Monthly Archives: June 2016

Into the Mouth of the Dragon, Istanbul Airport 29 June

We knew about the horrors of the attack on Ataturk Airport thanks to the novelty, for me at any rate, of having wifi on the airplane. We expected to be diverted but apart from some hushed comments of the cabin crew, nothing was officially said by the captain as we made our approach to the airport. We landed on the skirt, behind a long line of aircraft flanked by buses. It had all the feel of an emergency plan well executed and the buses deposited us and droves of other arrivals at the terminal.  This had been the sixth terrorist attack in Turkey so far this year.

Inside the terminal, there were queues and crowds, groups sitting on the floor and the exhausted sleeping on the ground as travellers pushed passed them. Once in the departures area, the mood was unusual; subdued, not the usual bustle of one of the world’s busiest transit points (sixty one million travellers last year). On reflection, it had the sombre quiet of a church, the airport hallowed now, and probably only temporarily, by the knowledge that many had just died there. The footage of a gunman wounded and immolating himself graphically showed one death. One had to think of all the innocents killed, some forty one, each loss leaving a terrible rent in a family, a loving relationship turned into an intangible frozen memory.

Travellers are terribly vulnerable as they move from, with and to loved ones.  Weather, disorganisation, delays, mechanical failures, and strikes are now joined with sickening regularity by terrorist attacks.  (In this instance, just why the arrivals area of Ataturk Airport may have been attacked is examined in this New Yorker article here.)  Was it a sign of a new normal that, remarkably, our connecting flight to Dublin left only four hours behind schedule after such a devastating attack?

International terrorism is one of many dragons that are sowing global and domestic havoc, adding to that sense that we are in a great unravelling of social and political order.  Some say that it is the break-up of the post-WWII order.  Some argue that it is more accurately the break-up of the post-WWI order as Middle East borders dissolve and the order imposed by oligarchic Arab nationalism fails.  Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole has eloquently argued that Brexit is the result of the stirring of the dragon of English nationalism in one of the greatest miscalculations in British history. Others believe that we are witnessing the effects of the pervasive but all but invisible ideological triumph of neoliberalism.  Globalisation and its disruptions are cited as another culprit.

In medieval maps, “there be dragons” was often printed below a rendering of the mythical beast to indicate an unknown area into which the traveller should not venture.  We don’t have that luxury today.   The dragons are coming to us and we must understand why if we are to push them back and restore some order on our affairs.

In September, the Departments of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Science Foundation Ireland will co-host the annual meeting of the Small Advanced Economies Initiative (which we share with Denmark, Finland, Israel, Singapore, Switzerland and New Zealand). We discussed the agenda last April and decided that a plenary item was needed to capture the sense of things falling apart.

“The Great Unravelling” at our SAEI meeting promises to be a compelling discussion from the perspective of senior officials involved in foreign affairs, trade and innovation. We are unlikely to come up with answers or even more modestly how small countries can navigate this unknown and unstable terrain.  But this is a vital conversation if we are to identify the causes of, and the solutions for, current discontents.




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Echoes of Joyce, A Morning in Dalkey and Sandycove

Places generate their own atmosphere. Dalkey’s is particularly intense, signalled by a street sign that brazenly says Atmospheric Road. Its narrow winding streets are lined with probably the most varied, personable, and charming collection of dwellings in Dublin, hunkered together at the edge of the sea. The street is patterned like some maze around the village centre.   Even the most humble of cottages has been gentrified, with tiny gardens bursting with flowers. They hold their own with the mansions, manses and tony new builds. The crammed and crowded little restaurant, the Corner Note Cafe (, echoed Dalkey’s jumbled charm as it served hearty breakfasts for the Sunday crowd.

Breakfast in Dalkey is as good a way as any to start a trip to the museum at the Joyce Tower, Sandycove (@JoyceTower and  It is free to the public and its attendants are a welcoming and informative bunch. A treasure trove of artefacts awaits: books, letters, and photographs of the great man and his circle are within inches of scrutiny. Joyce’s guitar is there with his cigar case, his last walking cane, even his hunting waistcoat made by his grandmother and passed on from his father.

