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Heads up – Embassy 17 – May 2009

A born diplomat

Bobby McDonagh has diplomacy in the blood. The 54-year-old Irish Ambassador was born in Washington DC to Irish diplomats who had friends in high places: the founding father of modern Ireland, the late Eamon de Valera, was the Ambassador’s godfather.

Widely respected as an expert on European Union affairs, McDonagh has spent much of his career – apart from his first posting in Luxembourg and brief stint as Ambassador to Malaysia in 2000 – in the corridors of Brussels or the EU division at Iveagh House, rising to Assistant Secretary of the EU Division and most recently Ireland’s Permanent Representative to Brussels.

“It has been a great honour to represent Ireland’s interests in the EU in several capacities over many years,” says McDonagh. And despite his compatriots’ habit of rejecting European treaties, he insists that being at the heart of the EU “remains fundamental to Irish interests”.

McDonagh has been involved in the negotiation of several EU Treaties (he’s even written a book about it) but for him, the most memorable negotiations were those leading to the 2004 Constitutional Treaty that was drafted and brought to fruition under the Irish EU Presidency. “While the Constitutional Treaty was subsequently amended and recast as the Lisbon Treaty, the essential deal at the heart of the Lisbon Treaty remains an ‘Irish’ deal,” he says.

Ironically, the Irish decided to reject the deal, which led to a period of “intense Irish diplomacy” recalls the Ambassador. It hasn’t been “a comfortable period for Ireland,” he admits. “Like all Member States, we have a limited amount of negotiating ammunition and depend on the goodwill of our partners. Our influence in promoting our interests is not strengthened by where we find ourselves.”

Even though the Irish referendum derailed the EU’s carefully-laid plans, the Ambassador says he was never treated as a pariah in Brussels. “While clearly the EU was facing a significant crisis, my EU colleagues were personally very supportive of me in the same way that their countries have been very supportive of the Irish Government’s efforts to find a way through the present crisis which respects both the views and concerns of the Irish electorate as well as the wider interests of the EU.”

The outcome of the December European Council is proof of that, says the Ambassador. “The support of our EU partners was most obviously manifested in their ready willingness to maintain the right of all Member States to nominate a member of the European Commission as well as to provide Ireland with legal guarantees on certain important aspects of the Treaty which were of particular concern to the Irish electorate.”

And now, almost exactly a year on, polls suggest that the Irish are warming to the Lisbon Treaty. “Recent opinion polls have suggested that a significant majority of Irish voters would vote yes in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty,” says McDonagh, but he adds a note of caution: “Ultimately, the choice will be for the Irish electorate; and the Government will not be in any way complacent. The Government will try to ensure that the facts about the Treaty and the implications for Ireland are explained clearly and honestly.”

Although he refuses to speculate on the causes of the Irish voters’ change of heart, he says the financial crisis did drive home the “crucial importance of Ireland being at the heart of Europe, including its membership of the Euro.”

Now posted to London, the Ambassador is thrilled to be in the UK at a time when Anglo-Irish relations have never been stronger. No stranger to the UK, he read Latin and Greek at Balliol College Oxford, where he was elected President of the Oxford Union and arranged for the Taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave, to speak at one of the debates.

It was also a time when the Ambassador became an ardent supporter of Tottenham Hotspur (as is the Embassy editor). Asked what parallels there are being a Spurs supporter and a diplomat, he smiles before answering: “Perhaps being a Spurs fan one realises that winning is not everything – it’s also about how you play the game.”

He adds: “The Spurs motto audere est facere (to dare is to achieve) is an encouragement to address challenges with confidence and to persevere in the face of adversity – qualities which the British and Irish Governments have demonstrated over many years in working together so successfully to take forward the Northern Ireland peace process.

“And as I sometimes say, maybe regular visits to White Hart Lane teach one to believe that a better world is possible.”
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HE Mr Bobby McDonagh

“Recent opinion polls suggest a large majority of Irish voters would vote yes in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty”

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