Category Archives: International

Small Advanced Economies Initiative, Dublin Meeting

Ireland hosted the Small Advanced Economies Initiative (SAEI) last week in Dublin Castle. Never heard of it, you say. Not surprising as it’s a low profile gathering of officials and policy experts from seven countries that fit the description on the tin. It’s a forum to share ideas on three policy areas, namely foreign affairs and trade, economics and competitiveness, and science and innovation.

The SAEI was inspired and convened by New Zealand and also includes Singapore, Israel, Switzerland, Denmark and Finland. We like to keep it small so we can exchange views informally. It is very lightly managed without a permanent secretariat but the New Zealanders do a great job jollying everything and everyone into place.

In Ireland’s case, the host was a troika of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, my Department and Science Foundation Ireland. We generated a collegial sense of working together on this which really helped generate the creative ideas needed for an engaging agenda not to mention the logistical demands of organising an international visit of some forty-seven delegates.

I am happy to say the delegates were very happy with the agenda and engaged openly and productively on its wide range of issues. We had an opening session on the relationship of small states to big neighbours (Ireland and Britain, Singapore and China) and my presentation on our relationship with Britain was helped by the venue of Dublin Castle where I could point to King John’s tower, the lynchpin of conquest since it was commissioned in 1204 (don’t worry, I got to the Celtic Tiger and Brexit within 5 minutes). Our second plenary was on “The Great Unravelling? Rising civil society discontent with globalisation: Challenge and Opportunity for small states.” We had a very useful presentation and discussion with the OECD on business success in the digital age and what the data was showing. It was clear from this new engagement that the SAEI and OECD could find some useful work to do together.

In the three strands of expert discussions we exchanged views and proposals on small state diplomacy, economic complexity trends, productivity and competitiveness, regional fragmentation, research commercialisation, ODA and climate change.

Aside from our discussions, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan (@CharlieFlanagan), hosted a welcome reception at Iveagh House; Peter Sutherland (Attorney General, DG at the GATT and WTO, EU Commissioner for Competition) was an authoritative and compelling keynote speaker at a dinner at Farmleigh; and the delegates visited Trinity for a briefing on Ireland’s innovation system by the heads of six research centre under the expert direction of SFI’s director Mark Ferguson. Before leaving Trinity, the delegates were shown the Book of Kells, that awesome totem of Ireland’s learned antiquity.

Looking to modern frontiers, FabLabs Ireland hosted a demonstration and discussion on their ground breaking and inspiring work (check out short Ireland video here and international video here), showing the vast potential of new technology to address social and economic issues (website here) by making it available to local communities. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor (@mitchelloconnor) addressed the concluding reception hosted at the Trinity Science Gallery where the delegates were treated to a survey of Irish innovation and business systems by Martin Curley (Professor of Technology and Business Innovation at Maynooth). Not bad for three days in Dublin!

The global context is now particularly challenging with stagnant trade, sluggish economic growth, regional fragmentation, public anxieties about a host of issues, the distortions of negative interest rates, doubts about globalisation and pressures against trade liberalisation, all against the frightening backdrop of climate change whose affects are here now, not in the future.

On our own small states are particularly vulnerable to the bullying effects of events, big institutions and powerful governments. The issues we discussed all related to how small states can cope in a world dominated by the agendas and interests of big powers. How can we advance the interests of our people and leverage our influence for positive outcomes? How can we shape and indeed share our policies to that effect? We and our friends in the SAEI have quite a bit of work to pick up after the Dublin meeting. That’s a very healthy indication of a productive engagement.


DG Trade Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


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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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Ireland’s Response to the Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

In the face of a humanitarian disaster, its sheer scale can inhibit compassion: human psychology is such that we can more readily appreciate the loss of a single life than that of many.  Stalin was on to something when he reputedly said that the loss of one life is a tragedy, the loss of a million is a statistic.  He would know.  Keeping humanitarian disasters front and centre of international and personal attention is vital to maintaining an effective response.

The humanitarian disaster in Syria is all the greater a tragedy because it is man-made, because unlike a natural disaster it is apparently relentless and unrelenting.  We all fervently hope that the talks in Geneva in January can bring a halt to hostilities.  If so, at least humanitarian access can begin in earnest.  Even then, the consequences of the conflict will be with us for many years.  Along with its EU partners, the UN and a range of NGOs and Red Cross organisations, Ireland continues to assist in addressing this humanitarian disaster.

Bearing in mind that each statistic is one life ended, displaced, threatened, bereaved or impoverished, let’s look at the big picture.

Out of a population of 22 million, the death toll is approaching 120,000 people. More than 30% are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and an estimated 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria, including 235,000 Palestinian refugees.   Over 2.5 million people inside Syria have not been reached with any assistance for up to a year. Almost 2.3 million refugees are sheltering in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa.