Joyce’s death mask is startling; his blighted eyes look small and shrunken under tiny lids, his nose is strong with a deep dent from a lifetime of wearing glasses, his cheeks hollow.  But death couldn’t dent that chin, strong as an iron mandible. A strong chin was a fitting gift from nature because he led with it for most of his life, challenging the literary orthodoxies and social mores of his time.

However, the true prize is the tower itself. Its thick solid blocks of Wicklow granite were fitted together into a short stump strong enough to withstand a canon ball from a Napoleonic fleet. Its walls are so thick that it seems capable of standing against pretty much anything. The narrow spiral staircase looks like a granite digestive tract. The first landing opens to the famous room featured in the opening chapter of Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus spent an unsettled night.

The narrow and steep staircase continues, leading to the stairhead and round roof top. It is from this stairhead that Buck Mulligan emerges as the great novel begins. I have to say that if Buck Mulligan did indeed walk those perilous stairs delicately bearing a bowl of lather with mirror and razor crossed on top, he was an agile fellow, plump or not.

Being in that room and emerging from the stairhead feels like a significant act, a portal between the real and the fictional. It is as close to actually entering the narrative of Ulysses as one is likely to experience.

The Martello tower at Sandycove is but one of a series built around the Irish coast (except in the northeast, naturally) during the Napoleonic Wars and designed to warn of a French invasion. The gun mounted on top could turn 360 degrees which was probably an added advantage if the natives turned restless.

From the roof one can see men and women diving into the Forty Foot, another star location in Ulysses. It is a gray yet balmy day and indeed under leaden skies the sea in parts is snot green. But here we must part fact from fiction if we can. I, like many people, assumed that ‘forty foot’ referred to the depth of the inlet but my grandfather told me that in fact it referred to the British Army unit stationed at the tower, namely the Forty Foot and Light.

And Atmospheric Road?  Alas no reference to Dalkey’s charm but an inheritance from history when it served as the terminus for the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in the mid-1800s.


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Ferns, Irish History Ground Zero

Larry Smith is a passionate man; about Ireland, about our history and about Ferns as the ground zero of Irish history. An erudite and loquacious OPW guide at Ferns castle, Co. Wexford, he has had an adventurous life as a Garda who has seen service with the UN in a range of conflict zones around the globe. He knows how history works and how people fare when conflict engulfs them. From the roof of Ferns castle a stunning vista of Wexford bocage beckons. Larry points to a conical hill, the infamous Vinegar Hill of 1798, and quotes Heaney’s Requiem for the Croppies, where the hill ‘blushed’ with the blood of the rebels and their families as British grapeshot slaughtered them.

But Larry has a bone to pick.  Not enough visitors come to Ferns. Yet it is the fulcrum of our history, the home and conspiratorial centre of the infamous Dermot MacMurrough who invited the Normans to our conquest. Where would history have taken us without this deed? This is a question to test the imagination. Had there not been a Norman conquest, we would hardly be commemorating the centenary of 1916 not least because small changes magnify through time and the coming of the Normans was to prove no small thing to Ireland at any number of levels.

The Normans altered Ireland in more ways than we like to concede. They brought villages, cottages, markets, manors, estates, revenue, proper castles and incorporated cities. They altered the pattern of regnal wars fought by petty Irish kings and produced great new dynasties that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years, most notably the FitzGeralds.

Through allegiance to Henry II and King John, the Normans established the connection to the English crown.  John founded Dublin Castle initially as a treasury but ultimately as the irreducible foreign presence that would endure without interruption as the heart of the Pale and seat of British power until 1922.

So Ferns is the holy of holies of Irish history, the fundament of our conquest. We can only understand the significance of 1916 by spanning the time back to the 12th century when Dermot made his plans from his fortress there and acted as agent for the small band of Normans who landed at Bannow Bay and seized Wexford city. They were preparing the way for their Marcher Lord, Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow to arrive with the main force.

