Delayed for two years by the pandemic and having presented my credentials virtually, I finally made my first official trip to two of my accreditations, The Bahamas and Jamaica. This was very much a case of familiarization but also to see if I could identify areas for cooperation and possibly to generate some projects with good outputs in a reasonable span of time. Ireland wants to step up its game in the region. More on that later. First some observations.
The Bahamas is an islands’ nation. There is an inescapable interplay between the land and sea. The sea is everywhere physically but the maritime percolates the culture and outlook of Bahamians. Like the Aran Islands, the terrain of The Bahamas offers little fertility. Perched not far above the water line, the seas are sapphire and cobalt, the beaches ivory, and the land rocky and green. The Indigenous Lucayan population, possibly 30,000 strong, were unfortunate to be the first to encounter Christopher Columbus. The rest, as they say, is history. Certainly it was history for the Indigenous there as most were wiped out by disease and slavery.
Not fit for sugar plantations and therefore the oppressions of colonialism and racism, the society that grew there comprised pirates and escaped slaves, free booters and fishermen, those seeking freedom of religion or just freedom. That The Bahamas is a nation at all is a miracle of resilience and hope. Yet its perilously low-lying land means that climate change is an existential threat.
Jamaica is a hunk of mountains in the sea. Less like The Bahamas and more like Ireland, Jamaica can be seen more accurately as a country surrounded by the sea rather than an island. I remembered, in my student days in Ireland, a friend saying in frustration that she needed to get off the island. What island is she talking about, I wondered. With the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, clouds rolling in that catch in the Blue Mountains, the influence of the sea is never far away. However, my sense is that Jamaicans’ perspective is landward, tracing the mountain passes to the parishes, towns and villages of the interior. Ireland and Jamaica both share not just brio and sociability but a ferocious sense of survival and therefore identity. We both have outsized cultural influence beyond our shores.
Ireland is lucky to have William Mills as our Honorary Consul in The Bahamas, supported by his wife Wendy. Like I say about my wife Mary, they are the unpaid half of the diplomatic team. Bill organized a lunch at the club at Lyford Cay for Irish business contacts where we discussed trade opportunities. (The exclusive club was founded by Canadian tycoon E.P. Taylor whose ancestors came from Ireland). And he convened a reception that I hosted for the Irish community, small and resilient like The Bahamians themselves. They all had taken different routes to new lives in The Bahamas, not unexpectedly, but all agreed it was a hard place to leave.
The Honorary Consuls of The Bahamas hosted a lunch. I was seated with the Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell, the US chargé Usha Pitts and the British High Commissioner Tom Hartley. It was great to get their insights on The Bahamas and the politics of the Caribbean. In his skillful extempore remarks to the assembled diplomats, the Minister spoke about a range of issues, including the meeting of Caricom hosted by The Bahamas only days previously and where Prime Minister Trudeau was a keynote speaker. However, the deteriorating situation in Haiti was a major concern. He appealed for the international community to pay attention and assist, wisely noting that this was not about a solution, but improving the situation incrementally and putting Haiti on the right track. In conversation, Minister Mitchell told me he’d often been to Ireland because of a close family connection. He is a passionate Joycean too. I briefed him on our plans for region.
On these kinds of trips, it is always useful just to wander around. Left hand drive cars from America drive on the left hand side of the road: a metaphor for enduring Bahamian links to the British crown and the economic influence of its gigantic neighbor. The capital Nassau has charm, bustling between 11am and 3pm when four or five gigantic cruise ships unload their mainly American passengers. The Bahamians are building new port facilities and aim to keep these tourists at least overnight. I’m sure the guys at the one Irish bar, Shenanigans, would appreciate that development!
National galleries often offer insights and the National Gallery did not disappoint. Housed in a colonial mansion built by one William Doyle, the gallery was devoted to a magnificent exhibition of the art of Antonius Roberts, the country’s leading artist. Brimming with multi-media work, its theme was sacred space. The exhibition was suffused with images and installations about place and nature, the sea and sand, light and colour, natural catastrophe and human resilience.
After slingshot flights to Miami and then Jamaica’s capital city Kingston, we were met by our Honorary Consul there, Brian Denning and his wife Kay. Again, we are so lucky to have them represent Ireland in Jamaica. Brian has handled some really difficult consular cases in recent years, with great sensitivity and effectiveness. His network of contacts is unrivalled.
Brian and Kay toured us around Kingston, offering insights into Jamaica’s history. We passed by Sabina Park where Ireland’s cricket team famously beat Pakistan in 2007. Sabina Park was an enslaved woman whose remains lie somewhere there. A slave on Goat Island where the brutality of the regime prompted a high suicide rate, she killed her four-month-old infant son rather than have him enslaved to work for whites. She was hanged of course, and died a hero to other slaves for her implacable resistance. Sabina was the slave of Joseph Gordon, a Scottish plantation owner who had eight children with another slave, Ann Rattray. Gordon gave freedom to a son, George William. George William Gordon became a successful businessman, politician, and advocate for the poor and for Jamaican freedom. He was executed after the Mor
dant Bay Rebellion in 1865 and declared a National Hero in 1969.
