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Malcolm Byrne We need a TV leaders' debate on Ireland's foreign policy

The Fianna Fáil senator says war in Ukraine has shown how international events truly affect us here and it’s time party leaders debated the issues.

FOREIGN POLICY DECISIONS are shaping Ireland more than ever before. It’s time for us to have an open discussion on what this means and where political parties stand on key issues. A public, televised debate among party leaders is needed.

Recent events have brought home to us all how much we are living in a progressively interdependent world. We know that the increase in the cost of living is primarily being driven by international factors.

Brexit, Covid-related interruptions to supply chains and the effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on global food and energy security mean that our local communities are increasingly impacted by actions in different corners of our planet. They need to hear a transparent and informed debate on why this is happening and how we can best respond.

Ongoing debate

This is not a new concern. The pandemic showed us how viruses move beyond borders. We saw last year how cyberattacks and the convergence of technologies do not respect national boundaries and that tackling issues requires a coordinated response among countries.

How Ireland cooperates on a regional and international stage on issues such as climate change, the biodiversity crisis and potential future pandemics will determine the future of Irish agriculture, marine life and public health.

Since joining over 50 years ago, the European Union has allowed Ireland to step out from the shadow of our nearest neighbour economically and politically and to take our place among the nations of the world. Ireland has supported a multilateral rules-based world order and we actively support international organisations protecting and upholding these values.

We should be proud that we are the only country in the world that has taken part in every United Nations peacekeeping mission. And yet, foreign policy issues rarely feature in a significant way in Irish political debate and almost never in elections.

Some of that is the responsibility of political leaders. Europe was often presented in elections as a place where we could get something for Ireland (often in the form of structural or cohesion funding) rather than as an opportunity to debate the Europe and values that we wanted to see.

European elections were often viewed as an opportunity to give an assessment of the domestic political environment rather than to talk around the vision of the Europe that we wanted. What happened in Europe after the elections remained remote for most. Until recently, there has been very limited assessment of the voting record of Irish MEPs.

All politics is local, isn’t it?

Canvassers for political parties will tell you that international issues rarely come up on the doorsteps and yet they are increasingly impacting our daily lives.

When the Taoiseach last December criticised Sinn Féin for its record of support for Russia, he was criticised by some claiming that this was an effort to distract from domestic issues.

But we know that our big domestic challenges are increasingly shaped by events and decisions made on the global stage. Housing, for example, is influenced by global trade and construction costs as well as labour supply.

In other countries, these foreign policy issues play a much bigger role in elections. This is partially due to electoral systems where there is a greater focus on parties’ approaches to certain questions or issues rather than our system which sees more emphasis on individual candidates and local issues. As a result, other countries often see election debates devoted to foreign policy to hear how parties and their leaders think about these key issues.

The time has come for this to happen here too.

The next General Election here in Ireland should have a televised leaders’ debate devoted purely to Ireland’s foreign policy and to our place in the world. We need this open debate here among our party leaders so that we can hold our political parties to account.

Voters have a right to know what approach will be taken when dealing with international challenges that have local consequences.

Party leaders should be required to set out how they see Ireland’s policy of military non-alignment proceeding. Our electorate deserves to hear those who argue for changes in our ‘neutrality’ policy explain the potential consequences and how they will deal with this.

Our electorate deserves to know how our politicians think we can best address Ukrainian and other refugee flows, and how we can balance our open trade policies with our concerns for human rights.

Our electorate deserves to question those who have defended autocratic regimes in Russia, China, Venezuela and elsewhere and hear how they justify their positions.

But given how these foreign policy issues have moved to the top of the domestic political agenda, we can ask ourselves why are we waiting until the next election. It needs to happen now. Our media has a key role to play in starting this national debate now on all aspects of Irish foreign policy and holding our representatives to account for their views, approaches and solutions.

Our electorate deserves this.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil senator.


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