And amidst the carnage of Waterford city, Dermot would play father of the bride as he gave his daughter’s hand to the victorious Richard de Clare, Strongbow. Their march north through Wicklow, evading the waiting Irish to the west under the High King Rory O’Connor, would see them take Dublin, a prize the colonists held thereafter for eight hundred years.

When the rebels struck in 1916, their plan to take and hold Dublin was as much a psychological act of defiance.  And for the week that they did so, they achieved something unprecedented in our history of conquest and colonisation.

Dermot would pay a heavy price; his son was hostage to the High King whom Tiernan O’Rourke persuaded to kill after Strongbow and Dermot raided O’Rourke’s kingdom of Breifne.  Dermot would retire to Ferns in the winter of 1170, evidently a broken man, to sicken and die in May 1171.

So think about heading to Ferns for a day trip. If you live in Dublin, it is just over an hour south of the M50. The visitor’s centre is discrete and pleasant and Larry and his team of guides to the castle enthusiastic. The tower that is intact is charming and evocative and the view from the roof is magnificent. You can see why the Normans grabbed this lush and fertile land.  The whipped ice cream in the shop across the road is some of the best in Ireland. Wander down the road to the site of McMurragh’s burial and the ruins of the abbey which he had funded and where he died.

If you’re up for it, head back up the M11 and turn off at Arklow to drive up through Avoca, Glendalough, passing by Lough Tay and via Glencree into Dublin. You will not only be passing through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the east of Ireland but you also might just be tracing that first and fateful Norman march to Dublin.


Coda: Dermot’s fortress was made of wood and had been burned before he had died.  Strongbow and Aoife had a daughter, Isabel, who as a young girl of sixteen was married to probably the greatest knight in Christendom, William Marshall.  As the daughter of Strongbow, she was  an immensely rich heiress. Marshall was in his forties, a tall and impressive man of unequalled martial accomplishments and ties of loyalty to the crown.  Their marriage was apparently a happy one.  With her husband, Isabel returned to Ferns and stood on the knoll of her grandfather’s fortress.  There they built a castle of stone in the Norman manner.  It can only be seen as a act of reclamation by her, a statement of affirmation of her grandfather and his ambitions, and a defiant gesture to the local Gaelic chiefs displaced by the Normans.  Its remains today bear all the scars of subsequent Irish history but the restoration of the remaining tower has preserved its original Norman features and is one of the most evocative and intriguing ones of its kind.

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Economy Proving Irish Resilient

While this is a short account of how well the economy is doing according to the figures, we should remember that the economy and the figures it produces really comes down to people. Energy, talent, judgement, and emotional intelligence are key elements defining our economic agency. And for our diplomats abroad, we have a great story to tell about recovery, resilience and dynamism. What the figures show about us is that despite the many uncertainties in our near-abroad – sterling fluctuations, sluggish Eurozone, Brexit referendum – we are proving to be a resilient people.

Our GDP grew by 7.8% in 2015, according to preliminary estimates by the Central Statistics Office. This is the strongest year of annual GDP growth since 2000, making Ireland the fastest-growing economy in the EU last year. The European Commission forecasts the same again for this year. GDP per capita is back above its pre-crisis peak. GNP – often regarded as a better measure of economic activity in the Irish economy – is estimated to have grown by 5.7% last year.

The increase in economic activity we are now seeing is broadly-based. Our economic fundamentals are robust. Export growth in 2015 was the strongest since 2000 at 13.8% and exports continue to contribute positively to growth, boosted by competitiveness and fair winds from exchange rate depreciation.

Unlike the early part of our recovery from the 2008 crisis which was driven almost solely by trade, the domestic economy is now helping drive growth once again, with private consumption up by 3.5% last year. Consumer sentiment continues to rise. Investment growth is strong. As a result, the key measure of success is unemployment which in May was down to 7.8%, from a peak of 15.1% in 2012. Indeed, employment has increased in each of the last thirteen quarters.

Ireland has maintained a phased and steady adjustment path putting our public finances on a sustainable footing. Strong economic growth has underpinned robust tax revenue growth during 2015, up approx. 10.5% on 2014. The General Government Deficit has been reduced from over 32% of GDP in 2010 to an estimated 1.5% of GDP in 2015, and is expected to move even lower this year.

