Leabharlann na Meán


Speech by President Higgins at the Diplomatic Corps 2018 New Year’s Greeting Ceremony

Áras an Uachtaráin, 24 January 2018

 A Oirircis, A Dhéin an Chóir Thaidhleoireachta,

A Oirirceasa,

A Aire Stáit Cannon,

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

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

Your Excellency, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,


Minister of State Cannon,

Distinguished guests,

It is my great pleasure to welcome you and your families to Áras an Uachtaráin.  May I wish each and every one of you and through you and your Heads of State wish all of the citizens of your countries what I wish for the people of Ireland – a year of peace, reflection and renewed commitment to co-operation as we face together all of the challenges, seek to make the necessary renewals, and the new beginnings indeed that we must make not only in the coming year but in the decades ahead.

May I begin by conveying my thanks to His Excellency, the Most Reverend Archbishop Okolo, as Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, for his kind words and good wishes for the New Year.

During this year, I, as Uachtarán na hÉireann and all Irish people can look forward to welcoming Pope Francis. This past year was yet another in his pontificate in which he offered his words of inspiration, hope and very necessary reminders of our shared obligations not only to humanity but to biodiversity on our planet.

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to meet the contributors to a volume entitled ‘Laudato Si’: An Irish Response’, a collection of essays containing the reflections of Irish theologians, academics, and environmentalists on the second encyclical of Pope Francis, which was subtitled ‘On Care for Our Common Home’.

Their visit and their book, which was presented to His Holiness by former President Mary Robinson on the occasion of the visit to him in Rome by the Elders, was a reminder that His Excellency is the representative of a Papacy that has made such a vital contribution to the dialogue we urgently need on the immense threats to our shared but increasingly vulnerable planet – threats which constitute nothing less than an ‘ecological crisis’.

Pope Francis has reminded us that pollution, climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the growing scarcity of fresh water, and global social inequalities are connected, part of a complex system which we must come to understand in each of its parts.

In Laudato Si a case is made for an integrated vision that will deliver ‘a new and universal solidarity’. Issues of human dignity, work environment, the rights of migrants and excluded communities, global poverty, sustainable development, the renewed threat of war, how we must replace fear with hope, are all dealt with in what is a ground-breaking moral statement not only for the Vatican but for the global discourse.

How often will we need to have demonstrated to us the human catastrophe that is war? Why is it necessary, generation after generation, to devote the richness of nature and human intelligence to war?

This year, on the 11th of November 2018 we shall, in countries across the world, commemorate the conclusion of the catastrophic events that began the 20th century in Europe which we now call the First World War. We will recall not only all of the dead but the lost potential of millions who lost their lives or who were injured during that conflict, the countless others whose suffered mental anguish as a result of bearing witness to living with the legacy of the horrors of war. That war did not end all of the wars of that century in Europe or the World. Nor has it ended the invocation of fear, the threat of might, nuclear capacity, to this day.

The Papacy of the day issued the encyclical ‘Ad beatissimi Apostolorum’ two months after the conflict began, in which the war was described as the ‘the suicide of civilized Europe’.

We may now, even more so today, question as to how that appellation ‘civilised’ came to be used, the connotations it carried, and the purpose of its use, the hubris of an alleged single source of civilisation The collision of the empires of Europe visited a terrible devastation upon the peoples whom they sought to keep subject, peoples whose subjugation, like the First World War, reflected the application of ideas which were anything but enlightened, indeed reflected the perversion of new science and technology towards what would become and continue to be the very worst ends.

The First World War, above all, represents the failed consequences of a particular model of diplomacy – the diplomacy of the strong seeking hegemony. It was one that embraced cynicism, that asserted a narrow hegemonic theory of interests over idealism, and the projection of national power above the recognition and rule of international law.

The ‘balance of power’ established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 facilitated repression at home – through the suppression of the liberal nationalisms that were arising within the dynastic empires – and abroad, experienced through the creation of vast imperial systems.

