‘Despite the Availability of Modern Technology, There is no Substitute for Face to Face Diplomacy’
H.E. Michael Collins, Ambassador of Ireland to Germany speaks to Berlin GlobalJuly 20th, 2016
You have been in Germany for three years now and you’ve enjoyed the position so far, but what have been your main areas of focus?
When I first came to Germany in 2013, Ireland was still in the financial bailout which we entered in 2010. This was a very difficult and challenging time for us as a country. So exiting the bailout at the end of 2013 was a very significant moment not only for Ireland but for the European Union as well. There is great respect and appreciation here in Germany for the way in which Ireland successfully managed the financial crisis. And since the end of the bailout Ireland has been recovering very rapidly - over the last few years we have been the fastest growing economy in the EU. We are an exporting country and as an Embassy we naturally focus heavily on supporting Irish trade and business here. We have a huge relationship with Germany - Germany is Ireland’s fourth largest trading partner with 25 billion euro worth of trade between our two countries every year. Ireland also exports far more to Germany than we import from here. Germany is our second most important inward investor after the United States and it is our third most important tourism market. Every year, more than 600,000 Germans visit Ireland. Irish companies are also very heavily invested in Germany creating many valuable jobs here. So our economic relationship is really substantial and growing all the time. More generally, I am delighted to say that relations between our two countries are strong and friendly. This time last year Federal President Gauck was in Ireland on a State visit. It was a very important opportunity to celebrate how close our countries have become. And only in the last few days our Taoiseach and our Foreign Minister were both here in Berlin for talks with Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier. So there is a lot of activity and a lot of engagement between Ireland and Germany. Germany is and will remain a key relationship for us both bilaterally and within our common membership of the EU and the euro.
Regarding Irish culture in Berlin, do you think it is promoted well?
Berlin is one of many major centres in Germany where there is an active Irish cultural scene. Culture for any country is important, but it is particularly important for us. It is the medium through which many Germans relate to Ireland whether it is through music, literature or dance. German people like our culture, so it is a very important means by which we can promote our country. The Embassy supports many cultural events throughout the year. We want to connect with as many people as possible through this medium. If you go to our website you will find details of our cultural programme – people can also receive our Monatsbuch and sign up for forthcoming events. Every country is proud of its culture, but Germans do relate to Ireland in a very special way and we want to promote and accommodate this interest.
This year was the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, did the Irish Embassy here in Berlin do anything special to commemorate it?
Yes, we did. This is indeed a very big centenary year in Ireland, as are the next number of years too. In April 2016 we commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising. There has been a vast range of events to mark this landmark time in the history of our country. Here in Berlin we brought together a number of distinguished academics who addressed the German dimension of the 1916 Rising, the role of Roger Casement, of Irish prisoners here in German camps during WW1 and the efforts to secure a volunteer force from among these prisoners of war. It was important to recall this German dimension and to place it in historical perspective. We also had an exhibition at the Embassy “Portraits and Lives” to mark the centenary. There have been events too in Stuttgart, Munich and elsewhere in Germany, which allowed people to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising in an appropriate way. So I think it has gone well. Of course, our biggest commemorations took place at home (Ireland) and in the US and in Britain. But it was important also to recall the German dimension of this hinge point in Ireland’s history.
Your whole career has been dedicated to international relations, do you have any advice for young people who would be interested in becoming involved in the diplomatic field or in international relations?
If anyone feels that they can make a contribution to greater international understanding, I would encourage them to do so! There are many ways of doing this. The obvious way is through government diplomacy, working in an embassy or in a foreign ministry. But there are other ways too such as through the work of international organisations, NGOs and think tanks. We need good people to be involved in addressing the many complex issues on the international stage. Despite the availability of modern technology, there is no substitute for face to face diplomacy.
You represented Ireland as ambassador to the US for 6 years and now you are in Germany, do you think you could compare these two positions?
The United States and Germany are two very different places but both are of vital importance to Ireland. The focus of Ireland’s activities in Germany is obviously on Europe. EU issues dominate our agenda here. There is a very strong sense in Berlin of being right in the heart of Europe, and of course Germany’s role and European leadership are of great importance to all us. Ireland is and will remain a strongly committed members of the EU. In the US our focus was somewhat different. There, for example, we have a huge global family which is very important to us. The US is also our biggest export market and inward investor. The US was also actively involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. We actively engaged with our US friends on this and so many other issues during my time there. It is a privilege to represent your country. It is also a great responsibility.
The UK’s position in Irelands trading partners may now be at risk of changing as a result of the Brexit referendum, do you think that this will alter Germany’s position in Irelands trading partners?
The UK is our biggest trading partner with more than a billion euros of trade between our two countries every week. Brexit will be complicated but we obviously hope in particular that an arrangement will be worked out which embraces our unique circumstances including, of course, our border situation with Northern Ireland which, after Brexit, will become an external border of the EU. We are at a very early stage in the Brexit process and in the meantime the UK is still a full member of the European Union. It is not clear what the final arrangements will be and how long it will take for Brexit to become a reality. Ireland will be sitting with our EU partners as we try to work out the new arrangements with the UK. Naturally we hope in the end that we will find some arrangement which will be satisfactory, but it is early days yet.
You were heavily involved in the Peace Process Negotiations, do you think that the Brexit result will affect the situation in Northern Ireland?
Of course we hope it won’t because there can be no going back to the dark times of the Troubles. Ireland, Britain, the US and the European Union, have collectively made a huge effort to secure the peace that Ireland enjoys today. So we must be absolutely determined to protect the peace that has been achieved. We are proud of what has been accomplished. We know too that it can never be taken for granted. It took a long time to bring about this peace and a great number of people lost their lives - 3500 people over a thirty year period. That is something that must never be repeated. So we are absolutely focused on protecting our peace in every way that we can. I am sure that this is also the goal not just for the people of Ireland but for all our friends here in Germany and elsewhere as well.
Is there any final statements you would like to make?
We love the fact that so many Germans love Ireland! It is also gratifying to speak to German people and to see their awareness of Ireland and particularly our strong economic recovery in recent years. But the key thing that I wish to communicate at this time is that Ireland is a committed member of the EU and that we are staying in Europe. It is important to emphasise this because sometimes we are asked the question, now that the UK is leaving the EU, whether Ireland will leave too. The answer to this is very clear. Ireland is staying in the EU – we are not leaving!