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Diplomacy of small states

Published on 05 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

As Ireland’s national day – St Patrick’s Day – draws near, and people around the world get ready for the ‘wearin’ of the green’, the papers will soon be full of retrospective pieces on Ireland’s recent descent from economic grace. I’ve been Irish for as long as I’ve been alive. I may not have lived there full-time for many years, and yet I still consider it my home. I thought I knew quite a lot about my country and its interrelations with the rest of the world. But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Last year, I took Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States course and chose Ireland as my focus country. Over the next few weeks, I looked at Ireland’s diplomacy from a variety of angles: structure, security, economic, environmental, multilateral, and regional. Each week, I learned more and more interesting things about Ireland, things that I’d never known before. For instance, I had always thought that neutrality is enshrined in our consitution: it isn’t. I never realised that the Republic of Ireland doesn’t exist except as a soccer team. Ireland (as in the 26 counties) is known as Ireland or Éire. As the weeks advanced, the shame of what I didn’t know was soon overcome by the wealth of knowledge I was accumulating. And not just about Ireland but about each of the other small states that my classmates had focused on.

I unearthed a newfound pride in my country, at a time when the Irish psyche was taking a beating having gone from being Europe’s posterchild to one of its PIGS. Taking just one area – multilateral diplomacy – I discovered that in the late 1950s, Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken had pioneered the cause of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the UN, a contribution that was recognised by the UN when Minister Aiken was asked to be the first signatory to the NPT.  At the 2010 Review Conference of the NPT, Ireland chaired the body charged with making progress on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.  Other notables include Irish diplomat Sean MacBride (Nobel-Prize laureate and co-founder of Amnesty International) who played a key role in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights; Seán Lester, the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, who handed over the flame at the birth of the UN; and Edward Phelan who played a key role in founding the ILO in 1919 and was Director General of the ILO in 1941.

While much of our lives are spent looking backward instead of forward, this course helped give Ireland’s current woes more context. Set in what I had come to understand as Ireland’s standing in diplomacy, our past achievements gave me hope that we would, indeed, recover and live to tell this tale, too. When I visit Ireland, I no longer feel dismay as how we have let ourselves go. Instead, I see a nation ready to shoulder the consequences of its actions and move forward. I sincerely hope that we have learned our lesson and I wish that more people at home would take the time, be it in a structured course like Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States, or in private study, to learn about our country and be proud of the contributions we have made. It is only by understanding our role in the world that we can fully appreciate the power of our people and by gaining a broader appreciation of the roles other countries play, we can better measure our own progress.


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