President hosts Reception for Heads of Missions, Ambassadors and Consul Generals

Mái 24th Dei, 2023 | 19:00
suíomh: Áras an Uachtaráin

Speech by President Higgins at a Reception for Heads of Missions, Ambassadors and Consul Generals “The Diplomacy of Globalisation from Below”

Áras an Uachtaráin, Tuesday, 24th October, 2023

“The Diplomacy of Globalisation from Below”

Speech by President Michael D. Higgins

Honorary Consuls,
Distinguished guests,
A cháirde,

Is cúis áthais dom an fáiltiú seo a óstáil do Chonsal Oinigh agus Cinn Misin ar cuairt, rannpháirtithe sa chomhdháil bhliantúil i gCaisleán Bhaile Átha Cliath, a chuimsíonn Cruinniú Mullaigh Dhomhanda na hÉireann. Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur romhaibh go léir chomh maith le baill de bhord bainistíochta na Roinne Gnóthaí Eachtracha chuig Áras an Uachtaráin.

[I am very pleased to host this evening’s reception for visiting Honorary Consuls and Heads of Missions who are participating in their annual conference in Dublin Castle and which incorporates the Global Irish Summit. May I welcome all of you as well as members of the management board of the Department of Foreign Affairs to Áras an Uachtaráin.]

May I begin my address by expressing my deep gratitude and appreciation to all of you present for all that you do for Ireland and our people. I am always glad to receive the opportunity to thank those who work with great commitment on behalf of Irish citizens, and this evening is such an occasion. 

Ireland’s diplomatic and consular network is an extensive one, and the roles and functions you perform are valuable and varied. For many Irish citizens, their first contact with members of that network can often be at times of great distress or difficulty owing to events affecting our citizens who are travelling, living, working or holidaying abroad, impacting their families and loved ones at home in Ireland. 

For many, such contact may often become their primary means of support, assistance and reassurance as they try to navigate their way through unfamiliar processes and legal systems, communicate effectively with medical staff or police in a foreign country, or assemble the documentation necessary to travel suddenly abroad in response to a family crisis.

Your compassion, commitment and expertise, as well as the practical support you provide, and the sympathy and empathy with which you deliver it, has had a profound impact on numerous Irish families.

All of you here this evening – Heads of Mission, Ambassadors and Honorary Consuls – make an important contribution to the appropriate representation of Ireland and strengthening of bilateral relations between Ireland and countries across the globe.

Indeed, throughout my own public life and activity in the international arena over many years, I have witnessed the impressive work which you undertake in this regard, as well as your valuable engagement and achievements in the multilateral environments which are so critical to the creation of a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. 

So, let me pay tribute now again to that public service and to the vital part you play in Ireland’s international presence and our global engagement.

I thank you, both Consuls and Embassy Staff, also for the valuable work you do in promoting our rich Irish culture and heritage on the international stage, one that is at the very heart of our identity, connecting our global Irish people to our shared past, while enriching their new societies and communities. 

The work you do in keeping that culture alive and relevant is so important, creating a critical sense of belonging for Irish people living far away from home, and an important resource for descendants of the many Irish people who have, across the decades, had to leave our shores in search of new opportunities and a better future. 

Foreign policy is an essential part of the identity of any State, expressing, as it does, its core values and ideals. It reflects both the way in which we, as a national community, view the world, and the complex and diverse manner in which we are affected by, and must respond to, the challenges and crises we witness and experience across the globe. Foreign policy is important to all of us.

Mid-term in the first term of my Presidency, on 14 January 2015 I had the privilege of being invited to speak to Irish Heads of Mission where I addressed the topic,  ‘The future of diplomacy in conditions of global change’. On this occasion, I would like to reflect on how events have unfolded over the last eight years. I will give my remarks the title “The Diplomacy of Globalisation from Below”.

I believe some of the questions of 2015 remain central – such as what is foreign policy, how is it to be presented, what are its sources, its components and its practice?  These are questions which I had addressed not only in that paper in 2015, but much earlier still in my paper, ‘The Case for an Oireachtas Foreign Policy Committee’, published in Studies in Spring 1988. In the time since the publication of that paper in Studies, we have seen the development of a Foreign Affairs Committee. 

However, I think it is noteworthy that we still do not have a United Nations Committee. There are over 100 such associations recognised in 92 UN member Countries. 

Like in so many other countries, there would surely be a value in such a committee, coordinating the dissemination of summary accounts of significant work with regard to climate agreement, sustainability, and making knowledge of the work of the UN available to schools – Issues on which there has been distinguished Irish work.

