President hosts New Year’s Reception for members of the Diplomatic Corps

Wed 27th Jan, 2016 | 11:00
location: Áras an Uachtaráin

Speech at the Diplomatic Corps New Years Greetings Ceremony

Áras an Uachtaráin, 27 January 2016

A Oirircis, A Dhéin an Chóir Thaidhleoireachta,

A Oirirceasa,

A Aire Flanagan,

A Aíonna Uile, agus  a Dhaoine Óga ach go háirithe,

Cuireann sé áthas orm agus ar mo bhean chéile, Sabina, céad míle fáilte a chur romhaibh go léir go hÁras an Uachtaráin.

Gabhaim buíochas leat ar maidin, a Shoilse, as ucht na mbeannachtaí cineálta orm féin agus ar Sabina. Tá an-áthas orm glacadh leis na beannachtaí seo thar mo cheann féin agus thar ceann muintir na hÉireann. Agus muid ag tabhairt aghaidh ar Bhliain Nua, is é mo ghuí do gach aon duine agaibh agus do shaoránaigh bhur dtíortha an ghuí céanna atá agam do mhuintir na hÉireann: bliain síochána, bliain dóchais agus bliain ratha.

Your Excellency, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,


Minister Flanagan,

Dear friends,

It is my great pleasure to welcome you and your families to Áras an Uachtaráin. As we enter 2016 I wish for each one of you and the citizens of your countries what I wish for the people of Ireland – a year of peace, prosperity and hope.

May I say how much I appreciate your good wishes, Your Excellency Most Reverend Charles Brown, coming as they do from the representative of a world leader who is doing so much to invigorate the spirit of international cooperation. Indeed, from the role he played in the historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States of America, through to his contribution to the debate on climate change and his important journey in Africa, during which he exceptionally inaugurated the Jubilee of Mercy in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic – and all this for the year 2015 alone – Pope Francis has emerged on the international stage as a figure of benevolence, great eloquence and outstanding diplomatic skill. He is also making his mark as a frank analyst of our failures, challenges and possibilities as a global community on a vulnerable planet, a planet made vulnerable by, as he put it, our “indifference.” His is a call among others for reflection on the principles that have guided and continue to guide our policies at home and abroad.

Dear Friends,

The beginning of a New Year is a time when it is usual for us to revisit the year that has passed. It is also a time that invites us to look forward, as we rededicate ourselves, to the service of our respective nations, and to our shared commitments to international cooperation.

So this morning I would like to reflect with you on some of the successes and failures of diplomacy in the past year, and share a few thoughts on some of the collective challenges and possibilities that lie ahead of us.

2015 was a particularly good year for diplomacy, and– some even say – “a triumph” for multilateralism. It will be remembered as the year when a new paradigm was forged on global sustainable development and a critical agreement sealed on climate change. These achievements represent wise and patient, perhaps even inspired, contributions of a diplomatic kind.

If I may start with the issue of climate, on which we now have near full agreement as to the facts, the urgency of our position and, of course, our immense responsibility towards future generations. Indeed the fight against global warming invites us, as the Prime Minister of India said in his address to the Paris Conference, to “care for the world we shall not see.”

In July of last year, I had the pleasure of taking part, at the invitation of President Hollande, in one of the preliminary consultations held in the run-up to the COP21 – a conference entitled “Consciences for Climate.” Much of the discussion at that conference revolved around the ethical challenge posed by climate change and the revolution in consciousness it calls forth. For all of us there the questions were unequivocal. Yes, the scientific reality of climate change is now accepted. But can our generation effectively seize the problems we have inherited and respond to them creatively? Are we ready to depart from economic models that encourage trade-offs in favour of the present, to the detriment of the future?  Can we reconcile the fight against climate change and the right to development claimed by emerging countries? If we are to think globally and have global policies, is the theory of interests that has motivated the foreign policy of so many of our nations not also the source of some of our greatest collective problems, be it in the areas of security, unfair trade, tied development aid or global poverty?

If we are to effectively implement the Paris agreement, must we not open the categories within our theory of interests and prepare for a moral leap such as will enable us to construct our policies transnationally on a normative basis? And can this new normative consensus which humanity requires draw on a variety of philosophical sources, cultural systems, transcendent belief structures, while holding basic human rights as its bedrock?

The universal, legally-binding agreement that was adopted last month by the representatives of 196 countries at the COP21 in Paris gives us hope in the ability of multilateral diplomacy to make a new departure and tackle such fundamental questions.

