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From: Irish Political Review: Articles
Date: October, 2021
By: Editorial

West British Former Diplomats and the President

West British Former Diplomats and the President

A letter recently published in the Irish Times from a former Ambassador to Lithuania, Belarus and Finland, Donal Denham, highlights a uniquely Irish phenomenon—a diplomatic corps fallen into confusion as to the State to which it owes allegiance. The phenomenon may have abated during the Brexit negotiations but the public statements of a number of former diplomats over the last decade testify to its existence.

Looking back over opinions publicly expressed by Denham and other former Ambassadors is a useful exercise for understanding the crazy notions that seem to have caught hold in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) from the 1970s onwards. Given the recent controversy over President Higgins’ commendable decision not to attend a commemoration of the founding of Northern Ireland which put a spotlight on the DFA, such a review will serve to portray the double-term Presidency of Michael D Higgins in a useful context.

Donal Denham
The subject of Denham’s letter to the Irish Times was “French diplomacy and Aukus deal”. 'Aukus' is the acronym for an agreement recently announced between Biden's United States, Australia and the UK. Two other Anglo countries declined participation: Canada and New Zealand.
Denham’s letter reads:

“The French government’s withdrawal of its ambassadors from Washington and London over the loss of a lucrative submarine-building contract with Australia shows a fit of pique which is both hypocritical and ill-judged.
It is also deja-vu. Do they need to be reminded that it was France which abruptly withdrew its Atlantic and channel fleets from Nato command in June 1963 and whose president Charles de Gaulle also added insult to injury by announcing on March 10th, 1966, that he intended to withdraw France from Nato and who demanded the removal of all Nato facilities on French soil?…” (Irish Times, 22 September 2021).

An uninformed observer might be excused from thinking that Ireland, the State once served at the highest level by Denham, was a member of NATO! Not only is that not true but, traditionally, the Irish State enjoyed cordial diplomatic relations with the French State. Immediately after resigning as French President in 1969, de Gaulle spent some weeks on what was more a pilgrimage than a holiday in Ireland. A highpoint of the visit was a meeting between de Gaulle and de Valera, two leaders with much in common who enjoyed close personal, as well as diplomatic, relations.

(In commenting on Denham’s criticism of France, it is not my intention to defend the current behaviour of the French Government. Deeply wounded by the abrupt and deceitful cancellation of a submarine contract by Australia, which transferred its custom to the USA, President Macron hit out at both countries. Apparently, however, following a phone call from Joe Biden, Emanuel Macron agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations with the US. Macron is not de Gaulle.)

A dislike of France seems to be a hobby horse with Denham, but it is more than an eccentricity. In another letter, this time on Brexit, he wrote:

“We did not, as a country, make the supreme sacrifice, of going to war against Nazi tyranny and its allies for a second time in two generations, receiving little gratitude from the French in return” (IT letters, 10 April 2019).

The author of that sentence has clearly adopted the jingoistic British view of the World Wars. Equating Hitler’s ideology and international ambitions with the policies of the German State in the years before 1914 comes in at the lower end of propagandist falsification. Denham, a retired Irish diplomat, holds a view of European history that properly belongs with Colonel Blimp in the nether reaches of English Toryism.

In the strange world of Irish former Ambassadors, however, Denham isn’t always wrong. In that 2019 letter he opens with the following sentence:

“I hold my former colleague and your occasional Brexit columnist Bobby McDonagh in high regard, having served with him in the Department of Foreign Affairs since the beginning of our European adventure some 45 years ago” (Ibid).

The rest of the letter is a critique of the position held by McDonagh and Fintan O’Toole, both of whom had been venting spleen against the English Brexiteers. Denham’s final point is:

“But it is vital for our future, and that of the European Union, to extend the hand of friendship to all groups in the UK, not just to those with whom we may share a sympathy” (Ibid).

In other words, he is suggesting that Ireland should take a more neutral stance towards Brexiteers. It might be inferred from that letter that, while Denham was taking an extreme position in wishing Ireland and the EU to remain beholden to the British worldview, the viewpoint of Bobby McDonagh was more attuned to the diplomatic tradition of the Irish State. Unfortunately, however, McDonagh favoured, and favours, a close relationship with Britain every bit as much as his erstwhile colleague. The case he implicitly argued during the Brexit talks was that Ireland should conspire with the British opponents of Brexit to prevent it from happening. In fairness to Denham, his position had the merit of recognising that Brexit was a matter for the UK electorate.

Bobby McDonagh
According to Wikipedia, Bobby McDonagh served separate terms as Ambassador to Malaysia, the UK, and Italy, and was Director General of the EU division of the DFA from 2001 to 2005.
In his column for the Irish Times of 19th September (‘Protocol and politics intertwine for Higgins’), he took up the furore over President Higgins declining an invitation to attend a Church Service marking the formation of Northern Ireland and seemeded to moderate the controversy by putting it down to a misunderstanding. He sought to defend both the religious organisers and the President on the grounds that they each acted in good faith. Within the mishmash of platitudes are the following two paragraphs:
"On the one hand, the President, as someone who has been and remains to the forefront in promoting reconciliation, could have decided to attend the event. He could have noted that the intention was to “mark” rather than to “celebrate” the controversial events of a hundred years ago.

He could have attended the religious service, in the spirit in which the church leaders who issued the invitation no doubt intended it, as a prayerful ceremony to reflect on past events that have led to a century of much pain and heartache on all sides."