In my 1988 paper, I wrote of what was perceived in some circles as a dilemma – that of professional practice versus public participation – that is to say, whether professional practice can be hampered by public participation and discussion of foreign policy. In demonstrating this attitude to which I was referring, I quoted from a paper presented at a conference of Chairpersons of Parliamentary Assemblies in June 1984 by Dr. Steenkamp, President of the First Chamber in the Netherlands, who wrote:

“Undeniably, a contrast began to emerge between the emotional approach by part of public opinion (often fed by pacifism and moralism) and the business-like approach of the Government aiming at the feasible.” 

This is an attitude that has been given support in the history of Irish foreign policy discussion. It was quoted during the discussion on my proposal for a Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, 10th December 1986, initially agreed among Senators, it received 12 votes. 

I have just returned from Rome, where I addressed the World Food Forum and had meetings with the heads of the FAO, IFAD and the World Food Programme. We discussed some of the global issues facing us, the vicious circle of global poverty and inequality, global hunger, debt and climate change – our interacting crises.

Does connection between the trauma of our shared lives not warrant the greatest transparency and inclusiveness?  Inequality is rising around the world, fuelling enormous, justifiable anger, political extremism and can provoke a “crisis of legitimacy” as Jürgen Habermas has put it.

That is the context, one of interacting global crises and fragile trust in which sustainable food systems must be achieved.  All of us gathered today are asked to respond in the most meaningful way within your capacity, to the challenge set out by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in his recent statements, and I quote of his statement on the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals:

“The Sustainable Development Goals aren’t just a list of goals. They carry the hopes, dreams, rights and expectations of people everywhere. In our world of plenty, hunger is a shocking stain on humanity and an epic human rights violation. It is an indictment of every one of us that millions of people are starving in this day and age.”

It can be put right, it must be put right, but we must change, and there is work involved in upskilling in such a way that we can not only identify and critique assumptions of failing models but be able to put the alternative models in place. 

Gaining support for these great moments of human achievement that the agreements on sustainability and on responding justly and adequately to the consequences of climate change requires an inclusive discourse.  We have had so many, too many, broken promises. Only 15 percent of some 140 specific targets to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals are on track to be achieved. Many targets currently are going in the wrong direction, and not a single one is expected to be achieved in the next seven years. Seeking and delivering authenticity of words delivered into actions, actions and policies that have an ethical outcome requires our participation as concerned citizens at every level.  

A general indifference, that indifference of which Pope Francis spoke of, often masks a feeling of powerlessness.  I think, no more than when I wrote all those years ago in 1988, that the biggest challenge was the uncritical acceptance of ‘globalisation’, now too often, reaction to the immediate event is what counts rather than the normative quality of policy. 

The way in which this absence of critique of globalisation might be challenged was considered in detail by Richard Falk of Princeton University’s Center of International Studies in his 1997 paper, “Resisting ‘Globalisation-from-Above’ Through ‘Globalisation-from-Below’”. 

Using ‘globalisation from below’ to pattern responses and strengthen democracy was a theme of one of my papers at the World Food Forum discussions in Rome last week. 

In a prescient conclusion to his paper in 1997, Falk suggested that whether a reconciliation is possible between global market operations, the well-being of peoples, and with the carrying capacity of the earth could be achieved – this, he believed, would be the most salient political challenge at the dawn of the new millennium.

We are now in new circumstances, changed irrevocably by COVID, by conflict and by the diverse and, in too many respects, near irredeemable impacts of climate change.

How might we define the key issues that we face – challenges such as climate change, global hunger, global poverty, migration and terrorism? 

Surely, these are ‘transcendent issues’. This concept of transcendence is important. The issues to which I have just referred affect us all and are beyond the policy of any one Government or any one point in time. They raise issues of inter-generational and international justice. This is the sense in which I suggest that foreign policy belongs to us all, includes normative considerations as well as professionalism of practice.   

The issue then is what would be the appropriate form of discourse that might serve the several dimensions of our necessary shared discourse? What issues such as to the appropriate or changed architecture of work in these areas would be appropriate, and can it be made inclusive, thus bringing professional practice together with essential public participation? 

If the discourse invited is not inclusive, then we will be back to all the areas I addressed in my book, Reclaiming the European Street – a corrosive legitimacy crisis of which Jurgen Habermas, among others, warned us, but which, in conditions of unregulated social media and declining circulation of serious journalism, is now with us in a way that fear can be exploited to create versions of ‘the Other’ that lead to hate and prejudiced opinion.  

