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Prioritising hunger, conflict prevention, democracy and media freedom

Irish President Michael D Higgins speaking at the opening of the Hunger • Nutrition • Climate Justice • 2013 conference in Dublin. Ireland's focus on hunger should be applauded. Photo: eu2013.ie.Ireland conducts periodic reviews of its Foreign Policy and External Relations. Below would be some of our priorities in the context of Ireland's laudable current strategic objectives.

Ireland's focus on hunger should be particularly applauded. We would argue that hunger should be its number one foreign policy priority, given Ireland's history, its recent success pushing that agenda, the urgency of the problem, and the very strong empirical evidence and expert economic consensus that fighting hunger is among the most cost-effective public policies.

Ireland is right also to prioritise peace and human rights. However, it should focus on conflict prevention because a) is badly neglected and b) it is much more cost-effective than peace-keeping and peace-making.

Most of the worst recent civil conflicts have occured when power or wealth was distributed unequally between identifiable groups, which then fought to change or preserve that distribution (sometimes motivated by fear). That was the case in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and, most recently, in Iraq. It was also true in Northern Ireland and is true of Syria.

Therefore, conflict prevention must involve identifying and working to modify potentially dangerous distributions of power and wealth (particularly in cases where one or more minorities have been marginalised based on beliefs or ethnicity, e.g. in Burma), and to reduce divisions, rivalry and misunderstandings between identifiable groups/regions (such as in Ukraine). To be effective, Ireland will need to work with international partners.

While Ireland can draw on its experience of building and sustaining peace, it also has experience of the conditions in which conflict can ignite and of the effects of violent conflict. It should not be thought that the peacemaking in Northern Ireland provided a justification or point to the vioence which proceeded it. The answer to the question "did they die for nothing?" is usually yes. The conflict did enormous social and economic harm and achieved little if anything that would not otherwise have been achieved. While Ireland has a history of violent rebellion and is approaching the centenary of the 1916 Easter rising, it would do better to celebrate its peaceful activists, such as Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell.

In its foreign relations, - while not ignoring powerbrokers - Ireland should lend its greatest support and encouragement to genuinely tolerant, democratic and peaceful groups, rather than ones that are only relatively moderate.

Regarding human rights, Ireland should be unapologetically in favour of individual freedom and democracy. Elections that occur in the absence of a free media or where the opposition has been harassed or repressed, should be described as neither free nor fair, even if that clashes with the findings of some election observers.

Ireland should be a champion of media freedom, noting its importance as a vehicle for human rights and economic development. A recent publication from BBC Media Action argues for greater support for media freedom in fragile states.

Finally, Ireland should also become a champion of ethical trade and ethical foreign direct investment, leading by example.

The above is an edited version of the submission to the 2014 review of Ireland’s Foreign Policy and External Relations by World and Media editor Frank Humphreys. It relates to several of the questions posed in the strategic review:

  • 'How can our foreign policy contribute to a clear and identifiable image of Ireland abroad?'
  • 'We have a unique experience of building and sustaining peace on this island. How can this experience be drawn upon in our foreign policy?'
  • 'How best might Ireland deliver on the commitments in One World, One Future through a Whole of Government approach?'
  • 'How can a commitment to international development be better reflected across Ireland’s foreign policy?'
  • 'How can our foreign policy and economic diplomacy support economic development and growth?'
  • 'Where should we focus our efforts and resources in the period ahead?'
  • 'The international community is confronted with a growing range of complex and inter-linked global issues which require concerted international action. How can Ireland contribute to international efforts to address such challenges?'

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