The international system was served by a diplomacy, based on the prosecution of a theory of balanced but competing forces that existed within its own remorseless logic, that is summed up by the ancient motto ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’. That brutal logic of deterrence has left us a legacy that defines security as management of fear, rather than in terms of eliminating global poverty, enabling sustainable development, or preventing loss of life. Such a view has locked up so much of our natural and human resources in a militaristic logic of endless preparation based on fear of the other, distortion of the culture and motives of the other.

In 2018, as part of our Decade of Centenaries, while we will remember the end of the First World War and will honour the Irish who fought and died in it. We will also remember and commemorate the General Election of December 1918 influenced as it was by a widespread rejection of conscription.  That election was a key point in Irish history because it provided the democratic mandate for the first Dáil. The election also had a further significance, because it was the first election in which women in Britain and Ireland were able to vote and it was the point at which women’s suffrage – for which so many had campaigned and suffered imprisonment - was achieved.

While 1918 was therefore a new beginning in Ireland, it also represented a failure in a wider European context. As I have said, the First World War itself was the result of a failure of diplomacy.

The possibility of a new start in international relations and national self-determination embodied in Wilson’s Fourteen Points was also squandered in the peace settlements such as that at Versailles, whose provisions many saw as entrenching those very inequalities between nations which had been one of the causes of the war.  More malign forces of nationalism and extremism fed upon these diplomatic failures as fuel for a myth of betrayal and victimisation.

Once again, one hundred years later in 2018, we see that the value of diplomacy is being called into question. People point to the daunting global challenges we face: for example climate change, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the devastating humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state in Myanmar, and ask has diplomacy failed again? In the absence of diplomatic solutions, people are invited by the bellicose to turn to siren voices proposing simpler answers – the use of force, or crude exclusionary measures against those defined as “other” than us.

History should remind us of what diplomatic failure can mean. The consequences are not abstract – we know that at its worst it can result in violent conflict and the destruction of countless human lives and potential.  In a recent speech, the distinguished UN diplomat and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, did not mince his words – he said we now “find ourselves in a political earthquake zone” where the basic global consensus, embodied in key regional and international institutions, is being eroded. 

It is not sufficient, however, to simply note that the absence of effective diplomacy can have dangerous consequences. As diplomats, your vocation is to devise a positive vision which can capture and sustain the support of public opinion. You must claim the space for, and seek to vindicate, diplomacy. You must show how diplomacy can help solve the problems which face the world, and how negotiation and compromise ultimately offer a better way forward than conflict and polarisation.

Is the basis of our multilateralism not under threat? Since the creation of the UN and its associated institutions at the end of the Second World War, the focus has been on rights-based diplomacy and the elaboration of a network of multilateral institutions. These have created important norms, and entrenched universal values, for example, as enumerated in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

‘Universalism’ is a category that should limit the imposition of the strong as a single source of values. We cannot concede ground on what we have won for basic human rights and dignity. Some in the global South, however, argue that this normative framework sometimes seeks to draw almost exclusively from Western post-Enlightenment thinking, the exclusion of other value systems and networks of knowledge.

The rich learning, culture, and jurisprudence of the Islamic world, for example, is often ignored in a Western discourse which reduces centuries of sophisticated legal, religious and academic thought into a one-dimensional debate about extremism versus moderation. This is not merely lazy. It is dangerous talk.

I believe we should seek to engage in a dialogue with other cultures, based around a fundamental respect for different ways of ‘seeing’, and the deep knowledge which many cultures have through their specific and unique understanding of their world. An openness to different sources of knowledge, including a desire to learn from indigenous cultures and many faiths, can only benefit our mutual understanding. While we may differ on the conclusions we reach about how we engage with the world, it is important that through a process of dialogue and debate, we demonstrate a sincere respect for the way other cultures and peoples reach different conclusions regarding politics and diplomacy. I believe that you, as diplomats, with all your skills of intercultural exchange should be at the vanguard of those efforts to build mutual knowledge and understanding.

At the same time, we must also be concerned that anti-intellectualism is feeding a narrative in which a distorting version of populism offers deceptively simple answers to complex issues.