We have to resist too, what I would suggest, is a condition of drift.  We have to reject the tacit compliance with the suggestion that war is a natural condition of the human species, or indeed that xenophobia is a natural human condition, or that people of different religions or cultures cannot reconcile cultural or historic differences, live harmoniously. We have to pursue a new symmetry, our very species’ survival depends on that now, as does our relationship with other species.

As President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva highlighted in his address to the UN General Assembly last month, last year military spending totalled over 2 trillion dollars and expenditure on nuclear weapons reached $83 billion, a value twenty times higher than the regular UN budget.

Yet we do not see the same urgency with regard to the provision of resources to achieve food security.

The history of the Irish Presidency in all of this consideration of who might be involved in discussion and the advance of foreign policy is uneven. It may be a surprise to some to learn that some of the earliest Presidents of Ireland had a list of proscribed people, dealing with those who were not considered sound on the national question. There are others in contemporary conditions who feel that the present incumbent, or future incumbents, should not draw on their experience or learning, respond to what they may have feel are moral choices staring us in the face, should not given space in the discourse, while occupying the Office of President.

Whenever I think about these views, I remind myself of people who were able to travel across all of the dimensions of foreign policy, political office, and diplomacy to which I refer. I think for instance of the late Martti Ahtisaari, who sadly passed away last week, or Richard Falk to whom I have already referred. I think too of Noel Dorr who is happily with us this evening, whose work in pursuing Costa Rican President Oscar Arias’s peace plan for Central America, was important and exemplary.  Each of these professionals had a wide and generous mind informed by events yes, but also by scholarship, respect for diverse models of economy and society. Above all, they were inclusive as to discourse.

There are so many countries in the world – and you will all have experienced this in the countries in which you have served – who want to hear from Ireland, their interest not only based on our history but on our practice, our work for global peace and sustainability. 

We have seen this reflected in all of the issues which we placed on our agenda during our membership of the UN Security Council and in so much of the progress which we achieved.

We are in conditions of great change.  What we are now seeing emerge from what is being titled ‘the South’ is a range of movements advocating ‘globalisation from below’ that can potentially assist democracy and undo some of the damage that an unaccountable, uncriticised ‘globalisation from above’ has delivered on institutions, people’s lives, and indeed on your own noble profession of diplomacy. In that new discourse of the South, Ireland has a special welcome, in its own right and as a European Union Member with the opportunity of being a bridge to a refurbished multi-lateralism.

As we meet, it is important to acknowledge the contributory role that the diplomatic failure to meaningfully address the Israel-Palestine conflict, one that has been raised every year at the United Nations, which has borne a terrible fruit for all those concerned. The absence of positive engagement has created a vacuum, turned hearts to stone, enabled hatred to boil over into devastating violence. 

It should remind us that it is the responsibility of all of us to return and to engage with all of the sources of conflict and while, accepting the right of Israel to defend itself, seeking to vindicate too the right of Palestinian people to pursue the rights to which they are entitled.

War and reprisals constitute a vicious circle of violence fuelled by old hatreds and humiliations as well as failed diplomacy, leading to further losses of innocent life and destruction. 

The promulgation and waging of war and violence will not lead to any such constructive approach as might achieve the necessary conditions for the co-existence of all in conditions of peace, for which we, all of us, must aspire.

Those international voices who have called for an end to the further loss of civilian life, for restraint, realise how difficult this is to achieve. Yet, if out of the worst of circumstances something is to be achieved, it requires an immediate and urgent engagement by neighbours and the international bodies all those interested in peace in a meaningful multi-lateralism, so as to achieve the ceasing of attacks on communities and their civilian infrastructure.

It should not need stating, but it does, that any response, and indeed the resolution to what is an ongoing conflict, one that has been neglected and is now manifesting itself with new horrific consequences, must be in accordance with international law, humanitarian needs and respect for the decisions of the United Nations, whom I would call upon to act with urgency.

We must heed the words of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who has recognised the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people and the legitimate security concerns of Israel, but underlined his rejection of terrorist acts and upheld the need to protect civilians.

As to global hunger, a theme of your conference this year, we must tackle, once and for all, the vicious circle of global poverty and inequality, global hunger, debt and climate change which constitute, our urgent interacting crises.

When we speak of food security and sustainability within our North of the planet we must face up to some sobering facts, such as that of 1.6 billion tonnes of primary food production being wasted annually in so-called developed countries, while obesity levels continue to rise. 

We must tackle food speculation in crops, for example, in the stockpiling of wheat reserves among a mere handful of nations, the monopolistic practices of those who control seeds, fertilizers and tools.   