This agreement has created a momentum; it has kick-started a positive dynamic which will see world leaders meet up every five years, to review and increase their national contributions. Yes indeed the COP21 has left a number of issues unresolved. For example, it remains to be seen what the annual $100 billion financial “mobilisation” in favour of poorer countries, starting in 2020, really entails,[1] and how some Western countries who are struggling with debt will manage to deliver on their promise.

Furthermore, while the 1.5 degree Celsius target is a very strong and most welcome signal, it is still unclear how individual countries will effectively implement strategies to cut their carbon emissions so as to meet this ambitious target. Then, of course, as many commentators have noted, the Paris Conference failed to put a global price on carbon.[2]

Yet, I believe that all of us here can agree that what was achieved at the COP21 is a great victory in light of the disappointing failures of the past. This is a turning point in the climate crisis, a powerful, irreversible movement. We have an agreed framework for collective action.

The climate justice movement is now global: so many of our citizens have already started to change their consumption patterns and forms of living; thousands of cities, provinces and regions around the world have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. We are entering a new era, the era of low carbon, with new geopolitical equilibriums in sight, and huge opportunities for all countries, including the poorer ones, to develop wind and solar energy.

Dear Friends,

Today on our planet, about 800 million children, women and men do not have enough food to eat; the principal source of hunger is dire poverty exacerbated by gross inequalities which, scandalously, continue to increase. Eradicating this poverty and its associated cortege of suffering is the greatest moral challenge we, as a global community, face. It is a challenge we have not met with an adequacy of mind and heart. 

The implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that relate to it is our historic chance to respond to this greatest of challenges. I had the honour of witnessing the adoption of this 2030 Agenda, in New York last September, in what was one of the biggest ever gatherings of world leaders at the United Nations.

The adoption of an ambitious new framework for global sustainable development is rightly held as another great achievement of multilateral diplomacy in 2015. It is an achievement to which the permanent representatives of both Kenya and Ireland made a valuable contribution, as co-facilitators in the negotiations – and I would like to take this opportunity to thank whole-heartedly Ambassador David Donoghue for his great work throughout the final phase of these negotiations.

Of course these two Agendas agreed in 2015, the climate and the development ones, are profoundly interrelated, so great is the impact of environmental degradation on our populations’ livelihoods. Conversely, the ability to effectively fight climate change hinges upon all of our states' capacity to uproot extreme poverty and other debilitating forms of insecurity. The conclusion of a deal on climate was also essential to the Sustainable Development Goals insofar as the legally-binding dimension of the environmental goal gives a hard edge to the 2030 Agenda.[3]

Importantly, this New York Agenda provides us with a new, universal paradigm for development. Indeed, while the previous generation of development goals – the Millennium Development Goals – were predicated on a rather traditional conception of North-South cooperation, with aid flowing from rich to poor countries, this agenda of 2015 is for everybody. Many have recognised that increased inequality, unemployment and indebtedness, with their ensuing poverty, mean that there is now “a South within the North”, while elements of the North have migrated to the South.

As with climate, this universal Agenda for global development invites us to complete a shift in mindset and discourse. It is a proclamation of interdependence, that calls on us to take part, not just in the previous North-South conversation, but in a new conversation about our humanity itself, and its collective future.

The 2030 Agenda is also important in another respect, in that it puts forward a holistic approach to development, emphasising – I quote – that “there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” Thus peace, political stability and good government are recognised as a virtual fourth pillar of development policy (together with the economic, social and environmental pillars). This gives us hope for the emergence of an integrated continuum of action at international level, stretching from the responses provided to emergency situations to the need to empower vulnerable communities in the long-term.

If I may, I would like to single out and welcome whole-heartedly the adoption of Goal number 5, which proclaims the need to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. In several regions of the world, we have recently witnessed an appalling resurgence of violence against women and girls, often rooted in a hideous ideology of female inferiority. Ireland has been a strong supporter of the establishment of the vital new “UN women” agency. Indeed gender equality is a principle of seminal importance; it is an issue that should infuse all thinking on development.

May I highlight a few features of the New York and Paris agreements – features which, I believe, can inform our thinking on multilateral action more generally. Of particular value to the professional exercise of diplomacy is the success of method that both the negotiation of the 2030 Agenda and the COP21 have been.

