10Qs: Rebecca Dwyer meets Eamon Gilmore T.D.

Rebecca Dwyer talks politics & foreign policy with Tanaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs; Eamon Gilmore

As part of my pre-departure requirements for the Washington Ireland Program, I must interview a leader who I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to meet with. I decided to write a letter to Eamon Gilmore TD (member of parliament), Leader of the Labour Party, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I was delighted when he agreed to take part in the program. The following is a full transcript of the very interesting and insightful interview which took place the day after the Fiscal Stability Treaty Referendum in Ireland.

Rebecca Dwyer, Washington Ireland Program Participant

Eamon Gilmore TD, Leader of the Labour Party, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Republic of Ireland

Interview Date
Friday, 1 June 2012

Rebecca Dwyer: What were you doing when you were my age? I am twenty years old now. For example, what were you studying in university and were you involved in youth politics?

Eamon Gilmore: I was studying Psychology at what was then University College Galway. At twenty, I would have been in my third year and that was the year I was elected President of the Union of Students in Ireland.

Rebecca Dwyer: How did you get to where you are today?

Eamon Gilmore: Hard work. Well, as I said, when I was a student, I was involved in the students’ unions. I was President of the Students’ Union in Galway and then, subsequently, President of USI for two years. After that, I went working for the trade union. I worked for a trade union for about twelve years. Most of that time was spent organising professional managerial grades of employees. Then, over the course of time, I became involved in electoral politics. I was elected to the County Council in 1985 and, then, to the Dáil in 1989 and I was elected at each election following on from then. This is my second time to serve in Government. In the mid nineties, I served in Government. I was Minister of State for the Marine from 1994 until 1997.

Rebecca Dwyer: When you were my age, did you have ambitions to become the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach?

Eamon Gilmore: No, not at all. What I wanted to do at that stage is I wanted to qualify as a psychologist and go working, probably in the Health Service or the Education Service, as a psychologist. After I left college, I had the opportunity of doing some post-graduate work abroad but I declined that because I had got a job at that stage working for what was then the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and I liked representational work. I found, when I was in USI, that I just liked representing people. I liked doing that kind of work, negotiating and advocating cases and so on and, so, I went to work at that. I had applied for jobs as a psychologist and I got a job, I remember, as a psychologist with what was then AnCO, which subsequently became FÁS. It was mainly doing aptitude testing for apprentices but I didn’t pursue that at the time because I had already got a job.

Rebecca Dwyer: Who was the most influential person in your life and why?

Eamon Gilmore: Probably my wife. We met in college when I was twenty and we have been together ever since. There’s no doubt that she has been the most influential person in my life.

Rebecca Dwyer: If there was one thing you could change about the Irish political system, what would it be and why?

Eamon Gilmore: I think we have a very good political system, actually.

Rebecca Dwyer: The Senate, perhaps?

Eamon Gilmore: I think the Senate, yes. I don’t think we need a second chamber and we are going to run a referendum on the future of the Senate. We are a small country. A state of four and a half million people, we don’t necessarily need two legislative assemblies, so, I think we could get rid of the Senate but what I would do is to strengthen local government. I think we have a very weak system of local government and I’d like to see that strengthened.

Rebecca Dwyer: Just yesterday, we voted on the Fiscal Stability Treaty. With that in mind, what do you think the Irish economy will look like in five years from now?

Eamon Gilmore: I think it will be substantially recovered. First of all, if we can continue to get the inward investment, particularly by big multi-nationals, we will see an increase in the number of people who are in employment. I think we will be out of the program with the EU and the IMF and we will be back in the markets. I think our public finances will be much more in balance than they are at the moment and, therefore, our requirement to borrow will be considerably less. I think we will be a trading economy, an exporting economy as we are now but I think that the profile of our exports will have changed and I think there will be one feature of our economic activity which will be different from now and that will be the importance of Africa. In five or ten years from now, Africa will be a major trading partner for Ireland.

Rebecca Dwyer: Can you explain why that is?

Eamon Gilmore: For a couple of reasons. First of all, the African economy is growing very rapidly. Secondly, Ireland is uniquely placed to have trading links with Africa because of the development aid programs that we’ve had over the years. We have established a bridgehead in Africa that other countries haven’t. The third reason is geography. If you look at why (particularly American) multi-nationals choose Ireland as their European headquarters, it is because of our strategic location, we are a member of the euro-zone and we are a member of the European Union. There is a wider European market, don’t forget there is the Middle East and, I think, increasingly, they will see us as a headquarters for their African activity as well. We are strategic in a number of respects, geography, membership of the European Union but, also, we have a unique link to Africa and I think in five years time we will see that as having much bigger relevance to our economic activity.

Rebecca Dwyer: That’s really interesting, thank you. What are your views on the recent election results in France and Greece?

Eamon Gilmore: I welcome the election results in France. The French Socialist Party is a sister-party of the Irish Labour Party, so, I welcome it first of all at that level. Secondly, I welcome it because it has given a new impetus to the whole growth agenda in Europe and we have always argued, both as a party and as a government, that getting out of the present economic difficulties is not just a matter of good budgetary discipline but we also have to get the economies to grow and, while we had got that on the European Agenda, it had not been moving at the pace that we would have liked it to have been moving at. I think that Hollande’s election will give that a complete added impetus.

Greece will have to do it all over again. They are due to have a second round of elections. I think the rise of the two extremes in Greece is very worrying and we’ll just have to see what happens in the second election. They already have economic and financial instability and uncertainty in Greece and, if that is compounded by political uncertainty as well, it could give rise to quite a dangerous set of circumstances.

