Reputation and image matter whether it is in politics, foreign policy or even day to day life and so it is with our view of our own foreign policy. It is when reshuffle fever breaks out that we get a sense of where looking outside the country features in the fantasy football of cabinet seats, who’s moving up and who, in Jim Hackers phraseology, is for the elbow!
The media wisdom shared by many is that Eamon Gilmore as leader of the Labour Party needs to reshuffle himself out of his onerous job double quick in order to concentrate on the more important task of keeping his party together and saving it from an electoral trouncing. The “will he won’t he” debate says a lot about Irish politics but a good deal also about our approach to foreign policy. Central to this is a conundrum about how fixing “Ireland’s reputation” could go from being such a huge priority to bottom of the pile in such a short period. How is such an outcome measured anyway?
A more lasting and arguably more important issue is where stands Iveagh House in the overall importance of Government Departments and priorities. Foreign Affairs was long seen as an Important ministerial appointment. No doubt much of this was influenced by the UK civil service and the view that a first in classics from Oxbridge amply equipped one to deal with the problems of the world. The concept of the Iveagh House mandarin being a cut above the rest certainly held currency for a prolonged period. Similarly the post was often seen as good news and glamour for a Minister.
Notwithstanding this it is true to say some of the best civil servants came through the Department in their times with Sean Donlon and Noel Dorr springing immediately to mind. However the game of politics has not been kind to Iveagh House. Developments in Northern Ireland have stripped the Department of Foreign Affairs of a major political role, one which it was said persuaded Dick Spring, a former labour leader, to take the role in the 90s. More recently much of the European affairs function has moved to the Taoiseach’s Department to support the enhanced role of Prime Ministers in European integration. The moving of Trade matters in to the Department has been covered elsewhere here but has been a curious one to say the least.
All in all one could wonder how much political substance is left in this role. Much of our policy beyond the borders of the EU involves cutting and pasting from Council conclusions and while Irish Aid has developed a worthy niche it is rather dwarfed by bigger players. Most politics is “all about the economy” now and this is the measurement that suggests Departments such as Public Expenditure and Reform and Jobs and Innovation are where the political action is.
Could the unthinkable happen some day with Foreign Affairs becoming an appendage of another ministry to make way for the latest political fad? Perhaps, but an examination of our friends in Whitehall and several other states, including small ones, shows that new and very modern challenges are being taken up by many foreign ministries including climate change, security and global human rights. Maybe some time out from the limelight would allow for such developments here