The revised UN response plan calls for $5.2 billion dollars for operations in 2013, the largest humanitarian appeal in the UN’s history.  About 60% is funded.

Ireland announced last October that it was providing an additional €3 million, bringing our total contribution to €14.011 million, of which €11.361 million in 2013. Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr. Joe Costello T.D., made this announcement during his visit to Lebanon.  Such visits – like his earlier visit to camps in Jordan and that of Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade, Eamonn Gilmore T.D. to Nizip refugee camp in Southern Turkey last April – are important for understanding the nature of the problem, for bringing attention to them and for providing Government Ministers and officials with the information and insights to further discussions with partners in the EU and UN.

With this additional contribution, Ireland’s pledge of €4.7 million made at the High Level Donor Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait City last January has been exceeded by almost €6.5m to date.

In terms of the delivery of this assistance, Irish Aid has a tremendous depth of experience, whether it is in the rapid delivery of material aid from our prepositioned stocks or funding a range of partners with whom we have close working relations.  It’s not just signing cheques: it is about Irish Aid’s years of experience ensuring appropriate, needs-based assistance and effective delivery.

However, expertise aside, it is money that makes humanitarian responses happen.  Some €1.15 million has been channelled through Irish NGOs Goal and Concern, in support of their operations.  €500,000 was allocated to Oxfam in support of their programmes in Jordan and Lebanon. These programmes focus on emergency food and non-food items, sanitation, suppression of water born diseases and curative health care.

Our aid included €750,000 worth of supplies of non-food items (shelter, blankets, water kits) from our emergency relief stocks held in Dubai, through our Rapid Response Initiative: 45 tonnes of Irish Aid emergency supplies were delivered to UNRWA to the value of €211,000.

Ireland has been a strong supporter of the UN’s Syrian humanitarian response too: €3.45m to the UNHCR; €1.7m to the World Food Programme: €300,000 to the World Health Organisation: €1.2m to UNWRA; €1m to UNICEF and €1.75m to OCHA’s Emergency Response Fund. €100,000 was donated to the International Rescue Committee.

Irish Aid funding of course comes from the Irish taxpayer and it is a great point of pride for all of us representing Ireland abroad that Irish public support for humanitarian relief remains consistently strong, even as we meet our own economic and financial challenges.

The numbing scale of statistics can hide the human tragedy in any disaster, natural or man-made.  In the Middle East, there is an additional barrier.  In this region, considerations of the turmoil and conflict often focus on the complicated and shifting matrix of geopolitical interests.  As the cross-roads of human activity and movement in and between Europe, Asia and Africa, thus it has always been.  It is a testament to the relief organisations, to their personnel on the ground, often risking life and limb, and to their donors, whether large or small, that they see past these considerations and look to relieve the human suffering that comes from the clash of interests and ideology.

Humanitarian responses can only do so much to relieve the suffering which is the symptom of underlying conflict.  It’s up the peace makers to look past the symptoms and get to the root of the problem.  There are enough natural disasters to deal with without man adding to them.  We can only hope that the leaders in the Syrian conflict say enough is enough and that some form of a deal is hammered out in Geneva.

Best wishes,


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Irish Litvak Connection II: Commemorating the Shoah in Lithuania

While researching the background to my blog on the very strong Jewish Lithuanian connection with Ireland, and unbeknownst to me, the Fourth World Litvak Congress was being held in Vilnius.  As you will have read in the blog, most of the Lithuanian Jews who stayed there were murdered in the Shoah.  My friend and colleague in Vilnius, Ambassador Philomena Murnaghan, has kindly shared the following information on the Congress and the annual Holocaust commemoration in Lithuania.

The Fourth World Litvak Congress was held in Vilnius from 22-25 September and commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto on 23-24 September 1943.  Jews represented a third of the population of Vilnius before the Second World War.  The annual Holocaust commemoration takes place on the anniversary of that fateful day (23rd September) at the site in Paneriai forest, some 11 km from Vilnius city centre, where of the 100,000 persons executed there, some 70,000 were Jews.

The Fourth World Litvak Congress held a wide variety of events and exhibitions over the six days, including a conference on Sunday, 22nd  September on “Litvaks and their legacy: Holocaust, ethical memory and enlightenment”, moderated by Prof. Leonidas Donskis, MEP.   Events during the Congress sought to recapture the contribution of Lithuania’s former Jewish population to the Lithuanian nation and national development.  Some of the themes included: How art helps to perceive the Holocaust; Jewish organisations in Lithuania in documents prior to 1941; Kaunas Jewish community in historical sources; Jewish musicians in interwar Lithuania.  There were also tours for participants to Jewish-related sites in Vilnius and around the country.

Dr. Simonas Alperavicius, Honorary Chairman of The Jewish Community of Lithuania, was conferred with the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star, the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ award of honour for his dedication to advancing bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel and for his championing of democratic values throughout his life.