Words matter. They are the essence of diplomacy, because words both define and shape solutions – they can liberate and open up possibilities, but they can also shut down debate and dialogue. We have seen how the use of words, especially on social media, can make the work of diplomats much more difficult by narrowly defining the parameters in which problems can be considered, thereby closing off other possibilities.

Dear friends,

The challenges which we all face in 2018 are some of the most daunting since the end of the Cold War. Back then, there was optimism, if not hubris, that somehow we had reached an historical apotheosis. Professor Fukuyama went so far as to argue that we had reached the end of history itself: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.[1]

It turned out not to be so. History has a way of reasserting itself.  Your task, as diplomats, is to face that reality squarely and to imagine a new way of dealing with global problems, while remaining true to the values which must shape diplomacy – the patient work of building friendships between peoples, and of constructing peaceful collective solutions to our shared problems.

The global problems which face us are manifold and interlinked and require global understanding and co-operation: the threat to all our futures posed by climate change; the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Yemen; the importance of a just resolution of the Palestinian question, rooted in international law and a two–state solution; the ongoing challenge of conflict and poverty in Africa; the desperate humanitarian plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar; the importance of a need for a renewed multilateral effort to underpin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran; and a peaceful resolution to the issue of nuclear proliferation in the DPRK.   

Let us also consider the many difficult journeys being undertaken by so many of our fellow citizens with whom we share this vulnerable planet. Many millions of women, children and men around the world suffer from the lack of a home or secure shelter. In 2017, we learned that 20 people a minute are forced to leave their homes by wars, conflict, persecution and natural disasters. We have a responsibility to help the many millions of refugees and displaced persons find their rightful place in a peaceful society.

Underlying all of these issues is the fundamental question of how we ensure the representation and dignity of all people; how to preserve and protect their human rights; and help them build a better and more prosperous future for themselves and their children.

How do we begin to resolve these daunting challenges? What are the tools, which you as diplomats, can use in your work?  

Diplomacy has been defined as one of the most ‘important institutions of our society of states’. Diplomacy enables states to secure the objectives of their foreign policies through negotiation, dialogue and debate without resort to force. At its best, diplomacy should seek to balance the pursuit of national interests – grounded in an inclusive public debate - with an ethical awareness of our shared humanity on a fragile planet. 

The foundation of a diplomat’s work is laid in the foreign policy of your state.  It is an essential part of the identity of any country. It reflects how a state views the world, and how it interacts with other states in all their complexity and diversity.  I believe that a state’s foreign policy must be firmly rooted, firstly, in the values that inform the public space. Secondly, I believe openness and accountability are essential characteristics of a good foreign policy. In my role as a parliamentarian as far back as 1988, I advocated for an Oireachtas Committee on foreign affairs, to both encourage public debate and to ensure accountability for what was being said and done around the world in the name of Irish citizens. This committee, and the other parliamentary committees on European Affairs and the Good Friday agreement, now provide invaluable scrutiny and democratic oversight of Irish foreign policy.

Lord Palmerston argued that states have no permanent friends or enemies, only eternal interests which they have a duty to follow.  While his assertion of “realism” in foreign policy terms reflects a nineteenth century imperialist mindset, the concept continues to have surprising longevity in the discourse of contemporary international relations while its consequences are ignored. Those principles in their day led to disastrous human consequences, re-invoking them brings horrific contemporary risks neglected, as the principles of what led to disastrous human consequences are re-invoked. In Ireland’s case, we believe our foreign policy must go beyond a narrow “realist” assertion of national interests as asserted so bluntly by such as Palmerston.

A broad vision of Ireland’s place in the world has been at the heart of our foreign policy since before the foundation of the state. One of the opening acts of the first Dáil in 1919 was to issue a ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ which unambiguously stated that Ireland

 “believes in freedom and justice as the fundamental principles of international law, because she believes in a frank co-operation between the peoples for equal rights against the vested privileges of ancient tyrannies, because the permanent peace of Europe can never be secured by perpetuating military dominion for the profit of empire but only by establishing the control of government in every land upon the basis of the free will of a free people”.

