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Celtic Phoenix


The Irish Government is engaging in an ambitious expansion of its representation abroad. Just don’t mention Brexit.

© REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Launching “Global Britain” after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union has always been part of the Brexiteers’ dream. Thus some heads were turned when the Irish government presented the “Global Ireland 2025” initiative in the middle of 2018, at a time when Brexit negotiations in Brussels where going through yet another nervy patch. Dublin wants to “double the scope and impact of Ireland’s global footprint.” The twist is, it is doing so from within the EU.

The initiative includes setting up new embassies and revamping existing missions in the “Ireland House” format, which brings trade promotion agencies and Government officials under one roof. A commensurately large recruitment process for diplomats is nearing completion. Public outreach efforts have included a documentary painting the Irish diplomat as the “thin green line” protecting Irish interests abroad. Schoolchildren are regularly invited into Iveagh House, the seat of the diplomatic service. Officials are lobbying strongly in support of Ireland’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2020.

Of course, Brexit provides the background to this move, which Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar has told parliamentarians could cost €300 million by 2027. Throughout the torturous negotiations, Irish officials have worked feverishly to prevent a hard border on the island and protect the Good Friday Agreement. Bilateral institutions set up under the 1998 treaty have once again found themselves on the front pages as old channels of communication between Dublin and London are dusted off. For any Irish Government, a hard border represents a legacy-defining failure. The UK’s departure from the EU represents the crystallization of Irish fears about a backlash against an international order that has benefited the country in many ways.

Ireland’s trade ambitions

This is not really about finding new international partners after being abandoned by Mother Britannia, though. Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has clearly distinguished between Brexit and his department’s expansion. In early January, he warned, “while cognizant of the immense challenges our country faces with Brexit, it is critical that we plan for our future. This hints that the underlying motive behind the “most ambitious renewal and expansion of Ireland’s international presence ever” is to future-proof Ireland’s ability to protect its interests.

The economic imperative to diversify Ireland’s trade makeup thus represents an equally important factor. Ireland’s existing trade partners are turning inwards, as new markets open themselves to outside competition.

In the United States–the destination for just over 25 percent of Irish exports–President Donald Trump is urging his citizens to turn away from foreign-made goods and services. The specter of a US-EU trade war looms, a conflict in which Irish business would suffer deeply. And the UK’s trading relationship with the EU—if it is to be formalized at all—remains to be determined. Uncertainty is rife.

On one hand, then, Irish exporters are facing reduced access to existing markets. On the other, the EU continues to prize open new markets with trade deals. Global Ireland seeks to take advantage of a trend noted in a 2015 policy review, which remarked that “an expanding global economy offers opportunities for exports [and] increased competition.” The Taoiseach has noted a desire to build stronger ties across Asia in response to a southward and eastward shift in “global economic and political power.”

The EU-Japan free trade deal, which came into effect last week, has warranted the biggest-ever capital investment in a new building in Tokyo. It is telling that the new Irish representation in Tokyo will house not just the embassy, but the gamut of state agencies: where goes Irish business, so goes the Irish Government. There is also a desire to take advantage of the MERCOSUR-EU trade deal that is in the works; thus the new missions in Santiago and Bogotá.

Underpinning this is a desire to protect the liberal international order, particularly with Brexit having demonstrated the value of international institutions to a small state. One commentator has derided the UNSC campaign as an “exercise in vanity”. From a strategic perspective, however, such a view disregards the utility of such organizations in today’s world, where international organizations amplify the voices of weak actors and restrain would-be hegemons. Amid the possible fraying of the US’ once-ironclad security guarantee in Europe and a global backlash against free trade, Dublin is taking a proactive stance in defense of multilateralism and its accoutrements.

In Support of the International Order

In this context, Global Ireland has two aims: to counteract the disintegration of international order and to shore up the state’s capacity to deal with similar challenges in future. Irish engagement with the New Hanseatic League provides an example of the first: Dublin has enthusiastically embraced the grouping of fiscally-conservative Northern EU states who have banded together after the loss of London’s restraining influence on Brussels.

The second goal–to improve the state’s reactive capability–is pursued through the re-organization of its apparatus: more missions will follow the “Ireland House” format, enabling closer cooperation between agencies and departments. The ECFR’s coalition calculator shows a disconcertingly isolated Ireland in a post-Brexit EU. By reinforcing embassies in Berlin and Paris with mid- and senior-level diplomatic talent, Dublin hopes to improve bilateral links with domestic powerbrokers, improving communication channels during crises.

The biggest risk facing Global Ireland is that political pressure will lead to its truncation. The Government may face pressure to lower spending on it in a worst-case Brexit scenario, which is now projected to lower Irish GDP by 4.25 percent by 2023. Assuming this pitfall is avoided, what would success for Global Ireland look like? Irish businesses continue to expand across the globe through 2025. A successful term on the UN Security Council sees Dublin emphasize openness and condemn intolerance across the globe. The island’s border remains peaceful and open as today. A fractious EU becalms itself and the storm of populism subsides.

As a small state, Ireland can hardly ever ensure these outcomes alone. But Global Ireland 2025 will maximize the country’s impact.