MoS Ciarán Cannon, TD, Opening Address, HoMS Conference
Speech16 January 2018
It is my pleasure to welcome home those among you who have travelled from embassies abroad and, also, to welcome colleagues from Dublin and Limerick to what I hope will be an interesting and thought provoking day of discussion.
Gathering here in historic Kilmainham offers us a unique opportunity to take time out to debate, interrogate, applaud, critique and re-affirm our priorities. Priorities which do not just belong to this Department but which are of course those of the Government, and which belong to the people. Priorities which must be heard amidst the clamour of urgent day-to-day demands.
Looking out the window into the yard, I am reminded that this place, where once veterans of the Battle of the Boyne were housed, is where each year we have our national day of commemoration. A day when we remember all those Irish people who died in past wars or in service with the United Nations. A day when we remember Irish people who died across the world in service of their cause, frequently a noble cause.
And I look back into this room, filled with veterans, and some not so old, of the cause of Foreign Service, working with Irish people and in the interests of Ireland with impressive reach and expertise around the globe. And I want to thank you for your work and commitment, in all of the many forms it takes, to delivering for Ireland.
I have been able to bear witness to some of that work across the continents – Asia, Africa, America and Europe – over the past few months: importantly in my role as Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development I hear from others about the positive impact made by the officials of this Department, and those other civil servants posted abroad. There is much of which you should be proud, individually and collectively, as part of Team Ireland. Thank you.
As will be evident in the discussions this week, this is not, however, a time for resting on laurels. Ireland, as a small island on the geographic periphery of our continent, will be buffeted by many gales over the coming years. We will have to be nimble and adept if we are to remain where we want to be, a global country at the heart of Europe, leading and influencing.
That is why the Government is committed to expanding Ireland’s global footprint. A footprint that is in many ways defined by our people and our values, which together are an important part of Ireland’s influence. Everywhere I go, I meet an Irish person, whether of first, second or more distant descent, or I meet someone educated or otherwise touched by someone from this island. They are a large part of our influence.
Our footprint is in our music, our movies, our writers, our teachers, our talent, our business, our agriculture: it is us, it our reputation, our stock in trade. We are custodians of the rich story of what it means to be Irish and what we represent as a country.
George Bernard Shaw once said that his reputation grew with every failure: while this was, of course, very false modesty, our positive reputation as an island has in part been defined by some of our failures, in particular the failure historically to adequately provide for all those on this island. We have had to learn from that.
There was also that other Irish trait, one which Shaw also observed, that of showing appreciation for our native land by leaving here as soon as possible - a trait which those gathered here today display in abundance!
We look abroad not always in failure, but also in hope: I do not think it accidental that Ireland is one of the world's most globalised economies... our mind maps have long been global - from Saints Brendan and Colombanus to the Irish Colleges of Rome, Salamanca and Paris through the over 100 Irish field marshals, generals and admirals that led Austrian forces in the Hapsburg era to the leaders of Latin American liberation movements to Irish men on both sides of the battle of Waterloo.
We know of our emigration stories, to the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Less celebrated are those to Argentina, to Spain and to Southern Africa. But all are individual stories, of pain, of hope, of failure, of success, of generosity, of families and friends...
And today Irish businesses are ever more global, building on those networks of family and friendship abroad... and, in the shadow of Brexit, we must continue to look beyond our archipelago if our businesses are to continue to thrive.
The knowledge and expertise that have shaped our development policy are closely connected to the efforts of an Irish diaspora made up of missionaries, peacekeepers, aid workers and volunteers, who make important contribution to positively shaping lives in developing countries, or in places in crisis. Their dedication adds to the reputation and influence of Ireland across the world.
That 'Ireland outside' is a strong influence on Ireland at home. It helps us shape our sense of ourselves, it feeds into our values. It is a source of investment and pride. When President Robinson lit the candle in the Aras window, it was a beacon to our diaspora. It was also a statement of what it meant to be Irish coming into this 21st century, an Irishness not rooted in a petty sense of place but one more rounded, more global and inclusive, an Irishness of values not of blood. That sense of Irishness was perhaps most eloquently defined in the Good Friday Agreement, particularly its statement that those from the North have the right to be British or Irish, or both.
It is probable that our sense of ourselves was damaged by the financial crisis. Those were dark days, as we all recall. Difficult decisions were required. Decisions which hurt. Thankfully that time has passed. The economy is doing well. People are doing better. And while clearly there remain difficult challenges to overcome - housing and health among them - there is a restored sense of momentum which if harnessed correctly can positively reinforce our sense of who we are, our values, our influence.
In the next session we will discuss how Ireland's development cooperation programme might grow over the coming years, how we might restore momentum to an important foreign policy tool, one which reflects who we are as a people. The values at the heart of Ireland’s development policy are deeply rooted in our country’s history of famine and migration. Our determination to respond in a spirit of solidarity and respect to others' poverty draws on the historical, political and social experience of Ireland, and how we ourselves understand the challenges of poverty, conflict, injustice, and migration.
But let us be clear. Investing in development cooperation is not an investment in foolish altruism. It is an investment in our global neighbourhood. It is about our safety and wellbeing. It is about containing disease. It is about helping respond to conflict and displacement, to natural disaster. It is about exporting support for a rules-based international order. It is about helping our friends turn their demographic challenges into dividends, building their economies and in turn creating opportunities, opportunities which we may share.