These fundamental principles of justice, belief in the rule of international law, equality between nations and respect for the democratic rights of people everywhere continue to form the bedrock of Irish foreign policy.

For Ireland, because of our history, and because we are, in terms of population, a small state, we believe respect and support for the multilateral system must be at the heart of how we tackle the global challenges we face.  It is a core value of our diplomacy. As the poet John Donne reminds us

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

Donne’s words are relevant to the current challenges we face as Europeans. I believe multilateralism – a shared sense of working together to achieve our aims – must remain central to our identity and diplomatic approach. It is also vital that we work together to build a Europe that fulfils the aspirations of its citizens, which go beyond economic prosperity and growth, but encompass a cohesive vision of our values as Europeans, expressed in a generous engagement with the wider world.

The European Union is challenged by the need to reaffirm its relevance to the daily lives of its citizens. I welcome the debate around the Future of Europe, and the process of public engagement and dialogue which I hope will reconnect citizens with a vision of Europe founded on concepts based on what we must share such as solidarity with our neighbours and on the meeting of the basic needs of all our citizens across borders.

The Joint Report from the EU and UK negotiators on progress in phase one of the Brexit negotiations published on 8 December was an important step forward. On Irish-specific issues, the report includes maintenance of the Common Travel Area, protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process, including avoiding a hard border, and the protection of EU citizenship and other rights. These are underwritten by a firm guarantee from the UK that a hard border will be avoided and includes commitments as to how this will be achieved.

I hope that 2018 will also bring an early restoration of all the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, and that the Agreement in all its parts is fully protected and respected in the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It is disappointing that, after several phases of negotiations in different formats, it has not been possible to reach an agreement to restore the Executive. However, I believe that it remains possible to reach an agreed outcome which ensures implementation of previous agreements and reflects the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing itself - partnership, equality, and mutual respect.  Northern Ireland has been transformed over the past few decades, but the process of reconciling the two communities must continue, so that the full potential of the decisions made by all the people of this island in 1998 can be fully realised.

Dear friends,

John Donne reminds us that no one stands alone – we are all members of a series of overlapping and intersecting communities, constantly interacting with each other. This is the case for states also: even the strongest and most successful must co-operate with others to tackle global challenges, such as climate change, which transcend borders. 

In Ireland’s case, this aspiration is given tangible form in our consistent support for multilateral institutions, and through them for disarmament and non-proliferation, in the determination of our peacekeepers to prevent conflict, and in our development assistance programme which seeks to affirm human dignity and helps alleviate poverty and hunger.

I have seen in my many visits to the diaspora, most recently to Australia and New Zealand, how the work performed by Irish diplomats over many generations on decolonisation, human rights, the struggle against apartheid, and disarmament and non-proliferation have forged Ireland’s reputation on the world stage. This is a legacy of which we are rightly proud, and which we are anxious to retain as a key building block in our diplomacy.

I would like to recall particularly, at a time of heightened global tension, the dedicated work of our defence forces deployed on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Over 1,400 Defence Forces personnel served overseas in 2017, saving the lives of refugees in the Mediterranean, patrolling the rocky hills of South Lebanon, and keeping the fragile peace on the Golan.

In 2017, Ireland was also one of the sponsors of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, which is intended to lead to their total elimination. This ground-breaking treaty is consistent with the leadership role Ireland has always taken on disarmament and non-proliferation issues, including the Ottawa Convention on Landmines and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

It is of critical importance because it sends a clear signal that the normalisation of nuclear weapons as just another instrument of war will never be acceptable, and that because of their devastating destructive power, they must ultimately be prohibited.

I am proud also that Ireland played a leadership role in the negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals. These goals challenge all states to deal with trade, debt, environmental protection, intellectual and spiritual freedom, as well as cultural diversity, in a spirit of justice, partnership and mutual solidarity. The international community must now commit to offer the possibility, through new connected models of ethics, ecology or original economic thought, transferring science and technology in a culturally responsible way, of the implementation of the Goals to realise their full potential, which has the capacity to transform the lives of millions, in particular in Africa.