Philomena notes that the Congress was one of a range of events taking place in 2013, which has been designated by the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) as the Year of Remembrance of the Vilnius Ghetto.   Bilateral relations between Lithuania and Israel have been strengthened, with visits in each direction this year, notably by the Lithuanian Foreign Minister to Israeli in May in preparation for the State Visit by the Israeli President to Vilnius at the end of July.

On Monday, 23rd September, members of the diplomatic corps took part, in large numbers as usual, in the annual commemoration of the Holocaust in Paneriai forest.  Philomena has seen this ceremony grow during her time in Vilnius and reflects:

 “Genuine efforts are being made to integrate study of the Holocaust into mainstream education and to engage young Lithuanians.  This year, pupils from 200 schools from around Lithuania lined the path leading into the fir grove where the Memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is situated.  Each student placed on the ground a candle and stone with the name of a Jewish person killed, forming a solemn avenue through which participants from the government, municipality, diplomatic corps, Jewish community and others passed on the way to the fir grove.   Wreaths were laid by or on behalf of the President, Government, Seimas, the Municipality, the Israeli Embassy Riga, the Jewish community, the diplomatic corps, Jewish survivors of the Vilnius Ghetto, and the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.  Speeches were delivered by the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Seimas, the Israeli Ambassador, the President of the Jewish Community of Lithuania (Faina Kulkiansky), and by the International Commission.  A moving personal account was given by one of the very few remaining survivors of the Vilnius Ghetto, Fania Branncovskaya, and a haunting poem was read by the Headmaster of a local Jewish school.  The event concluded with the reading of Kadesh by a member of the Jewish community and the playing of the Vilnius Ghetto ‘anthem’.”

Thanks to Philomena for sharing this and to the Deputy Head ofMission Seadha MacHugh for tweeting the blog on the Irish Litvak relationship to the Embassy’s followers in Lithuania.


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A Briefing at UNTSO Headquarters, Jerusalem

18 September 2013

Deputy Head of Mission Julian Clare and I travelled to Jerusalem on 16th September at the invitation of Major General Michael Finn, the new Head of Mission and Chief of staff of the United Nations Treaty Supervision Organization.  Michael hails from Mayo and, aside from his extensive command and staff experience back home, has a lot of overseas experience under his belt: completed three tours in Lebanon with UNIFIL, including a stint as Staff Officer at UNIFIL HQ; commanded the Irish contingent with Kosovo Force, Ireland’s first service with a NATO-led mission; served as Director in the EU Military Staff, Brussels where he headed up the planning and supervision of EU forces to Chad and the Central African Republic.  We met also with Captain Pat O’Connor, Personal Staff Officer for the Chief of Staff.  He has served a year with UNTSO and will likely complete a second (and a bit of a whizz on the internet having won awards for the best Irish Government website!)

Under Major General Finn’s command are UNTSO’s 153 Military Observers plus almost 100 international and over 160 local support staff, drawn from some twenty-five countries.  UNTSO Observers are attached to the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights and to UNIFIL, as well as maintaining a presence in Sinai.  No UNTSO Observers carry weapons of any kind.  They are generally senior officers who can handle tense situations as well as the more quotidian though ever-complex diplomacy required of their liaison roles with the military services of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

Commander Erik Romby from the Netherlands gave an in-depth briefing on the mandate and regular operations of UNTSO.  It was his last day of duty with UNTSO so we are very grateful for him taking the time to do this.  Like all professional soldiers fully in control of their brief, Erik dissected the task, resources and operation of UNTSO with precision and clarity.  He, Major General Finn and Captain O’Connor fleshed this out with insights and impressions from the varied locations in which UNTSO serves throughout the region.  We were particularly interested in the current situation on the Golan Heights and the immediate vicinity in which Irish troops will deploy with UNDOF at the end of September.

UNTSO is the original UN peacekeeping entity, formed in 1948 to supervise the various armistices that brought an end to the Arab-Israeli War of that year.  It is funded directly by the General Assembly in a biannual vote, reflecting the fact that it was established a mere three years after the UN’s inaugural meeting in San Francisco and one year after the historic General Assembly vote on the partition of Palestine which preceded the Arab-Israeli war.

Given its original mandate and its evolution since then, UNTSO has Liaison Offices in Jerusalem (its HQ), Damascus, Beirut and Ismailia, Egypt.  It has a unique regional role, experience and perspective.  UNTSO’s core task has remained essentially the same since its foundation though how and where it does it has changed in response to the wars and turmoil in the region over the decades.  This has given a tremendous depth of experience to UNTSO as an organization and informed its strong esprit de corps.  That they carry no weapons in this most volatile and armed areas is remarkable.  But combined with their experience it has also helped ensure safe passage through difficult situations including when taken captive on occasion.  Its longevity of service in the region means that it is a known and respected entity by locals and military alike.  The turmoil in so many areas of UNTSO’s operations in recent years has seen again an evolution in UNTSO’s thinking and approach, though its core function remains unchanged.

