Monthly Archives: May 2015

Ambassador’s Message: Ireland’s ‘Yes’ Goes Global

You will no doubt have seen the headlines. The news propelled Ireland to the front pages across the globe. In what is regarded at home and abroad as a dramatic statement about Ireland today, the same-sex marriage referendum was endorsed 62:38 and in 43 out of 44 constituencies.

Crowds gathered and celebrated in a festive atmosphere in and around Dublin Castle’s spacious courtyard. All through that sunny Saturday the vote count confirmed something seismic was happening. Social media soon flooded with images of the emotional cord struck by this outcome, perhaps summed up as acceptance and pride.

In short, gay pride became Irish pride as Ireland took a leading global position on gay rights, equality and tolerance.

And I think that it is not hyperbolic to consider this outcome historic (see my short blog on this last Saturday).

One of the most charming comments was from the leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon: “I bet there will be a few marriage proposals in the pubs of Dublin tonight. What a lovely thought. Enjoy the celebrations, Ireland.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Archbishop of Dublin Micheal Martin stood robed in red with his tall white hat and said ruefully to children about to be confirmed as Catholics, “Boys and girls, I made my confirmation sixty years ago. Your world is different from mine.” (This is quoted in Danny Hakim’s New York Times’s front page report here. His report usefully sums up the historic context and the many battles that have way marked Saturday’s result.)

UNSG Ban Ki-moon, in Ireland to receive the Tipperary International Peace Award, hailed the outcome: “This is truly an historic moment. Ireland has become the first country in the world to approve marriage equality in a nationwide referendum. The result sends an important message to the world; all people are entitled to enjoy their human rights and human dignity, no matter whom they are or whom they love.”

I would recommend reading his full speech accepting the award here. It eloquently captures Ireland’s diplomatic engagement on global issues as seen by the UN Secretary General: our leading role on NPT, our contribution to the UN and UN Peacekeeping, our overseas development programme, leadership on human rights, and the inspiration provided by the Northern Ireland peace process.

Best wishes,

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Tel Aviv

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Ireland Proudly Says Yes

Today the votes cast in Ireland for same-sex marriage were counted.  The sun shone and there was a giddy atmosphere early on as it began to emerge that support for the proposed amendment to the Constitution was going to be approved by a substantial margin. This had been prefigured by the large turnout in Dublin and other areas.

And as the result looked increasingly secure, you had the sense that Ireland had just done something very significant, very liberating and very historic.

It was not simply that Ireland had become the first country in the world to endorse same-sex marriage by public plebiscite. It was that Ireland was reshaping its future, free of imperatives rooted in the past.

And helping to shape that was a whole drove of newly registered voters, mobilization across the board but particulalry among the young, and, movingly, those emigrants who came home to vote, sensing that this plebiscite could and should be seismic. So it proved to be.

The censorious, Catholic, secretive, and occasionally cruel management of intimate human relationships that characterised Ireland since independence was consigned to history. In our fast evolving debate with our past, the present had just won a signal victory.

In a way that was as profound as it was personal, on 22 May 2015 Ireland became a republic in the fullest sense of the term; a polity of citizens, in all their variety, equal before the law.

It has of course been a long time coming and there have been milestones along the way, not least approval for divorce. However, that does not detract from the revolution that the passage of this constitutional change represents. For our Constitution dates back to 1937 and had been crafted by Éamon de Valera for a Catholic country.

Like all constitutions, it stands for what we are or at least what we say we are. As such, the document has been a battleground on issues of intimate human relationships; the role of women, the nature of family, conception and the unborn, the rights of women to control their own bodies, and divorce.

Into this national document, the Irish public in their wisdom and humanity have placed same-sex marriage. The sense of relief and the joy of acceptance by gays in Ireland has been as palpable as it has been touching.

With this powerful endorsement, gay pride is Irish pride.

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Tel Aviv

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News from Ireland Israel, Ambassador’s Message 14 May 2015

Ireland’s economic health was checked out in the Ministers for Finance’s spring economic statement. As one Irish economist put it, we are looking at a balanced diet in the years ahead; unemployment falling to below 7%, steady annual growth of 3.25% to 2020 (twice the EU average), and a budget deficit below 3% of GDP.

