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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