Gerard Howlin: From failing state to wielding soft power on the international stage

We are small. To succeed we must be nimble, selective, connected, and respected, writes Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: From failing state to wielding soft power on the international stage
Ireland starts a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council on January 1. Picture: AP

We are small. To succeed we must be nimble, selective, connected, and respected, writes Gerard Howlin

It may earn Micheál Martin little credit politically, and it seldom does, but much of his work positioning Ireland for recovery, will be done abroad. On January 1, we will, or will not, have a Brexit deal.

There are signs that one is now genuinely sought by the British. That’s good, but none of the significant compromises required have yet seen the light of day and time is pressing on. Yesterday the UK did submit an application to the EU to create Border Control Posts (BCPs) in Northern Ireland ports. These will check animals and food arriving into the EU single market. That’s a step forward but this process will go right down to the wire at the October EU summit. Success may be only a partial deal, and that could be highly problematic.

No version of Brexit is good, and no-deal will be a disaster.

In tandem, Ireland starts a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council on January 1. Since we joined the UN, we have served every 20 years. It is certainly soft power. It is also a cockpit where hard crises are likely. In 2000-2002 issues faced by Ireland during its two-month chair of the Council, included the US and UK invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. Iraq featured constantly as sanctions tightened and tensions rose. Ireland was specifically tasked with chairing the sanctions committee on Angola. Then Ambassador Richard Ryan persuaded the Americans to do what they hadn’t intended to do on Afghanistan, namely come before the Security Council. The institution was bolstered and a massive UN humanitarian intervention enabled.

On Angola Ireland led a successful effort to first starve the UNITA rebels of the profits of the infamous blood diamonds that financed its war. As resources reduced, the net closed and civil war finally ended. It was an enormous achievement for a country with no presence in and few links with Angola. That’s the thing that can be missed about a small country serving on the Security Council. It is about making a contribution to the global system of multilateralism, on which we depend. That’s not just political philosophy. It is the nuts and bolts of being a respected player internationally, which in turn is an essential calling card for our economic model.

TK Whitaker ominously pointed out in the 1950s that Ireland as a country could cease to exist. We were fewer than three million people and mostly poor farmers, whose children emigrated. Interminable population and economic decline was pulling us down.

Joining the UN in 1955 was the first essential step in breaking out of a logjam where we existed effectively only as an economic subset of the United Kingdom, and politically as an ideal for ourselves.

Arriving in the UN, elected to its Security Council within six years at the height of the cold war, and leading the way on nuclear disarmament through the 1960s, demonstrated we were an actual country, not a rural equivalent of greater Manchester. Entry to the EEC was the essential next step.

Europe is now our political mothership. Its effectiveness which cannot be taken for granted, is essential to our interests. And speaking of soft power next year Ireland with Estonia and France will be the three EU countries on the Security Council. In 2022, it will be just France and us. That interaction requires the contribution we have offered to make, it also gives us opportunity and relevance.

These obligations as the final phase of Brexit negotiations intensify, through to the conclusion of our term on the Security Council, bookend Martin’s term as Taoiseach. It coincides with the moment after a too-brief economic recovery when our credit lines will be exhausted in attempting to lift the economy out of crisis. This will bring us right up to the brink of economic survival, or failure. A continuously recurring pandemic, a new virus from an open Pandora’s box, or any number of events will find Ireland exhausted not only of domestic resources, but any obvious recourse to further credit abroad. Making a contribution globally to issues as diverse as bio-diversity, cybersecurity, and free trade, are not fanciful dalliances. They are determining factors for our sustainability and success. When all that is to be borrowed in on our balance sheet, we will never be more vulnerable to a second shock.

After December 31, Britain will have both left the EU and be finally gone. Ireland will be a net contributor to its budget. It is questionable if we are psychologically prepared for common tax, common expenditure, and common defence. How and when these will emerge is debatable. But the exit of the UK has quickened the pace. The unresolved challenge of Brexit is only prelude to another. That is the direction and competence of an EU we are completely invested in, and which will continue to change in ways that will be critical for us.

Among the many things I was wrong about was the likely future of the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Apparently impregnatable, Western and American hegemony was a fallacy. Victory over communism unleashed a host of repressed forces from nationalism to fundamentalism. China is now a world power, and an increasingly aggressive one. The United States under Donald Trump has abdicated the role of global policeman it took on when it entered the Second World War. Globalisation and free trade, the essential underpinning of our economic model are under attack.

We are small. To succeed we must be nimble, selective, connected, and respected. Sometimes there is a quid pro quo. More often there is a legacy that imperceptivity actually rewards good work. That is part of the reason we are back on the Security Council. It is the basis of the alliances we will need ever more, including in the EU after Brexit. In the constituency-based coliseum of Irish politics it is seldom rewarded. It is too often about places far away with names we can’t pronounce. Multilateralism, the effective pooling and networking of effective structures by different countries is too often translated as a spaghetti junction of acronyms.

In fact, it is the bread and butter of doing business and influencing outcomes for a small country. The world is changing psychologically as well as economically and politically. Until Saint Patrick’s Day we were the first generation to live free from the fear of a major pandemic. It was an astonishing change, we took for granted. It is now an idyll that is over. We are in an era of uncertainty. We fear not nuclear weapons but invisible viruses that infest out bodies and disable the technology on which we are dependent. These are the new issues of security. They coincide with our own unprecedented vulnerability nationally. Navigating recovery will require not just extraordinary effort at home, but deep investment in engagement abroad.


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