Our increasingly robust health is due to competitiveness across the board, including agriculture, agrifood, information and communications technology, medical technology, pharmaceutical and chemical, and tourism. Having taken the pain and made the right decisions since the 2008 crisis, we are now clearly in the recovery phase; link to Minister Michael Noonan’s statement here

http://budget.gov.ie/Budgets/2015/Documents/Spring%20Economic%20Statement%20For%20Web.pdf

Ireland’s economic development has been driven by foreign direct investment (FDI) and innovative indigenous Irish companies like ICON. I was delighted to welcome ICON to the residence last night for a networking event. ICON is here for the IATI Biomed 2015 Conference, to get together with its local staff at its company here, and to meet its Israeli clients (link here to the company’s background http://www.iconplc.com/company).

Thanks to companies like ICON and the synergizing relationship between FDI and local entrepreneurship, Ireland has created a global hub in the medical devices and biomedical fields. Part of the revolution of the “internet of things” is biotechnology which will increasingly allow us to take control of our own health. Israel’s biomed profile is increasingly innovative and dynamic. Like start-ups, there is huge potential for Irish Israeli cooperation in this exciting field.

One of the best ways to boost Irish Israeli relations from business to tourism, is to get a regular direct flight established between Tel Aviv and Dublin. Clyde Hutchinson of the Irish Israel Business Network (www.iibn.org ) has launched a campaign to help achieve this. To support the campaign look here www.DUBtoTLV.org

The Annual Beckett Lecture is fast approaching and I am delighted to say that this year we have a real treat. Prof. Linda Ben Zvi at Tel Aviv University, the inspiration and energy behind this event, has organised a one night only performance on 8th June of Beckett’s masterpiece Krapp’s Last Tape. It is being presented by the Itim Theatre Ensemble with one of Israel’s leading actors, Doron Tavori, and one of its leading directors, Rina Yerushalmi.

As Prof. Zvi notes, “Samuel Beckett has long had a special place in the hearts of Israelis because, while he presents unflinching explorations of the human condition in stark, even bleak, physical and emotional situations, he also offers humor and laughter to help face suffering and still go on. Doron Tavori’s greatness lies in his ability to convey both the tragedy of life and its humor, in his multi-levelled portrayal of Krapp, directed with great subtlety and sensitivity by Rina Yerushalmi.”  After the performance there will be an inter-active discussion with the audience.

Pollster’s getting it wrong, a neck-and-neck race that wasn’t, the formation of a government of the conservative and right: no, not the election here in Israel but the one in Britain. I could not resist blogging on it (www.eamonncmckee.com ) because the result raises all kinds of fascinating issues; the rise of the Scottish National Party from six to fifty six MPs and a referendum on Britain staying in the EU chief among them. Not since Parnell led the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 1880s has such a cohesive group of nationalists dedicated to independence sat in the House of Commons.

Finally, if you liked Ireland in Five Easy Pieces, you might also enjoy my blog on Irish writer Sebastian Barry who explores the impact of Irish independence on private lives in his novels.

Best wishes,

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador Tel Aviv

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Democracy’s Genius and May 7th, 2015

Thursday May 7th was certainly a very interesting day.

Israel’s new coalition government emerged from a late night deal that defied general expectations based on opinion polls, albeit with an unexpectedly perilous majority. After the election on 17th March, the public and pollsters alike questioned how polls could have gotten it so wrong when they predicted that Likud and Zionist Union were neck-and-neck.

May 7th also saw the election of a government in Britain that also defied the opinion polls. Polls had uniformly put the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck, too-close-to-call; and pundits more or less had to follow suit, numbing the public discourse on what the election was actually about. Polls had predicted as virtually certain that it would be a hung parliament with a lengthy period of negotiations before the government was formed. How the pollsters got it wrong: The exit polls on the night were so dramatically different from the pollster’s projections that they produced universal hat-eating consternation. When the exit polls proved accurate, polling suddenly looked about as scientific as astrology.

Why should Ireland care about the British general election? You may well ask and the answer is three-fold.

The first and most obvious was that Northern Ireland elected its eighteen Members of Parliament. The result saw the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) keep its tally of eight seats. The Ulster Unionist Party gained two seats (one at the expense of Sinn Féin, the other from a DUP incumbent) having entered the contest without any. The non-aligned Alliance Party lost its seat in East Belfast to the DUP. Sinn Féin lost one to the UUP and dropped to four seats. The nationalist SDLP retained its three seats and there was one (returned) Independent candidate elected.