We require a new departure with regard to food production models, one that is informed by local realities and can be helped, I suggest, by a new anthropological scholarship. This offers the security that a dependency on the international food value chain can never offer.  Such an anthropology is about fact-gathering by rural people for empowerment, the breaking of dependency and enhanced participation – all leading democratic institutions.

We have seen many great successes that are a direct result of diplomacy working at its best, including in Northern Ireland, which I understand is another theme of your conference this year. 

The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement demonstrates that a shared commitment to universal human rights – to equal treatment, to parity of esteem – can facilitate the creation of shared space, one capable of accommodating different aspirations, one in which it is possible beyond conflict to imagine and shape a future of hope and possibility. 

If we are to succeed in that endeavour, we should recall, and take strength from, the role of diplomacy, of diplomatic practices, in the achievement of peace on this island, and remember that a lasting peace is never a given and requires enduring commitment from all sides and ongoing diplomatic engagement.

Diplomacy is, I would suggest, at its best, when it allows for, has not eschewed, a normative base, that it is a practice that must constantly strive to balance creatively the pursuit of national interests – ideally sourced in an inclusive public sphere – with an open, enlarged ethical consciousness grounded in a recognition of our solidarity as human beings sharing a fragile planet. 

Such an endeavour can stem from a shared European public sphere, but it also has to be sought at global level, and perhaps with most proximate benefit in the multilateral institutions.

We need to encourage the work of reform in our international institutional architecture, such as United Nation reform, at the highest level, including the Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions, if we are to optimise the potential of our multilateral bodies so that we may achieve what the United Nations Secretary-General has suggested is the challenge to “turn a year of burning heat into a year of burning ambition” – he has called for ambition and action on all of the aforementioned crises that we face in the global community.

This includes, too, working together to achieve the ethical and appropriate use of technology, digitalisation and artificial intelligence so that such technological innovations can adhere to well-defined ethical guidelines regarding fundamental values, including the upholding of human rights, privacy, non-discrimination, and non-manipulation. I am pleased that this, too, is something that you have been discussing.

This evening, then, I would like all of us to reaffirm and uphold the values of peace, solidarity and global justice which have inspired the actions of your distinguished predecessors. 

We have a rich history of diplomacy in this country. You are the recipients of a long and admirable tradition – one that runs from the human rights work of Roger Casement and Erskine Childers to that of Noel Dorr who is with us this evening and who will celebrate his 90th birthday next week. Comhghairdeas agus breithlá shona duit.

Irish diplomatic tradition is a tradition that includes, for example, the lead taken by Ireland in recent years on the control and abolition of cluster munitions and the protection of human rights defenders, as well as achievements during its term on the Security Council, especially those relating to humanitarian aid.

We are now presented in contemporary conditions with both a challenge and a test, to exercise Ireland’s credit in contributing with authenticity and commitment to creating a new atmosphere in global North-South relations. 

Ireland’s unique historical experience as a Western-European country without an imperialist legacy means that we can play an important mediating role towards achieving the necessary shift in vision and discourse, in the relations of North and South, but we must lend our voices to the reform agenda of the multilateral institutions so that all voices are heard.

Engagement with wider intellectual debates and with ongoing research in the social sciences and humanities is vital if we are to have a rich and deep diplomacy, one that is evidence-based as well as values-driven. Engaging with scholarship takes on an even greater importance in a world characterised by uncertainty and by the abuse and misuse of science and technology, the upending of ascertained knowledge and empirical facts and truths. 

The three days you are spending discussing the foreign policy challenges of our times are a milestone on that path. May I commend the Department of Foreign Affairs for undertaking such a wide-ranging reflection, and wish you all the very best in your future endeavours. May I also wish your families and your loved ones well, appreciating, as I do, their contribution to your work on our behalf and recognising the regular disruption of lives that is involved in diplomatic postings. 

We owe a debt to you, our diplomats, and indeed we have to recognise the costs of dislocation for children, parents and indeed grandparents. My gratitude again to our Consuls for your efforts, our gratitude for which could never be sufficient.               

The work of those who seek to build friendships between peoples, to construct peaceful, consensual resolutions to the root causes of conflicts – this work is of immense importance and should not only get recognition but should be celebrated, as we do this evening in Áras an Uachtaráin.

Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, I have no doubt that each and every one of you here tonight will help to craft a strong and inclusive  voice for Ireland in this new world – a voice of creativity and ingenuity, but also a voice that demonstrates commitment to our rich history and traditions, a voice of generosity and solidarity with the struggles of so many nations across our fragile, vulnerable planet that is in peril.

Beir beannacht.