Another area which requires multilateral co-operation is climate change, and I hope that the international community can move forward on the implementation of the Paris Accord. As I said last year, I believe it is truly a turning point in addressing the climate crisis, and is the start of a powerful movement for change. I hope that all countries can ultimately sign up to the agreement, which does not threaten the prosperity of any state, but rather is a sign of our shared commitment to secure the future of our fragile planet for the generations to come.  

These agreements are ultimately larger than any one state, however, as they affect the entire global community. Therefore I believe the wider international community and civil society must be mobilised in their support, and to ensure their implementation.

As the High Commissioner for Human Rights has reminded us, however, the multilateral system which has been the basis of international peace and security for over 70 years is under unprecedented strain. While we acknowledge the weaknesses of the United Nations and the need to make its institutions and processes more representative of the wider international community, in particular the global south, Ireland continues to support the United Nations because we believe it provides a framework of values, and the mechanisms to support them, that remain relevant and valid. If we have not yet achieved them, it is not because they have lost their currency, but because our efforts have not yet matched their ambition. 

In 2020, Ireland will be a candidate for election to the UN Security Council. We will be seeking the support of your governments for our candidature. We put ourselves forward because we believe it is our responsibility as a small state to shoulder our share of the burden of global leadership on issues of international peace and security. We also believe that our values and principles, as well as our strong commitment to the UN, embodied in the continuous presence of Irish personnel on UN peacekeeping operations since 1958, will enable us to make a valuable contribution to the work of the Council.

Dear friends,

The absence of peace in the Middle East reflects a fundamental failure of the international community at a human and diplomatic level, and sadly in that troubled region we sometimes hear words that provoke rather than heal.  I would appeal for all parties to remain committed to reaching a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Middle East Peace Process, something which is essential for Israel to secure its future, and for Palestinians to enjoy their full political rights. The aspirations of both parties must and can be fulfilled, and a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states, in line with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and international law.  

At this time of heightened tensions across the region, it is the responsibility of all political leaders to avoid using words which could inflame the situation and make the task of diplomats and peacemakers even more difficult. Because of the Irish peacekeepers deployed in South Lebanon and on the Golan, Ireland has a fundamental interest in ensuring that nothing is said or done which could endanger their safety and security.

I am appalled by the continuing violence in Syria and its impact on the Syrian population. I would urge the international community to support the UN brokered talks in Geneva to bring an end to the fighting. Ireland has contributed vital assistance to the millions of Syrians who have been displaced by this humanitarian disaster, but the conflict must be brought to an end.

We must all be concerned about the situation in Yemen. The conflict there can only be resolved through a negotiated settlement, based on respect for human rights and international law, and improved humanitarian access to those in need. Regional actors have a particular responsibility to do all they can to bring an end to these conflicts.

We will all have watched with deep concern the violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar. A devastating humanitarian crisis has developed as a result of the recent violence, and over 600,000 people, most of whom are members of the Rohingya community, have fled to Bangladesh. The recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, so ably chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, should be implemented in full which would allow those returning to Rakhine to be reintegrated, would ensure their livelihoods, and would provide urgent humanitarian relief for the significant number of refugees in Bangladesh.

Dear friends,

In his poem “Snow”, the Belfast born poet Louis MacNeice reminds us of the inherently mutable and unstable context in which diplomats work

“World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural”

Diplomats must embrace the plurality and variety of the world, and use their experience and training to think about how different people engage with it through their language, culture and history.  That fluidity and movement makes your professional lives deeply rewarding, but it also makes great demands of your skills and resilience, and of your spouses and families who share the diplomatic life with you.

May I thank you once again for the vital role you all play in building understanding between nations and their peoples, and doing whatever you can to foster peace and security in 2018. Finally, may I take this opportunity to ask you to convey my own good wishes, and those of the Irish people, to all those you represent.

Gúim rath and sonas oraibh go léir.

And now I would like to propose a toast to the Heads of State here represented.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18.