McDonagh then proceeds to put the alternative case, but his ‘On the one hand’ paragraphs have more conviction. He clearly deprecates the ‘intense controversy’ that has arisen over the issue and considers the episode ‘unfortunate’. The overall impression left on the reader by the article is unsympathetic to the President, notwithstanding its diplomatic mode of expression.

As the Irish Ambassador to the UK in 2011, McDonagh played a major role in organising the Queen of England’s much hyped visit to Ireland. Playing on the curiosity that many Irish people have regarding Britain’s royal soap opera, that event was orchestrated to be hugely symbolic. It was to have been a milestone in a process of reconciliation between Ireland and Britain, a highpoint in the Anglicisation that had been cultivated over previous decades. As things have turned out, the impact of the Queen’s visit has been wiped out by the Decade of Centenaries, which recalled some realities of how Ireland won its independence, and by Brexit.

Then the process of Anglicisation, on which the revisionists placed high hopes, was severely damaged: first by the forced cancellation of a commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary in early 2020, followed by the abandonment of the Glasnevin Memorial Wall—which placed the Irish dead of the revolutionary period on a par with the Imperial casualties—and, more recently, by the news that a service honouring Royal Irish Constabulary casualties would not, after all, be held in Ireland. instead it is to take place in London (where it properly belongs). The decision of President Higgins not to attend the Armagh service has merely added to and compounded that trend.

In deciding to pursue a policy of Anglicisation, DFA officials like Bobby McDonagh chose to go against the grain of Irish history—effectively to pull up its Republican roots. It is reassuring to observe that Irish history can not be so easily jettisoned. Michael D. Higgins was immunised against that policy by a number of factors. Firstly, he is an Irish speaker, and language is a natural protector against cultural imperialism. As a Labour politician who fought many difficult elections, sometimes losing his seat, he knows how to read the public mood and has the sense not to go against it. And, like many people, he has family connections to the generation that achieved independence—his father, John Higgins, was the Intelligence Officer of the 3rd Battalion of the Cork No 4 Brigade under Sean Moylan. Another point in his favour is that, unlike his predecessor Cearbhaill O’Dalaigh, he fights back.

The President’s stance regarding the commemoration of Northern Ireland’s founding can only be viewed as unfortunate when seen from the ahistorical perspective of former officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs. From an anti-revisionist perspective, he is to be applauded and fully deserves the overwhelming support he has received in opinion polls (81% in Daily Mail poll, 88.2% in poll).

Other DFA Retirees
Other retired diplomats who seem confused on the question of national allegiance are Ray Basset, former Ambassador to Canada, and Niall Holohan, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Basset attracted a lot of attention in 2017 when he was the spearhead of a campaign to restore close relations between Ireland and Britain, after it had become clear that Dublin was siding with Brussels in the looming battle between the UK and the EU over Brexit. He has been associated with the Irexit Campaign, declaring that "there is room for an Irish Eurosceptic party because those concerned about the EU are not represented by mainstream parties" (Irish Times, 8.9.18)

The surprising part of Basset’s campaign is that he seems to have genuinely believed that a majority of Irish public opinion sympathised with Britain. He wanted the Irish Government to threaten to follow Britain out of the Union, unless Brussels moderated its negotiating position regarding Brexit. That he held exaggerated notions about the extent of pro-British feeling in Ireland may have been caused by his years in the DFA and by his mistaking media support for public support.

An Irish Times article by Niall Holohan, published in 2015 after he had retired, provoked a number of replies in that paper’s Letters Page. In the article, Holohan used a combination of historical generalisation and slippery language to support a thesis that responsibility for the “democratic failures and intermittent strife on the island over the past 100 years” rests on those who “instigated and launched the 1916 rebellion” (IT, 3 August 2015). In response, one of the letter-writers made the reasonable point that the instigators of the Rising could not be blamed for the course of events after 1916 for the reason that they were dead, having been executed.

Of course, it would be unfair to characterise an entire Department of State by the post-retirement activities of a handful of former diplomats. However, during the years when Charles Haughey was Taoiseach, he distrusted the DFA, preferring to conduct Anglo-Irish business through the Department of the Taoiseach. This is verified by a memo from the British side released under the 30-year rule in 2015.

"In a briefing document for the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the NIO, Sir John Blelloch on February 19th, 1988, Peter Bell, a senior official, commented:
“Though the Department of Foreign Affairs is the lead department of Anglo-Irish relations, Mr Haughey distrusts it and, as under [his previous] administration, the Department of the Taoiseach occupies the prominent position”…" (IT, 31 December 2015).

In conclusion, the institutional culture of the Department of Foreign Affairs seems unduly influenced by a British view of the Irish State’s history. That extraordinary state of affairs is evidenced by public statements and actions from a number of former diplomats, and by Charles Haughey’s bypassing of the Department in the 1980s. The recent controversy over the Armagh service testifies to the existence of a damaging disconnect between the elite and the public. A major portion of the responsibility for that should rest with the DFA.

The present incumbent at Aras an Uachtarain—though constricted by an ahistorical, West British mindset that holds sway in sections of the political system, the media, and the academic community, as well as in the Department of Foreign Affairs—is providing an invaluable service simply by remaining true to the legacy of Irish independence.
Dave Alvey