Ireland’s debt to GDP ratio is also on a firm downward trajectory. Having peaked at 120% of GDP in 2012, it is calculated to have fallen to below 97% in 2015.  That is quite a turnaround.  Our debt is now rated as investment grade by all major ratings agencies. It is not surprising then that Ireland has successfully made a full return to the bond markets, and  February and April saw 10-year bonds auctioned at a new record low yield of under 1%.



Eamonn McKee

DG Trade Division

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade






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Brexit Referendum: The ETC Meets to Discuss

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, convened a meeting of the Export Trade Council yesterday at Iveagh House. The Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton attended, with regrets from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Minister for the Marine and Transport, Tourism and Sport. The focus of Ministers, senior officials, private sector representative organisation and other private sector members for this meeting was on the Brexit referendum.

In his remarks, Minister Flanagan noted the itinerary of visits recently undertaken and underway, including Minister of State Paul Kehoe to Birmingham, his own to Liverpool and Manchester, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor’s visit to Leeds the day before, Minister Paschal Donohoe travel to Edinburgh and Newcastle and Ministers of State Joe McHugh and Dara Murphy in the London area . The Taoiseach will also travel to Britain and to Northern Ireland in the coming week.

He acknowledged the commitment and energy of colleagues serving in the Embassy London, the Consulate in Edinburgh and our offices in Northern Ireland to efforts to communicate the Irish perspective in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, along with that of the Irish state agencies and various business associations. He then invited the members of the Council to offer their views and advice.

I should say from the outset that my own personal view was that at the end of the day, the British voter would opt to stay in the EU, would choose familiarity over uncertainty, would found their judgement on rational arguments rather than whimsy or illusion. After all, the British successfully fended off great European powers like Spain, France and Germany, all the while building one of the largest global imperial powers, through a doughty realism, mercantilism, and industrialisation. These successes were in turn founded on empiricism, the philosophy of experience not theory.

So I was surprised to listen to the contributions around the table. They were very sobering. The news from members who had been in Britain lately was that momentum currently lies with the Leave campaign although two crucial weeks remain, traditionally the period in which undecided voters make up their minds. This impression converges with data from recent opinion polls which at best puts both sides neck and neck or gives the edge to the Brexiteers, though of course opinion polls are to be treated with some skepticism.

Export Trade Council members on the ground in the UK are finding that their arguments, convincing on any number of grounds, were pushed back in favour of counterpoints that were not well founded – counterpoints that suggested those in favour of leaving did not believe that there would be consequences for sterling or trade were Britain to leave. Or that immigration would somehow be “solved” by leaving. Or that British influence in the world would be projected not diminished by leaving the EU.

The inputs from members of the Council were valuable and will help inform the Government’s efforts in this last crucial phase of the campaign to declare and convey our clear interests in Britain staying within the community of nations that has brought such peace, prosperity and progress to its members, even if its processes are complex and frustrating at times.

Aside from the very real impact on trade, the new and historic comity between Ireland and Britain, not to mention our mutual achievements in the Northern Ireland peace process are jeopardised by what may flow from a Brexit. The impact of the EU itself would be profound and Ireland would face a whole new set of challenges in a post-Brexit EU.

The intervention of wise counsels will help as will a sober cost-benefit assessment.   Still, a Leave result is possible. We will not know until the vote is counted.  Ireland therefore will have a clear plan in place to deal with the implications of a UK vote to Leave should it happen.  A framework has been developed on a whole of government basis to identify contingencies that may arise in the days, weeks and months that follow.

As the meeting of the Council concluded, the Minister drew attention to the trade related aspects of the Programme for Government. Work will be taken forward on this expeditiously. For if the Brexit debate reminds us of anything, it is that the welfare and prosperity of our people depends on how we trade: the need to deepen our penetration of traditional markets, to explore potential in new markets and to do everything we can to build our economic resilience through trading better.


Eamonn McKee

DG Trade Division


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