I was at the former seat of British power in Ireland on Friday for the 12th Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade NGO Forum on human rights in Dublin Castle. This was the annual consultation with Irish based NGOs about priorities and I was the rapporteur of the working group on human rights in Irish Foreign Policy.
One of the issues discussed was whether, given the financial challenges Ireland faces, could they continue to give a priority to human rights and international development in their foreign policy. The answer from Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was yes (1). But it did of course provoke some thoughts on priorities for a soon to be independent Scotland.
There has been some aspirational public discussion about how Scotland could have a markedly different foreign policy to the illegal wars and torture rendition of Blair & Co, not to mention Cameron’s little Englander tantrums. There is no doubt that Scotland would join the world of international relations with a lot of positive empathy of the kind that Ireland has benefited from. But in the short term human rights should not be the priority. As the Ragin’ Cajun said (2): “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Scotland’s first priority (and second and third) will be economic stability and growth. Key elements will be a smooth transition re EU membership and a stable currency union. It will also be crucial to have a well prepared strategy on promoting inward investment and trade. And it will be important to hit the ground running on these issues after the referendum in 2014. We need to have demonstrated good preparation in these areas in the run up to the plebiscite. Not only to build the confidence of the Scottish electorate that we are ready to manage the transition process, but also to build confidence amongst our European and other partners.
We need to be able to show that we have built good relations and some understanding with a broad range of political, economic and media figures across the EU in advance of the referendum. It is not just about connecting with allies, but about calming fears and building confidence that Scotland is a future partner that can be trusted and welcomed. It is true that there will be strong economic and political reasons for EU partners to welcome Scotland. But it is also true that many key decision makers across the EU are only now beginning to consider Scottish independence as a realistic prospect. There is bound to be nervousness in some quarters (as well as glee in others).
Some of the things we should be doing include identifying strategic partners that we can start cultivating and learning from now, as well as identifying potential wobbly friends that we need to reassure in the run up to the referendum. In terms of people that we can learn from Ireland and Denmark should be near the top of the list.
Ireland has been debating the closure of three of their sixty nine embassies and consulates. It is natural that they should review the effectiveness of the £63 million they spend on their international representation. Funnily enough nobody has suggested they would be better represented (or at less cost) by London. Indeed the general opinion is that, although it makes no sense to have a Vatican and Rome embassy, Ireland is very well served by their foreign representation in terms of promoting their economic and political interests. Some co-location with Irish embassies would in many cases be a better option for an independent Scotland than sharing with rUK given the economic importance of promoting a distinct Scottish brand.
I am sure the SNP Government is already working on all this. They will hopefully be actively consulting with key Irish, Danish or other figures on how they have structured and developed their Departments of Foreign Affairs. There are figures who have played key negotiating roles in Brussels and elsewhere who would be willing to give valuable advice on the strategies that could be most effective for a smaller country. There would be caution about public identification with one side of the referendum argument but considerable interest too in what an independent Scotland would mean for others.
We will hopefully inherit some experienced and dedicated diplomats from the FCO but it will be crucial to create a quite different ethos for a new Scottish Department of Foreign Affairs. The strategy of coalition building within the EU and elsewhere will be quite different. In spite of an influx of brighter and more diverse talent the FCO remains steeped at higher levels in post-imperial delusions of grandeur. Ireland has much to teach us about the effective use of soft power and economic self interest. We need to be seeking advice and building relationships now. And not only with Ireland.
Last Friday in Dublin Eamon Gilmore reminded us that Ireland had demonstrated commitment to peace and the rights of the disempowered from the earliest days of the state. As a young Ireland established its independence and membership of the United Nations it had many political and economic priorities. Their experience has been that support for human rights and development has mostly been supportive of their economic and political interests. Ireland’s positive reputation, together with the economic policies they have pursued, have been good for business around the world. So there should be room for human rights in the foreign policy of an independent Scotland too. But we need to prepare for other priorities first.
(2) James Carville, 1992 Bill Clinton Campaign manager.