Rebecca Dwyer: Do you think that will have any effect on us here in Ireland?

Eamon Gilmore: A year ago, people were talking about a domino effect such that if something happened in Greece, it would knock-on to Ireland, Portugal and possibly other European countries. That’s not the way it will happen now. We wouldn’t have a direct knock-on from it but we would be affected obviously as a member of the euro-zone. All of the talk about Greece leaving the euro is not good for the currency. We would be affected by it because the euro-zone, generally, would be affected by it but there won’t be an immediate knock-on effect because I think we’ve managed, over the last year, to decouple Ireland from Greece. Financial commentators and people who are looking at Europe don’t see Ireland in the same bracket as Greece any more. In fact, the more we do to show that we are interested in recovery and stability, the more we separate ourselves from the Greek paradigm.

Rebecca Dwyer: The Washington Ireland Program has a lot to do with the conflict in Northern Ireland which is where the program originated from. Could the Northern Ireland Peace Process help to resolve divisions elsewhere?

Eamon Gilmore: Absolutely. In fact, we are using the Northern Ireland Peace Process to, if you like, provide confidence for people who are engaged in peace negotiation elsewhere. This year, I hold the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It is the largest regional security organisation in the world and it represents states from North America right across to Asia. It is Vancouver to Vladivostok! We have three protracted conflicts in that region at the moment. There is the conflict, Transnistria, in relation to Moldova. There is the conflict in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abcasia. Finally, there is the conflict involving Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

We recently organised a conference in Dublin where we brought all of the member states of the OSCE together. The people who participated in the Northern Ireland Peace Process were in attendance, First Minister, Peter Robinson, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness and representatives of all the main political parties in Northern Ireland as well as people like Senator George Mitchell who came and talked about his experiences because he chaired those talks and former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari who was involved in the whole decommissioning exercise. We had a very good conference and I’m going to follow it up by bringing back people who were involved in those conflicts to Dublin, bringing them to Belfast, getting them to talk directly with many of the people who are involved in it.

In fact, the Northern Ireland Peace Process has become, I won’t say a model because every conflict is different, but it certainly enables us to show that, with persistence, patience and political will to make the compromises that are necessary, a peace process can succeed. We are using it as a case study that other conflicts can draw some lessons from and there is a considerable amount of interest in it.

Rebecca Dwyer: Do you think programs like the one that I’m taking part in are still relevant today?

Eamon Gilmore: Absolutely, I think they are, especially programs like these which are as international in nature. I think the more international experience that young people, particularly young leaders, can get, the better because we live in a world that is much more global. We also need to learn from the experiences of others. As time goes on, people forget what the Northern Ireland conflict was about, who was involved in it, what happened and the efforts that were made and that had to be made to put a peace process together. In terms of where it needs to go from now, I have responsibility to Government that, as Minister for Foreign Affairs for Northern Ireland and for relations with Northern Ireland and the UK, the management of the ‘piece’ is still a process that is in progress. Later this month, we will have another meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. We have to move forward to areas that need to be progressed.

Rebecca Dwyer: Each participant of the Washington Ireland Program must contribute to the writing of a resolution while in Washington D.C. These are called the Washington Ireland Papers. There are three different topics to choose from. The title of my paper is ‘The Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth’. There will be a lot of discussion on this topic when we are in Washington but I would be very interested in hearing your view on the matter. Do you think Ireland should rejoin the commonwealth and why?

Eamon Gilmore: No. We left the commonwealth. We are an independent state. We have very good relations with the UK. Relations with the UK are better now than at any time in our history. I think that was demonstrated last year with the visit of Queen Elizabeth. I expect there will be a return visit by President Higgins at some point. The Taoiseach and Prime Minister Cameron set out in a joint statement last year where the Irish-British relationship is going. We work very closely together and we work now on a range of areas which have nothing to do with Northern Ireland. For example, I will be in London next week. I will be having discussions with Foreign Minister Hague and it will be on a whole range of things which are not connected to Northern Ireland. The discussions will be on our East-West relations instead. We have a very good relation with the UK.

Our international relations now are defined by our membership of the United Nations (we are a very strong contributor to the UN and its agencies), our membership of the European Union and our membership of the OSCE. We work on a multilateral basis and we make a big contribution to international affairs. We are no longer defined by our historic relationship with Britain but at the same time we have a relationship with Britain now that is better than at any time in our history.

Rebecca Dwyer: What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Ireland today?

Eamon Gilmore: I think the advice would be to have hope. It is a time when there are a lot of young people who are concerned about their future, about employment, about their prospects in a country which is going through a difficult economic time. What I would say is that every economic downturn ends and there are a lot of opportunities that are available. The world is literally global. Ireland and Irish people have historically played a very positive role, a very active role. We punch above our weight whether it is in international relations, international competition, sport, culture, business. Be optimistic, hopeful, confident. Never be phased by economic difficulties and don’t listen to the naysayers. A lot of the voices that we hear, particularly at difficult economic times, are just negative voices that are dumping down our country and talking ourselves down and so on and we need to move on from that.

Rebecca Dwyer: Finally, on a lighter note, what is your favourite book, music and movie?

Eamon Gilmore: My favourite book is Ulysses. My favourite music is probably Bruce Springsteen. What was the other one?

Rebecca Dwyer: Your favourite movie.

Eamon Gilmore: Casablanca.

Rebecca Dwyer: Thank you very much, Tánaiste. It was a pleasure meeting you.

Eamon Gilmore: Thank you very much indeed.