As for the latter, may I pay tribute to the work of Ban Ki Moon in laying the ground for the Conference, to Pope Francis for his valuable contribution, with Laudato Si, to the public debate on our relationship to our natural environment, to the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, for making this issue one of his top priorities, and to French diplomats, who engaged so skilfully with all stakeholders before and during the Conference.

I hope that the “Esprit de Paris” will be emulated in the years to come. The ability of our diplomats to engage with multiple actors – not just state and institutional ones, but also, for example, NGOs, local authorities, cities, trade unions as well as bodies representing the scientific community, or the private sector – this ability is crucial to the development of new global partnerships on issues of significance for the whole of humanity. The lessons drawn from such collaborations can, I believe, contribute to a positive renewal and expansion of multilateralism, both in terms of the management of crisis and of long-term governance.[4]

Both the Paris and New York agreements are also important advances from the point of view of democratic participation. I have consistently emphasised, since my time in Seanad Éireann, the need for policy-making, including foreign policy, to be sourced in an open and robust democratic debate. I think that we can all rejoice at the fact that both the climate and development agendas have attracted huge public interest in all of our countries. The role of civil societies will continue to be crucial as we move on to the implementation phase of both agreements.

The voluntary pledges made by all participating countries in Paris are public, which should allow civil societies to hold their governments to account more easily. As for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed in New York, they are fleshed out by 169 targets, and will soon be complemented, in March 2016, by indicators that can galvanise the participation, advocacy and action of citizens and NGOs as they monitor their government’s actions in combating poverty and hunger.

Of course real progress on any of the issues of global significance I have mentioned – be it gender equality, hunger, or climate change – is predicated upon the International Community’s ability to secure appropriate levels of funding. According to a recent report prepared by the joint Development Committee of the IMF and the World Bank, trillions, not billions, will be needed to fund our ambitious new programme for global development.[5] This was the subject discussed last July during the Addis Ababa Conference, which preceded the New York summit.

As we look at new ways of financing development, I believe that we should keep the issue of debt at the centre of our discussions. Ireland supports the Addis Ababa Action Agenda which recognises the need to assist developing nations in attaining long-term debt sustainability. Indeed the unsustainable debt position of so many countries gravely undermines their capacity to plan and execute long-term development programmes. No serious or plausible agreement on development can ignore debt management issues, and in particular the central question of the role of the state and its financial capacity.

In that respect, the Addis Ababa Conference did not dissipate those real concerns at a possible over-reliance on the private sector, rather than the state, and the implications of this when it comes to funding development.

In a recent keynote address I had the honour of delivering to the 10th UNCTAD Debt Management Conference, in Geneva, last November, I suggested that each state should be given a mandate to “ensure that core social goods are established as a matter of the first order of economic priority, and that the international institutional system should support such a prioritisation.”

I realise that this principle is contradicted at the present time by the policy and practice of a number of institutions. Yet I believe that the Sustainable Development Goals have quite a radical potential in that they provide a framework that might encourage governments to establish a “social floor” in the years ahead. This concept of a social floor should not be seen as any simplistic rejection of market economics but as the drawing of a distinction between that which constitutes the core social goods of sustainable development – that is, sufficiency in food, health, housing, basic education and participation – and those goods and services which may appropriately be left to the mechanisms of the market to distribute. Only thus will developed and developing nations alike manage to “find their own path, in conditions of change, to sufficiency and sustainable development.”

I illustrated that point with the recent experience of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, countries that were forced to make a choice between funding the necessary infrastructure to respond to the Ebola crisis or continue to make interest repayments on debt.

What is needed, then, is no less than a radical rethinking of the policies informing the structure of our multilateral system. More generally, this reform is required if the international system is to hope to connect the goals and aspirations which it is putting forward in the field of development and climate change, with the weak architecture it is providing for resolving issues such as debt. This is all the more pressing as these issues, everybody is now conceding, are essential to the achievement of the goals set forth both in New York and Paris.

This time last year, in preparation for the post-2015 development negotiations, the UN Secretary General issued an important report entitled: “The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet.” In a short, powerful section entitled “Making the UN fit for transformation”, the Secretary General stated that, to deliver on the new agenda, we need a UN system “that is relevant, innovative, agile, inclusive, coordinated, and results-oriented”; a system that “is guided by universal human rights and international norms, integrates the UN’s normative frameworks with its operational activities, and is responsive to the differentiated needs of countries”; a system that “forges effective partnerships to leverage external partners’ expertise, capacities and resources.”

He concluded by suggesting that “Member States may wish to reinforce current actions being taken, as well as take initiatives to ensure that the UN system is ‘fit for purpose’ to support its new transformative agenda and achieve coordination and coherence of development actors at country level”.