There had been a lot of speculation that Northern Ireland MPs (except Sinn Fein who don’t take their seats there) might have a role in supporting a minority government at Westminster, but the Conservative’s outright majority has put paid to that. The policies pursued by the new Conservative government will shape much political discourse within Northern Ireland since they directly affect the decisions of the power-sharing government there, led by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

This raises the second matter of interest to Ireland and that is the Tory commitment to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union, probably in 2017. A vote to exit (aka the ‘Brexit’) would have profound implications for Ireland on a whole range of areas, including trade, Northern Ireland, the free movement of people between us, foreign policy formation, and a host of other things that we share within the European Union.

The third area of interest for Ireland was the Scottish vote and indeed that turned out to be the story of the election with the Scottish National Party (SNP) winning fifty-six of the fifty-nine seats in Scotland, at the expense of the Labour Party. While Scotland last year rejected the referendum to leave the United Kingdom and become a sovereign nation, the momentum has added fifty MPs to its pre-election tally of six at Westminster.

The last time such a large bloc of nationalists entered the House of Commons was when the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) sat there from 1882 until it was wiped out in the 1918 general election. The IPP was wiped out because it had pursued devolved government for Ireland for thirty years without ever clinching the deal from the British government. Like the IPP, the SNP is committed to independence.

As a very interesting day, May 7th is then a harbinger of very interesting times ahead.

But for that very reason, it was also a great day. Because whether in Israel, Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales, May 7th demonstrated the genius of democracy.

There is something oddly satisfying about the pollsters getting it wrong because it affirms the private sanctity of the ballot. Conversely there is something annoying about when they get it right. For when they get it right, it always feels as if they are pre-empting that final walk to the polling booth when you have to make up your mind.

That walk and the act of democratic expression are as near a sacred duty as one can undertake. It is not just about how your country is to be governed. It is also because democracy is the great valve that mediates change, the alternative and antidote to conflict. Brave and admirable is every politician who submits to its verdict because the verdict is a ruthless expression of the people’s will. Heads roll but only metaphorically; the leaders of the British Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats resigned on the spot, ending youthful careers as leaders. David Cameron triumphs with a clear political mandate to make decisions. Nicola Sturgeon is conferred as the leader of Scottish nationalism thanks to her qualities and the confidence she inspires. Without democracy, heads actually roll.

The political fortunes of parties and their leaders reflect the wishes of people voting within natural constituencies. They are natural because voters accept and hallow their boundaries. And in doing so they avoid conflict even when great issues are at stake. It is no coincidence that functioning democracies don’t fight violently within themselves or with each other.

Empires and imperial rule frustrate democracy’s innate conflict resolution mechanism because they project power beyond natural jurisdictions and that projection is resisted.

The projection of British power in Ireland was repeatedly resisted; during the twelfth century Norman and sixteenth century Tudor conquests, during the Cromwellian and Williamite wars of the seventeenth century, in the great rebellion of 1798 and the lesser rebellions of 1803, 1848 and 1867, and finally in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence of 1919 to 1921.

Ireland’s history would have been very different had self-determination been allowed to express itself. Once it was allowed to do so – with independence in 1922 and again in the all-island 1998 referenda on the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland – Ireland and Britain embarked on a bilateral relationship of cooperation and increasingly now one of high mutual regard. And that high regard will shape how we maintain or adjust that relationship in the years ahead, whatever they produce.

As we in Ireland commemorate the centenaries of events that resulted from the frustration of Irish self-determination, we can celebrate May 7th and all that follows as the right way to do things come what may.

Eamonn McKee

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Sebastian Barry and the Re-Stranding of Ireland

There is a pivotal observation by Dr Grene in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture that ‘it is sometimes forgotten the effort that was made in the twenties to include all shades of opinion in the first Irish senate, but it was an effort that soon lost heart. Our first President was a Protestant which was a beautiful and poetic gesture. The fact is, we are missing too many threads in our story that the tapestry of Irish life cannot but fall apart.’

Irish life is not falling apart because we are in fact re-stranding Ireland in a process of reflection and recovery thanks to the centennaries that are now upon us. As a writer, Barry fearlessly explores what history did to the Irish in the mid-twentieth century.  He has few equals when it comes to summoning into daylight Ireland’s secret histories. In his interlinked novels centred on the McNulty family from Sligo, these secrets and their cruelties are generated for the most part by the dislocations of revolution and the highly straitened and oddly self-conscious society that was Catholic Ireland after indepedence.

For Barry’s central male characters, their tragedy is borne of the changed power structures after British withdrawal. In the novels, men are cheated of a place at home by the sudden turn of history that reshapes the meaning and implications of loyalty; they go to war in British uniform and return to an Ireland in which British service is no longer acceptable (Long Long Way; and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty).  Their fate is to be an emigrant, an exile or even an outcast.

