations and accept the responsibilities that went with it. We have played our part in the Security Council, the Human Rights Council and through our Defence Forces.

We have a review of Irish aid and international development from last year and it is very important. The Tánaiste has said he will take account of that in the review of foreign policy. It might be asked why, at a time when Ireland has to borrow to fund a deficit, we should run a development aid programme at all. There are several answers one might give. By comparison with much of the world we are still quite prosperous. When we were poorer, in the 1950s and earlier, the altruism and emotional sympathy of the Irish public was channelled into missionary and educational effort across the world. That same kind of feeling finds an outlet in voluntary aid agencies and our Government's international development programme. The public wants that to continue. We have chosen not to end the deficit all in one go but to try to carry on the normal functions of government such as welfare, education and so on. We should also try to maintain our attempts to try to alleviate the absolute poverty in certain areas. I do not need to dwell on all this because it is dealt with in this document, One World, One Future, which I highly commend.

I refer to our embassies, foreign services and economic interests. Although I am no longer connected with foreign affairs, I am slightly biased because I spent my career there, so I was glad to hear members of the committee and the Tánaiste say nice things about some of our embassies. The name of the Department of Foreign Affairs and this committee have been extended to include trade, and that is right and good and I hope a good deal is being done in that area. However, our economic interests go beyond trade and our embassies can do much more in other economic areas. Our embassy in Washington will always be very active if issues arise on Capitol Hill, taxation or otherwise, which affect our interests. From personal experience I know our embassies provide facilities and status sometimes for events hosted by the IDA or exporters. That is a broader aspect.

Our embassies do work in the EU countries in following events, economic developments and positions of governments in their countries and reporting home, which all goes into helping our Ministers when they come to the Council where those same governments are represented. Our embassies have done much to restore Ireland's reputation over the past few years. It has been quiet work under the direction of the Government in their respective countries. The detailed work of an embassy will depend on the nature and character of the state to which it is accredited. In an authoritarian country with a very state-directed system it may be necessary to use the embassy as such. In a country such as the UK or the US, exporters often prefer to do their own thing but can get encouragement from the embassy.

I should like to conclude because I have gone a little over time but I would like to give some general reflections since this is a year when we look back to events in 1914 which, first, ended an era and second, after two world wars and a prolonged cold war, led to the very different world we live in today. Before 1914 a small number of European powers, through their colonies, ruled a large part of the world – by one estimate more than half its surface area and half its population. The principle of self-determination worked out through the 20th century has turned this into a world of approximately 200 territorial states, each insisting on its own sovereignty. We have a network of relatively weak international institutions designed to promote co-operation but no overall authority which might impose peace, justice and order.

This century differs from any previous era in one respect. We have become conscious of the limits of our globe. We live on a small planet - the only place that we know of in the universe where life exists. Its living species are interconnected, we are changing its climate in ways we cannot foresee, and the global population has increased to approximately 7 billion, almost three times what it was in 1950, and it continues to increase. In this world, states such as Ireland will naturally continue to advance the interests of their people but there is a new requirement on all of us, which was well put by Kofi Annan in the millennium year 2000. He stated: "In addition to the separate responsibilities each state bears towards its own society, states are, collectively, the custodians of our common life on this planet". I hope this will not sound too high flown but I hope that in its foreign policy, Ireland, small as it is, will always show some awareness that we too share in this new responsibility for "planetary management’".