I believe that the Secretary General’s diplomatic challenge is so relevant across the whole multilateral system. In a speech I gave, in 2014, to the students of Shanghai's Fudan University, I suggested that existing institutional silos are not suitable for the achievement of universal goals in a global context. The music from them is very discordant. More coherent linkages, more harmonious and even original music, are required between different agencies. Of course, inter-institutional cooperation is fundamental, not just at international level, but also at the national level – for as you know very well, fragmentation at UN level often mirrors a lack of integration between government departments within states.

But of course we need to go much further. Beyond the necessary reshuffling of our multilateral institutional architecture, we must also look at the theory and scholarship that underpin the actions of our diplomats on the international stage.

Foreign policy, implemented through diplomacy, is based on assumptions within scholarship. How open, citizens across the planet might ask, is that scholarship? What price, might they ask, have they paid and continue to pay, for false certainties, the pursuit of narrow interests, distortions of thought and history?

We must not allow ourselves to forget that the unresolved issues of global poverty, food insecurity, desertification, unsustainable levels of debt, distorted trade and abuses of power, by commission and omission, are the legacy of paradigms of thought and practice that have failed, and continue to fail us as a global community.

Over the past year, I have had the benefit of having valuable conversations with Kofi Annan, Ban Ki Moon and Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank. I must say that all of my visitors shared my concern at the threat to what we all hope for, indeed to democracy itself, that is posed by the expansion of all that is unaccountable in the world.

Indeed if we are to achieve any of our global goals, we must seek to define new models that are accountable, transparent, and rooted in democratic participation. Meanwhile, we cannot indulge any illusion that those who hold unaccountable power will surrender it to the people without intellectual and moral confrontation or struggle. The notion of global citizenship, if it is to gain substance, requires the strategic organisation and informed participation of our citizens into discourse and decision-making.

The age of open foreign policy, of accountable multilateral diplomacy, of a revitalised normative theory for collective action, is upon us.

Of course the pursuit of a better world requires good faith, authenticity of language and a genuine commitment to human dignity. I refer specifically to the need to put an end to any and all of our ambivalence in relation to the implementation of human rights. The reduction of human rights to a mere rhetorical instrument of political abuse is immensely harmful to the credibility of the human rights system and to the legitimacy of those states who resort to such a distorted usage.

How can the sponsoring of conflicts, the injection of death and displacement, the destruction of livelihood, in the name of the ethnicity, belief, or origin, ever be justified? Isn’t it the task of foreign policy, of diplomats, our publics may rightly ask, to relentlessly confront those who instrumentalise surrogate conflicts and pay at best lip service to human rights?

Our collective action on the international stage must always be predicated on sound philosophical foundations. Dignity, Justice and Truth are not hollow words. The New York Summit, for example, was at its best when it invoked a spirit of leaving nobody behind. As for the Paris talks, they were grounded in good science. Truth won out over the funds of the powerful, the lobbying of vested interests and the bogus science that converged in an attempt to negate the reality of global warming.

We have arrived at a crucial juncture of our lives together. Previous models of governance and economics are disintegrating. Prevailing forms of living, of extraction and use of resources, of trade, are now revealed to threaten, not just our natural environment, but social cohesion itself.

Excellencies, dear friends,

Our world is one of shifting complexity, indeed it is becoming ever more shifting and ever more complex. As we begin 2016, we are faced with challenges that are now interacting: population expansion, migration, changing trade conditions and commodity depreciation, and the current economic downturn which is impacting particularly hard on emerging countries and may mitigate their ability to deliver on their international commitments – these are all issues that create a chaotic context for the year ahead.

We remain confronted, across the world, with dramatic situations of conflict. If not addressed, these conflicts will continue to generate unspeakable human suffering and might also put at naught our collective efforts in the spheres of climate change, poverty and hunger.

Therefore we must, in the coming months, try again, and – acknowledging where we have failed – dedicate all of our efforts to finding solutions to the ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq, but also to the most worrying escalation of tensions, once again, in the Great Lakes region and in particular in Burundi, not to mention Ukraine, Nigeria, South Sudan, Libya, Pakistan, Turkey and so many other places where peace is fragile.

This is a daunting task, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work which all of you, as diplomats, perform on a daily basis. The work of those who seek to build friendships between peoples, who tirelessly weave peaceful, collective resolutions to the root causes of conflicts – this work is of immense importance and should be celebrated. I acknowledge it and I celebrate it.