Jamaica faces many challenges as a developing nation but the vision and effectiveness of its government is impressive. Unemployment is at an all-time low of 6.6%, inflation is tracking downward, and the Government has dramatically lowered its debt to GDP ratio. I could only be there for some of Jamaica’s diplomatic week along with a host of other ambassadors, resident and non-resident, and High Commissioners. The speeches and Q and A by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Kamina Johnson Smith, and Minister for Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, were all clear s
lighted and ambitious, delivered with depth of knowledge and assurance. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister had just returned from a visit to Haiti, again underlining their concern about the crisis and the need for international support.
With leadership like that, you have to be confident about Jamaica’s future. As only the second nation (after Haiti) to emerge from a former slave colony, Jamaica’s journey is remarkable. Last year, Jamaica celebrated its 60th anniversary as an independent nation. As for relations with the British crown, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister want to ensure that all stakeholders, including the Opposition, join them on the road to becoming a republic.
The mountains of both Jamaica and Ireland played roles in our history as refuges for rebels. Recall Redmond O’Hanlon around Slieve Gullion, or the men of 1798 taking to the fastness of Wicklow. Maroon communities of escaped slaves formed communities in the Jamaican mountains. The Leeward Maroons such successful guerrilla fighters that the British signed a deal with them in 1739. Along with Captain Cudjoe, another Maroon leader was Nanny, a legend and heroine of Jamaica. History is complicated and the alliance with the British, including an obligation to returned runaway slaves, rankles other Jamaicans. To this day, the Maroons have cohesive communities and ambitions for the future. No problem with that, as Foreign Minister Johnson Smith noted, within the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Jamaica. Like Ireland, Jamaica has to manage the long influence of its colonial past along with its other challenges.
I had a very productive bilateral meeting with Minister Johnson Smith, which was substantive and full of opportunities to develop our relationship. Suffice to say, there is plenty of follow-up both with HQ and in another visit I am planning. My message to the Minister, as it has been to Foreign Minister Mitchell in The Bahamas, was that Ireland had a new strategy for the Caribbean, we were setting up an Office of the Caribbean at our Consulate General in Miami, and we wanted to support our partners in the region on such vital issues as the Small Island Developing States agenda.
I hosted a reception for the Irish community, drawn together by Brian and Kay. We were able to engage with all of the guests, some of whom had come from Montego Bay and elsewhere to join us. It is always amazing how small the world is, at least for the Irish. I met someone who knew colleagues and shared acquaintances not just back in Dublin but in Toronto. “By the way, do you know my aunt in Toronto…?” Know her? I did a podcast with her!
At the Irish community reception, I also met Veronica Salters, known as Ronnie, a doyen of the Irish who had lived most of her long life in Jamaica. Her mission was to engage my interest in Jamaica’s Irish heritage, notably the role of the reforming Governor General, Marquess Sligo, Henry Browne, whose journals and papers are in Kingston. Sligo had been keen to accelerate the transition from slavery to freedom in his time there between 1834 and 1836, earning the ire of the plantation owners, some of whom simply murdered their slaves rather than let them free. They forced his resignation. Yes, she had my interest, and a project is taking shape.
Indeed, I kept picking up references to Jamaica’s Irish heritage. Jamaica was England’s second experiment in plantation after Ireland. Cromwellians threw the Spanish out of Jamaica in 1655 and promptly deported defeated Catholic Irish there to work plantations as indentured labour. There are plenty of Irish placenames, like Dublin Castle, Irish Town, Clonmel and even a Sligoville in honour of the man himself. If you go to the market today to buy potatoes, you say you want some Irish to distinguish it from ‘potato’ which refers to a sweet potato. Folk traditions are heavily influenced by the Irish. A quarter of Jamaicans have some Irish ancestry. I am sure that the more I look, the more I will find. Our shared colonialism has woven a dense tapestry of historical and living interconnections.
I returned to Ottawa to promote those very interconnections between Ireland and Canada with the Fifty Irish Lives project. I now have some sense of both The Bahamas and Jamaica so reading about them will be more meaningful. Plans are underway to visit my two new accreditations in the Caribbean, St Lucia and Antigua and Barbuda. I was assigned them in a new divvy up of Caribbean accreditations. This is part of our efforts to bring more focus to our diplomatic presence. Interesting times ahead for Ireland’s relations with our partners in the Caribbean.
Ambassador to Canada, The Bahamas and Jamaica
7 March 2023