A diaspora (from Greek διασπορά, “scattering, dispersion”) is a scattered population with a common origin in a smaller geographic area. The word can also refer to the movement of the population from its original homeland.
US President John F Kennedy, on his visit to Ireland in 1963, relishing in his Irish ancestry, famously said “This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection”. It is unlikely that any other US President, talking about any other country, would get away with a comment like that. Yet Ireland regularly escapes the distinction of being “foreign” to anywhere. Indeed, the Hiberno-American relationship particularly seems to actually transcend politics, just as Irishness in general is often said to transcend Ireland, with many foreigners having affection for Irish culture, music and the literary tradition. The eulogy by his son at Edward Kennedy’s funeral included the description “Irishman”, despite the Kennedys being fourth-generation American. Ireland is as well known for its diaspora as for its home-grown, and in many ways is defined by the diaspora.
In the advertising campaign during the lead-up to the opening of Dublin Airport’s second terminal in 2011 much was made of Ireland’s impact upon the world, with the phrase “We built the Oval Office, and have had men sit in it”, indicative of the pride with which Ireland regards the activities of the extensive diaspora. Though Irish people often groan when hearing non-nationals describe themselves as Irish, the diaspora is of great use to Ireland, with institutions such as the Ireland Funds tapping in to the resources of the diaspora in twelve countries, from United States to Singapore; Monaco to Australia. In strained economic times, the diaspora can be a source of some respite exhibited by the so far successful tourism campaign- “The Gathering”- hoping to entice some of the 70 million people of Irish heritage to visit Ireland in 2013. In recent years, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs has produced a Certificate of Irish Heritage, awarded (for a fee) to those who can prove an Irish ancestor.
Presentations of such certificates have been made to people such as Tom Cruise, Sasha and Malia Obama, and Caroline Kennedy, who recently returned to Ireland to celebrate the anniversary of JFK’s visit in 1963. It seems that WB Yeats, in September 1913, was getting ahead of himself when he wrote “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone (…it’s with O’Leary in the Grave)”.
In political life the diaspora is often considered. Ireland’s current President Michael D Higgins appointed a London-based Irish emigrant to his Council of State, and has visited Irish emigrant institutions abroad on several occasions, having declared he would be a president for the Irish abroad in his inaugural speech. Proposals to reform the Seanad, Ireland’s Upper House, include measures such as enfranchising emigrants and Irish passport-holders abroad, including Ireland’s citizens in Northern Ireland. This focus on the diaspora means that much of Ireland’s foreign policy is aimed at maintaining a healthy relationship with the United States. The involvement of the United States in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland is indicative of the enduring relationship between the two states. Indeed, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) spends St Patrick’s Day in America, with an obligatory meeting at the White House. In what other country does the Head of Government travel abroad on the national day? The refocus on the diaspora is necessary with the increasing emigration from Ireland as a result of economic difficulty – a heartbreak for many. The current wave of emigration may see attempts to further relations with Australia and Canada–two popular destination countries. This outward-looking Ireland has led the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs to sanction the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series-a collection of volumes cataloguing the previously-secret archives on Irish foreign policy, allowing public consumption of all significant events in Irish foreign policy.
Ireland is given far more attention than other countries of similar size, evident in the early days of independence. It was Ireland’s cantankerous efforts which codified the sovereignty of British dominions with the Balfour Declaration (1926)
and the Statute of Westminster (1931) at Imperial Prime Minister’s Conferences, under the government of WT Cosgrave. In the wake of the abdication of King Edward VIII, the External Relations Act (1936) was passed to diminish the role of the King in Ireland, creating the structure that was a predecessor to the modern Commonwealth of Nations. During this period, Ireland was very active at the League of Nations, registering the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 as an international treaty, which was challenged by the UK, but which asserted Irish independence. Ireland even produced a Secretary-General of the League of Nations, Seán Lester, an early Director of Publicity in the Irish Free State government. Lester had a successful diplomatic career, and kept the League of Nations humanitarian efforts alive on a limited scale throughout the Second World War. It was Lester who oversaw the winding-down of the League of Nations, and the transfer of its assets and programmes to the United Nations.
