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What values underlie Irish foreign policy?

By Lorna Gold.

Academics, policymakers and NGOs met in early April at the Royal Irish Academy to examine how Ireland’s new foreign policy, ‘Global Island’, can be put into practice. The striking thing about this policy is an extraordinary clash between the two key sections: that on ‘Our Values’ which establishes a framework of values for foreign policy, and that on ‘Our Prosperity’ which focuses on policy in relation to economic growth, investment, trade and exports. The two sections might well have been written by different people.

The themes of inequality, poverty and climate change figure prominently in the contextual analysis. The values expressed in the first half of the policy are ones which any human-rights advocate would welcome, particularly against an international backdrop where human rights are increasingly under attack.

Ireland remains committed to core values of fairness, justice, security and sustainability. It commits to standing up for human rights, civil society space, and promoting greater gender equality. The long commitment to multilateralism, particularly to the UN, is re-stated, as is the intention to stand for the UN Security Council for 2021-22.

The signature policy of poverty-focused overseas aid is outlined. Reference is made to the Government’s commitment to the UN target of giving 0.7% of Gross National Income in overseas aid. Unfortunately, no time-frame for achieving this forty-year-old target is included and progress is once again linked to economic improvement.

While the re-statement of values is important, a chasm divides it and the main thrust of the document, which relates to economic growth, investment, trade and exports – as if these somehow stand outside the elaborated framework of values. The entire focus of the second part of the policy is on how invigorated economic diplomacy, including enhanced marketing of our national day, can generate prosperity for Ireland.

There is a complete absence of any reference to values and to the need for policy coherence if we are to address the fact that much of our prosperity is still built on the backs of the poor and of the planet. The policy refers to more integrated and skilled economic diplomacy, for example, but has no mention of human rights or of the importance of not compromising principles outlined in the ‘our values’ section in the quest for greater trade and investment.

Three issues come into particularly sharp relief. How does Ireland’s corporation tax regime square with our fairness values? How do our expansionist agricultural policies around beef and dairy square with our sustainability values? How do our trade missions square with our long-standing commitment to engage on human-rights issues?

The failure of the values framework to inform the chapter on the removal of trade barriers is particularly concerning given the increasing influence of transnational finance over international governance structures.

The reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is worrying. It is pitched simply as a positive development, with no reference to the serious concerns, expressed by civil society in particular, about the inclusion of an Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism, and the implications of this for human rights and for climate-change mitigation.

There is perhaps an implicit acceptance within Government of the views expressed by Minister Richard Bruton in an Irish Times article (23rd January 2014) that trade missions are not the place to raise human rights, that we do human rights in certain multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council, but that bilateral trade missions, even with unsavoury regimes, are not the place to argue about human rights. In other words, Irish jobs trump every other concern and value.

The values at the core of this policy are the right ones. However, the litmus test of values is how they are integrated across policy and applied in the tough choices between policies. There needs to be clear accountability mechanisms to assess that process.

There are two glimmers of hope for policy coherence. The first is a cross-departmental committee on human rights. This committee has met once. How its agenda is shaped and acted on remains to be seen. The second is the consultation on a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Hopefully these two initiatives will promote the values framework. •

Lorna Gold is Head of Policy and Advocacy with Trócaire