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Column: We've been given an opportunity to re-think our values as a nation... so what are they?

Where do we stand as a nation on issues like neutrality, aid and inequality? Ireland’s Foreign Policy Review allows us to have our say, writes Hans Zomer.

Hans Zomer

THIS WEEK BRINGS an end to a public consultation process which few of us may have noticed. At the end of November, An Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore announced a review of Ireland’s foreign policy, and invited members of the public to have their say on what our foreign policy priorities and goals should be. Unfortunately, the discussion about “how we can continue to serve the interests of the Irish people through active international engagement” seemed to go pretty quiet.

Yet, this is still an important discussion, and one that shouldn’t necessarily end with the consultation process. As the Tánaiste has pointed out, “our foreign policy is a statement of who we are as a people. It is the means by which we promote our values and pursue our interests abroad. Through it, we pursue economic prosperity and promote peace and security in Ireland and the wider world.” If that is so, it is indeed good to take a moment to pause for thought, and ask our citizens to reflect on exactly what those values, interests and prospects for prosperity really are.

What are our core values?

For in recent years, we have appeared less sure of what our core values are. We now know that the Celtic Tiger model of society is not a very attractive option, but are we ready to embrace any of the alternatives? We have come to realise that our prosperity is irrevocably linked to the ups – and downs – of the welfare of the rest of the world but we seem to feel unable to take the steps needed to safeguard our common future. We understand the impact of global forces, but may have lost the confidence in our ability to shape those forces. And without such confidence and clarity of direction, we may not feel very well equipped to “promote our values and pursue our interests abroad”.

In an increasingly inter-linked world, the biggest threats we face as a nation are quite different from those we based our foreign policies on the last time around. The last time the Government set out a foreign policy was in 1996. Climate change, cyber terrorism and Shannon stop-overs had a very different meaning in those days. As did another main challenge of the 21st century: inequality.

A report published by Oxfam in January showed almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population, and that we now live in a world where the 85 richest people own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people.

Even the annual meeting of the world’s rich and famous in Davos decided that this enormous – and growing – inequality is a problem. The fact that in far too many countries the benefits of growth are being enjoyed by far too few people is not, according to the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, “a recipe for stability and sustainability”. The American economist and Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz has also blogged that “inequality leads to lower growth and less efficiency”.

Where do we stand on neutrality and aid?

Irish foreign policy has long been framed by our concept of “neutrality”, but as a nation we have shown many times that we don’t want to be “neutral” when it comes to human suffering. Is it time for us to declare that we are not willing to be neutral in the other major fights of our times, too? Do we want to explicitly take sides in the battle against inequality, human rights violations and climate chaos?

Our aid programme has also long been a central part of Ireland’s foreign policy, and there is a public expectation that Ireland will do ‘the right thing’ on the global stage. Our focus on human rights, development cooperation, peace-keeping and conflict resolution has served us well and has been an invaluable source of influence and what political scientists like to call ‘soft power’. As a country not suspected of ulterior motives – whether commercial or colonial – we have been able to play a role not normally reserved for countries our size.

Though time is fast running out to make a submission, the foreign policy consultation process offers a chance for us, as a nation, to use the process as an invitation to look at how we can use our influence on the global stage positively. We can confirm that we believe our own future is interwoven with the future and prosperity of everyone else on this planet, and that we do not want the needs of the few to outweigh the rights of the many. It is an opportunity to re-affirm that we do not want our economic agenda to come at the expense of our planet, our fellow humans or of future generations. Finally, it is an opportunity to continue this discussion after tomorrow’s deadline has passed.

You can access information on the Public Consultation on the Review of Ireland’s Foreign Policy at dfa.ie. The deadline for submission is tomorrow, Tuesday the 4 February 2014, and submissions can be made via email.

Hans Zomer is the Director of Dóchas, The Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations.

Column: Ireland is reviewing its foreign policy – but it’s asking the wrong questions

Read: World’s wealthiest 85 people own same amount as half the global population

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Hans Zomer

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