From Shannon to the Sahara, Irish EU presidency was a job well done

IN Irish diplomatic circles there has been some talk in recent weeks about a phenomenon known as Post-Presidency Depression Syndrome.

Apparently this is the nickname given to a mixture of physical and mental exhaustion that hits public servants and politicians after their country's presidency of the European Union comes to an end. It combines relief with exhaustion and even includes symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

From midnight last night the presidency of the European Union became the responsibility of the Dutch. The staff of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs (both at home and abroad), and the European policy sections of the other Government departments will now face their own bout of Post-Presidency Syndrome.

The incessant round of working groups has come to an abrupt end. The reams of presidency position papers which have to be drafted, redrafted and then translated are now somebody else's problem to worry about. The carousel of visiting delegations and summits has moved on to The Netherlands. When the intense activity of the presidency comes to a halt the adrenalin stops.

Even in Drumcondra, Bertie Ahern may feel a tinge of post-presidency depression this morning. Having tackled the problems of Europe and the world with such apparent ease, he will now have to make it through one more week of the Dáil term, take his summer holiday and then find the energy in the autumn to tackle the problems of Ireland and of Fianna Fáil.

The Taoiseach and his entire presidency team can take the credit for some impressive achievements over the last six months. Chief among these is the fact that a European constitution has been finalised. This looked impossible last December when the Italians' summit came crashing down around their ears. There was talk then of the negotiation of the constitution being postponed for a year or two and even of the whole process going into reverse. However, the Irish presidency spent the early months of the year listening, then the Taoiseach managed to persuade the March summit that a final deal on the constitution might be possible.

He then undertook a tour of capitals of member states (a particularly difficult and time-consuming task since enlargement). At the June summit when a frank exchange of views over the summit dinner threatened to derail things, the Irish presidency held its nerve and managed to finalise a constitutional text acceptable to all members.

In decades to come when historians look back they are likely to regard the European constitution finalised by the Irish presidency as perhaps the most significant milestone in Europe's history since the original Treaty of Rome, or at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, this European constitution, if ratified in all 25 member states, could stand as even more significant that the Treaty of Rome because it will involve 25 countries and because it will enjoy a popular mandate through referendums in many of the member states. In that context, Bertie Ahern's achievement can justifiable be listed alongside those of Monnet, Schumann and other founding fathers of the modern enlarged European Union.

The successful EU-US summit at Dromoland last weekend was also an important achievement for the Irish presidency. The Taoiseach managed to walk a careful course between the need to assuage Irish and European concerns about the Bush administration, while also addressing the need to agree a number of significant transatlantic agreements. The summit did much to heal some of the diplomatic wounds caused by disagreements over Iraq.

The last achievement of the Irish presidency was also significant. In securing unanimous agreement around the candidature of the Portuguese Prime Minister for the post of president of the new European Commission the Irish presidency managed to clear the decks on all of the big issues before handing over to the Dutch.

These high-profile events overshadowed somewhat a series of Irish presidency achievements in other policy areas that were also significant.

Europe has had agriculture councils and fisheries council for decades but to these have now been added competitiveness councils, social affairs councils, environment councils, home affairs councils (where immigration and anti-crime measures are co-ordinated) and many other councils. Over the last few months, these councils have been the venues for hundreds of smaller examples of the successful application of Irish public service and political skill.

ONE initiative which came to fruition in the last weeks of the presidency deserves particular mention. Last week, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Tom Kitt, travelled to an area called Tindouf in western Algeria in North Africa to witness the release of 100 Moroccan prisoners who had been held captive by the Polisario guerrilla movement some of them for more than 20 years.

The Polisario is a rebel group representing the indigenous Saharoui people of western Sahara. The Polisario fought a 16-year war with the Moroccan government between 1975 and 1991 over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. A ceasefire ended the conflict in 1991 but the Polisario continues to hold hundreds of Moroccans taken prisoner during the fighting. As it happened, the Irish minister of state was given the happy, if surreal and emotional, task of actually informing the 100 Moroccan men that they were being handed over to the care of the Red Cross and were free to return home.

Since the conflict, 160,000 Saharoui people have lived in refugee camps in Algeria. The conditions there are not helped by the fact that in that part of the world the temperatures regularly hit 50 degrees. The plight of the Sahrawi people is a particularly tragic one on a continent of tragic peoples and conflicts. Ireland has been very active on this conflict, especially during our most recent stint on the United Nations Security Council and we have been very supportive of the Saharoui people's right to self-determination.

In recent months Mr Kitt and Irish officials saw an opening when delegations led by the Polisario Foreign Minister and then their chief negotiator visited Dublin.

The Irish achievement was to leverage our goodwill with the Saharoui side, and the fact that we held to the European Union presidency persuaded the Polisarios that it would be valuable, not only to their own cause, but also as a confidence-building measure, if they were to release some of the Moroccan prisoners at this time.

The release of these prisoners is far from the end of the sorry tale that has been the Saharoui-Moroccan conflict. Hundreds of such prisoners are still being held by both sides. The Moroccans have refused to deliver on the United Nations sponsored peace process. However, this achievement of the Irish presidency is a step towards alleviating the difficulties of this conflict and is a significant one at that.

Now that the Irish presidency of the European Union is over, Ireland returns to being a bit player on the diplomatic stage, albeit with our reputation enhanced.

However, in this era when rising expectation imposes increasing demands on our public service and where cynicism abounds, it is important to make the space to ask our public servants (and indeed their political masters) to take a bow for a job well done.

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