It was others’ perception that these were Irish values that enabled us, together with Kenya, to get agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals. Clear sighted, cross government, work is required if we are to make good the promise of the SDGs for Irish people at home and our neighbours and friends abroad.
I don’t under estimate the efforts required. Some of the discussion in the first session is intended to help elaborate how Ireland’s development co-operation programme can make its contribution. I am clear of the potential reward if the SDGs are realised. That reward is one of transformation, built on partnership, solidarity and respect, rooted in our experience as a country.
We already have a sense of what can be achieved -family stories such as mine, from subsistence farming to Minister in a generation, facilitated by education, is one example. I am sure everyone in this room has something similar in their family story, which together make our national story, which contains the tragedy of the famine, to today being an island producing eleven times more than we can eat ourselves.
All this in a world that is perhaps smaller and more connected than ever. And also a world that in one critical sense is getting ever bigger - our global population is projected to reach over 8 billion by 2030. Our planet's resources will be stretched. If we are to live together in peace and security, it is important that Ireland's voice is heard, our values articulated, our influence felt. With our diaspora of almost eighty million people worldwide, we become over 1% of the world’s population, with a truly global reach.
That reach can be extended further through our investment in friendships, in affinity, through your work and the extending of Ireland's global footprint. All of this in a time of change, of flux, of shifting demographics and, arguably, a time when what it is to be Irish is again evolving. A time when the make up and interests of our diaspora are also changing.
We see that in our relations with the US. Each time that the US government carries out a census of its people, 35 million people, one tenth of its population, self-identify as Irish, giving us a link to the US that is the unique in the world. Millions of people who have never set foot on this island still retain a strong sense of what it mean to be Irish. This group represents an important opportunity to be bigger than this island.
We need to start thinking today, about what our diaspora will look like in twenty years time. How will they see Ireland? What will being Irish in America, Africa or Asia mean for the next generation? And, what does that mean for Ireland’s influence and place in the world?
If we are to build upon, and amplify this valuable global network, we need to connect in a more meaningful way with our Diaspora. We need to reach out to the people who are not currently engaging with our embassies.
We need to use technologies in innovative ways to support and engage with our people abroad. Irish people are technologically aware - from the Skyping Granny to the highest levels of mobile phone penetration in Europe. Increasingly, our emigrants use social media and other technology to connect with each other, and with home.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade already reaches over 300,000 people through its network of social media accounts. This is a good start, but we must do better. That is why I am setting myself and you all the challenge of building the number of followers of the @GlobalIrish twitter account to 1,000,000, to allow us to engage with new and different people, to reach new places, to find new ways of connecting. Finding our way to meeting this challenge will require us all to think in new and innovative ways about how we connect with our diaspora. It will ask us to think about who are our diaspora.
Can we build greater links with the friends and families of those who have come to be called the 'new Irish', from Eastern Europe, from Africa, from Brazil, from everywhere? How can we translate their experiences of us - hopefully positive - into the projection of our values and interests, of who we are?
Are there links we can build to those whom we reach through our other work, for example our development co-operation programme and its projection of our values and interests, and who we are? Irish Aid engages across at least seventy-five countries globally, and brings us into diverse areas of activity, each of which is an opportunity to project Ireland. In the context of the new White Paper on development cooperation, which will be produced next summer, there is an opportunity to think through how we might best link our development cooperation into Ireland's wider foreign policy, our wider influence.
How might we best project an integrated vision of all that Ireland has to offer across our foreign policy? I have long been a strong advocate for using innovation and technology to improve the education sector in Ireland. During my visit to Tanzania in October, I had a snap shot of insight to a classroom in a refugee camp. You could almost reach out and touch the appetite for knowledge among those young people. Later that week I saw how Irish educationalists, including Galway's own Bernard Kirk, could harness technology to reach over 1.3 million people during Africa Code Week, with the assistance of our Embassy network. They also work on Refugee Code Week. But there is much more we can do to invest in the education of children displaced by, living in the midst of, conflict and hunger. To do so is a vital investment in their future, but also our future stability. Done well, there is the potential to create lasting connection with these communities and countries.
I also firmly believe, that strategic and meaningful engagement with our diaspora, with the world outside, a respected and effective development co-operation programme, must be about more than one government department. It must be based in an effective understanding of, and symphony with, the values and policies we express at home. It is about our sense of agriculture, our spirit of enterprise, our strong tradition of education, our efforts to address climate change, and our embrace of innovation. It is our culture, our music, our stories, our landscape that help us connect.
It is that sense of connection that underpins the Government’s desire to extend voting rights Irish people worldwide, to give them a voice in choosing our President. In a referendum in June next year we will ask people to do exactly that, to extend that privilege worldwide, to recognise our Global Irish nation. Imagine the positive and generous message which a successful referendum would send to our global family.
This week you will discuss the many challenges facing Ireland in the coming years. Challenges which will impact on Ireland's relevance in these islands, in Europe, and globally.
Of course, with challenge comes opportunity. One of the advantages of our size should be agility of response. Response with our values and interests to the fore, but also a response that is creative. A response that I believe must be networked, based on relationships, alliances, partnerships, friendships and shared interests, making life better for Irish citizens and other people across the world. This is best achieved by a strong sense of who we are. This week's agenda is fascinating. Can I wish you a good conference?