The cruelest fates await Barry’s tragic women. Women are particularly put upon: in post-independent Ireland young attractive women are the dangerous innnocents, liable to incarceration of various sorts (mental institutions or convents) or exile (The Secret Scripture). Most innocent of all were the children born out of wedlock and therefore into shame. Secrecy was shame’s antidote, though the price was heavy. As Roseanne writes of Sligo’s Garravogue river, in The Secret Scripture, the river ‘took the rubbish down to the sea… bodies too, if rarely, and poor babies, that were embarrasments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend of secrecy.’

Secrecy indeed, the heavy price of shame: Shame and secrecy were double entries in the ledger between family and Church. In The Secret Scripture, the terrifying Father Gaunt, whose intense accountancy of public morality and norms has fed his lust for power just as surely as it has strangled any instincts he may have had for mercy and compassion, appears briefly but devastatingly. Not since Bram Stoker created Dracula has Irish fiction produced such a monster.

Jack McNulty, Eneas’ brother, is the narrative voice of Barry’s latest novel, A Temporary Gentleman. Jack’s sad fate is largely of his own making thanks to gambling and alcholism. His larger crime is his capacity to excuse and elude the consequences of his own actions. Only in forcing himself to write an account of his life in the steamy obscurity of a small African town does he find some way to assess it.

For a number of Barry’s characters, the true confessional is not in the Church but in the act of writing. There may be a broader point too; Ireland’s literary tradition is a form of redemption, a corrective commentary and assessment of the more oppressive expectations and narrow official narratives of mid-century independent Ireland.

One could say of course Barry has consigned unflattering roles to the architects of independent Ireland – the revolutionaries, local politicians and priests who define and rule their fiefdoms after the ebb and flow of the struggle for independence. But his novels and his importance as a writer are the richer for that; his very iconoclasm when it comes to the paragons of Irish independence is what give us pause for reflection. Moreover, if the soldier deems to take life, the priest to judge it and the politician to lead it, then they can at least suffer such interrogations in the corrective narrative of Irish fiction.

Association with or service in the British Armed Forces features heavily in Barry’s novels.  It is interesting to reflect on the distance that Ireland has travelled on this issue. Post-independent Ireland’s definition of nationalism was perforce too narrow to embrace the varieties of identity. For as Ireland struggled to free itself from the insistent embrace of the British Empire, a dialect process was set in play that frustrated the moderates and emboldened the radicals who were committed to republicanism and the use of force. Prevarication and delay in promulgating Home Rule (since it had been put on the agenda generations earlier by O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond) had fatally rationalised the arguments of Irish republicanism in favour of armed rebellion, just as machismo, militarism and romantic notions of the battlefield were reaching a climax across Europe.

One of the main casualities of this “de-stranding” of Irish identity in the twentieth century was British Ireland, the web of private associations created by individuals through family heritage, connection, career choice or emigration. It was only in the latter half of the 1980s that Irish service in foreign armies was begun to be officially commemorated in Ireland. As a new diplomat serving in Anglo-Irish Division at the end of the 1980s I recall the novel and delicate consideration of the new protocols of the remembrance service for those who served in the armed forces of other states.

Truth be told, we were only really sensitive of the British services. For in reality a good portion of this sensitivity arose from the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the conflict.  The Northern Ireland Peace Process has cleared the space for the current reflection:  Think, for example, of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and its redemptive effects.

Remembrance today now unashamedly embraces those Irish who served with the British military. One of the highlights of my time as Ambassador in South Korea was in 2013 when we welcomed Irish veterans who served with British units in the Korean War, mainly in the Royal Ulster Rifles. They and their units had distinguished themselves in the grim pivotal battles to save Seoul. Being part of such events and commemorations is now a regular and welcome feature of the public activities of Irish Ambassadors around the world.

The Ireland-Britain nexus is a much wider community than those who served in uniform, or even the wider catchment of the Anglo-Irish. It embraces all those who, comfortably or not, moved between both worlds even as they kept their travels across the Irish Sea secret or at least discreet. It includes too all those Irish who have made Britain their home and who felt a powerful liberation during President Higgins’ state visit to Britain last year. His visit, and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011, were both profound waypoints in our development as a nation, our understanding of the past, and the re-stranding of Ireland.

Tolstoy once wrote that “A historian has to do with the results of an event, the artist with the fact of the event.” As a novelist, Barry does this fearlessly, poignantly and beautifully.

Eamonn McKee

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