When we look back at 2015, all of us are haunted by the memory of the horrific slaughter of so many defenceless people in terrorist attacks across Africa, Europe and the Middle East. These new forms of violence are extremely difficult to tackle, arising as they do at the obscure intersection of geopolitical tensions, individual trajectories and beliefs, complex structures of social inequalities, and globalised passions that prosper on feelings of hopelessness, resentment, humiliation, or the search for glory.

The combining of fanaticism and technology has generated what Ulrich Beck has called “a globalisation of emotions” as a most powerful driver of global disorder. This poses a particularly difficult challenge for diplomacy. As pointed out by political scientist  Pierre Hassner, global passions, in particular negative ones, are such a powerful force in international relations that diplomacy can never afford to overlook them.

This means, amongst other things, that the international community should be wary of undertaking actions – or to allow for the undertaking thereof – that might exacerbate destructive collective feelings of resentment or humiliation. Let us reflect on the legacy we have inherited. Multilateral negotiation should always prevail over unilateral intervention, and in particular military intervention.

As I conclude, may I draw your attention to yet another destructive passion that is taking root in too many of our societies – i.e. fear.  We know the extreme perils encapsulated in fear. We remember how the manipulation of collective fears has, in the past, led to such horrendous events as so-called “preventive genocides.”[6]

Let us, together, take every possible action to prevent fear from becoming a driver of our responses to global challenges. I am thinking in particular of our response to the great migration crisis that defines the contemporary moment.

To give protection, food and shelter to those who are fleeing war, opression or starvation is a matter of fundamental, universal human solidarity. The refusal to do so goes beyond that remarkable phrase coined by Pope Francis – “the globalisation of indifference”, as indifference is slowly turning into mistrust and hostility.

I am proud to say that the Irish government voluntarily opted in to the relocation process of asylum seekers put forward by the European Commission. Indeed, as Your Excellency has mentioned, Ireland also sent a succession of naval vessels to the Mediterranean, allowing for the rescue of approximately 8,500 people over the last six months. Yet, here as everywhere else across Europe, the initial upsurge of emotion and generosity is always in danger of giving way to a more apprehensive atmosphere.

The risk is not just that this refugee crisis has the potential to undermine Schengen and the principle of free circulation within the European Union. It also has the potential to undermine the values at the basis of that humanistic spirit to which Europeans recommitted themselves after the devastation of WWII. The issue of migration touches upon some of the most divisive and sensitive aspects of European identity: our relationship to the outside world, to the South, and to the Muslim world.

Again I would, with humility, urge all of our European Ambassadors here to do everything that is in their power to ensure that this crisis becomes an opportunity to rekindle a European ethos of human dignity, freedom and solidarity; an opportunity – perhaps – to forge a coherent common policy on asylum. I urge them to give meaning to the most shared concept across all belief systems and cultures – ‘hospitality’; ‘care for the stranger not yet a friend.’

Excellencies, dear friends,

As we begin this new year with hope and anticipation, may I thank you, once again, for the vital role you perform in fostering understanding and cooperation between nations. I wish also to recognise and acknowledge the support which you receive from your loved ones in this important work.

In this year when Ireland is celebrating the centenary of some founding events of its independence, please convey the good wishes of the Irish people to all those you represent so well.

Gúim rath and sonas oraibh go léir,

And now I would like to propose a toast:



[1] Developed and emerging countries committed to “mobilising” $100 billion per year by 2020 to help poorer countries cut their emissions and adapt to climate change, but skeptics suspect that the definition of this mobilisation is deliberately vague so as to include loans, grants with strings attached, and the reallocation of aid budgets.

[2] This is an important issue as market operators need pricing signals to reallocate investment towards carbon-free technologies. And this issue is all the more pressing, as investment cycles in technology are long ones – requiring action sooner rather than later.

[3] Among the SDGs, the responsibility for the climate goal is handed over to the UNFCCC, the only body subject to binding targets. The other goals are not binding. It is up to governments to decide how much they want to implement.

[4] Similar promising partnerships have also successfully been built in the past in the field of health, notably in the global fight against AIDS or, for example, in the coordinated emergency response provided to the Avian flu pandemic.

[5] “From Billions to Trillions: Transforming Development Finance. Post-2015 Financing for Development: Multilateral Development Finance”, April 2015. Report prepared jointly by the IMF, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

[6] In Rwanda and elsewhere.