UNTSO headquarters is the former Government House from British Mandate times.  Built of Jerusalem limestone, its oaty hues turn pale gold in the evening sun.  It has an elegant solidity, its barrack-like construction softened by the arched gateway, sunken gardens and tower which combined with its elevated location gives a 360 degree view of Jerusalem and environs. The function hall has a tall and gorgeously designed Armenian fireplace, a thing of real beauty and a product of the long association between Jerusalem and Armenia: indeed the family of its artisans still lives in the Old City.  Photo portraits of former UNTSO Chiefs of Staff grace one wall of the hall, with two of Lieutenant General William Callaghan, one of our great Irish soldiers and peacekeepers, awarded the Legion d’Honour for his leadership of UNIFIL in the 1980s.

Julian and I were escorted to the top of the building, above the water tank and upwards to the roof of the tower for what is recognized as the best view of Jerusalem.  Major Mark Weiner (USAF), clearly an aficionado of the area and its history, pointed out highlights in a guided finger pointing arc – the King David Hotel, the Dome of the Rock, Gethsemane, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the clustered housing of East Jerusalem, the grey concrete Lego of the Barrier and behind it the West Bank, beyond a thin glimpse of the Dead Sea and beyond again that of the craggy dusty orange shores of Jordan, then the impressive man-made stump of the Herodion (ruined palace of Herod the Great) and finally toward the noticeably more modern West Jerusalem.

From our vantage point, it was easy to marvel that before us lay the intersection of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, that on this ground walked, talked, thought and socialized the Patriarchs, prophets and holy men that shaped the religious beliefs and imaginations of the Judean, Christian and Islamic worlds.  For believers, depending on their faith, this is the hallowed ground of God’s prophets, his son and minions.  We gazed at the slopes, crowded by history and now by habitation, guided by a company of men trained and uniformed as soldiers yet who are disarmed and tasked with the delicate diplomacy of peace keeping along the fault lines of regional conflict.  In this paradox lies the very heart and ethic of the United Nations and its peacekeeping duties.

We concluded in Major General Finn’s office, sunny in the late afternoon but cooled by the thick limestone walls of the Government Mansion.  General Finn gave a final overview of the strategic landscape in which UNTSO operates and the role of UNDOF on the Golan Heights where Irish soldiers would soon deploy.  We discussed the longevity and range of peacekeeping tasks carried out by the Irish Defence Forces in the region, notably with UNIFIL but also in many other UN operations such as UNTSO and UNDOF.

Irish success in peacekeeping roles is a product of the quality and ethos of our officers and enlisted men.  Without the backup of heavy air or naval support, our troops are conditioned to operate lightly but with state of the art personal equipment, to improvise, to get to know the landscape, people and local culture intimately, to use emotional intelligence and avoid if at all possible recourse to or escalation in the use of force.  There is in our Irish military DNA something of the guerrilla force that fought for Ireland’s independence and then formed the core of the new State’s Defence Forces.  Nor can one discount our colonial heritage and the empathy that engenders in understanding conflict and its wellsprings. (For more information on the Irish Defence Forces overseas missions please see their website

Reflecting on UNTSO, Major General Finn wondered rhetorically; how to measure the cost of conflict avoided? Impossible of course but it is certain that UNTSO has played a key role in keeping the peace and easing tensions through liaison and observation.  Particularly in these tense times UNTSO brings an assurance to all the militaries of the region that armistices and treaties are faithfully honoured.

Certainly there is a price to be paid with some 33 fatalities among serving UNTSO members, amongst them two Irish officers, including fatalities in combat, accident and natural causes.  As we left the Government Mansion, we paused at the Memorial where General Finn spoke about some of the stories behind the names inscribed there, such as the four UNTSO members killed by an Israeli airstrike in the 2006 Lebanon War.  He recalled too the dreadful murder of Commandant Tommy Wickham by a Syrian soldier in Golan in 1967 (see related tweet).  There too is inscribed the name of Count Bernadotte of Sweden, the UN Mediator in the Arab-Israeli War who brokered an early truce and thereby helped create the conditions leading to the establishment of UNTSO.  Coincidentally, Major General Finn was due to speak the following evening (17th September) at a Swedish Commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Count’s assassination in 1948.

On behalf of Julian and myself, I would like to warmly thank Major General Finn and his team for such a valuable and fascinating visit and to wish them every success in their tours of duty.

UNDOF are hosting Ambassadors to a briefing and site visit shortly which will be a very useful occasion bearing in the mind the upcoming deployment of our Irish contingent.  I’ll let you know how that goes.


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