Ironically, for much of the 20th Century it was Ireland’s aim not to have a foreign policy. Under Éamon de Valera as Taoiseach (Prime Minister)
, efforts were made to create an isolated Ireland, an attempt to return to a Gaelic ideal. The most notable example of Ireland’s isolationist foreign policy is the way that the government dealt with the period 1939-1945. In Ireland there was no war, merely a period known as the Emergency. Ireland was politically neutral, while surreptitiously favouring the Allied effort; secretly allowing British planes to use Irish airspace, handing over captured Nazis to the British authorities, and sending firefighters to Belfast after bombing there. However, outwardly, de Valera’s government exhibited strict neutrality, resulting in Ireland being responsible for what is potentially the most significant foreign policy gaffe of the 20th Century. Upon the news breaking of the death of Adolf Hitler, Éamon de Valera went to visit the German Ambassador at his residence in Dublin to express condolences on behalf of the Irish people, questioned by the world. In recent years it has come to light that Douglas Hyde, the seemingly infallible President at the time, had also offered his condolences. Eduard Hempel, the ambassador, did respect Irish neutrality and was offered asylum in Ireland after the war, returning to Germany in 1949. Throughout the war there were many exchanges between de Valera and Churchill, who had a very contentious relationship, with Churchill urging Ireland to enter the war after the US did. Ireland was severely punished for its wartime neutrality, with economic isolation leading to heavy emigration, and the USSR blocking UN membership until 1955.
The UN has allowed Ireland to play an active role in international affairs, with Ireland an active participant in Peacekeeping missions, particularly memorable in the efforts in the Congo,1960-1964, under the direction of Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien- latterly a politician, historian, and editor of the Observer newspaper- as representative of the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in the Katanga region. Ireland has served on the Security Council on three occasions, and is seeking election again in 2021-22. Former Irish President Mary Robinson served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002, and Patricia O’Brien has served as Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs since 2008.
Nonetheless, Irish foreign policy has been directed primarily towards Europe since accession to the EU in 1973, and she is a very different country for it. James Joyce wrote: “If Ireland is to become a new Ireland she must first become European.” Ireland has just hosted a very successful Presidency of the Council of the European Union, its seventh, and has been praised for the handling of an “austerity presidency”, with frills present at previous presidencies were absent, and efforts to “green” the presidency were made. Achievements were made in banking and economic governance, unemployment, climate change, security and justice, with investments and initiatives in each of these areas committed to.
Ireland has benefited enormously from the Common Market, with trade increasing by 90 times since EU accession, and hundreds of thousands of jobs being created as a result. Ireland has benefited from European infrastructure investment, from Agricultural Policy, and equality legislation. Ireland’s English-speaking population, EU membership, and low corporate tax rate has encouraged American tech businesses such as Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Apple to establish European Headquarters in Ireland, hugely benefiting Ireland. Furthermore, Ireland’s membership has enabled it to weather the economic firestorm it currently faces slightly better, availing of bailout funds.
It is true, however, that current international perception of Ireland is marred by the economic situation that Ireland faces. Ireland is seeking to shake-off the stigma of being one of the PIIGS. Low Euro interest rates exacerbated Ireland’s property bubble, and lax regulation and political cronyism failed to constrain it, leaving Ireland’s financial and economic situation utterly banjaxed, in tatters. Now, Europe often holds Ireland up as a poster boy of bailout countries, dutifully carrying out the directives and programmes prescribed for its ailing public finances, things are assuredly improving for Ireland. However, Ireland is due to exit its bailout programme at the end of this year, and creative external relations are essential for Ireland to stand on her own feet, to support Ireland. An agreement was reached on Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s visit to Ireland to establish a Chinese-European Trading Hub worth €1.4bn in the town of Athlone, and current foreign policy is to develop this relationship, following the Australian model of attempting to maintain healthy relations with both the US and China, with due regard paid to economic interests.
It is certain that Ireland will continue to punch above her weight on the world’s stage, and Ireland should continue to cultivate the affection that many non-nationals feel for it, as it is a lucky and encouraging position for Ireland to be in. It is Ireland’s relationship with the world that has defined, and continues to define it. Though a tiny island of a few million people, historically fraught with conflict and colonialism, recently by debt and deceit, a new peaceful and creative Ireland has a very important role in the world.
E. Fionn McGorry is a 2nd Year History and Political Science student at Trinity College, Dublin. He is the Chair of the University Philosophical Society’s Bram Stoker Club – a forum for paper reading and topical conversation. Fionn was born in Melbourne, Australia, and completed secondary school at St Andrew’s College, Dublin, an international school where he first became interested in foreign affairs, pursuing this interest through Model United Nations in the Hague, London, and Dublin. In 2011 he was awarded the European Council of International Schools Award for International Understanding.
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