Navigating foreign affairs without a voice

Navigating foreign affairs without a voice

Northern Ireland has precious few ways of being heard on the international stage

NORTHERN Ireland does not have a foreign policy. Of course not.

We are part of the UK and the government in Westminster makes decisions on our relationships with other countries and trading blocks.

We do have consulates and honorary consulates who’ll help their own citizens when they are here, and some of them even throw occasional parties with food, drink and music to mark special occasions, but we do not have embassies.

We do not have a foreign office in Stormont to which we can summon ambassadors and tell them what we think of their human rights records or their conduct of distant wars.

And no one is complaining about this because this is just one of the inevitable by products of devolution.

We have local ministers — at least when Stormont is functioning, which is about half the time it should. These ministers can determine health and education and transport policy but none of them can express a view on behalf of us all on, say, Iran’s headscarf laws or the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

If we have views on these matters — and to be realistic we seem not to — we can convey them to the Foreign Office in London and hope that they will be passed on to an ambassador who’ll include them in a report to Tehran or Beijing.

We are not a country. We are a devolved region.

But we don’t even vote for political parties that have, or ever will have, a prospect of governing in Westminster.

If I live in Manchester and have concerns about India’s treatment of Muslims I can take them to a local MP who will be a member of the party of government, or at least of the next government, and I may feel closer to those with the power to consider my concerns and communicate them.

Living in Northern Ireland, my local MP will never hold a cabinet post, and will never ruffle the conscience of a tyrant abroad or remind that tyrant of a self-interest that might temper his or her behaviour.

And yet, if you walk around Belfast you will see that some foreign affairs are a strong local concern.

Israeli and Palestinian flags are flying from the lampposts.

Now, it may puzzle our Palestinian and Israeli friends that these flags demarcate sectarian communities here. The Israeli flags are in Protestant/loyalist areas and the Palestinian ones are in Catholic/republican areas.

But passionate views are held about the war between Israel and Hamas and we do not have any political vehicle for expressing those concerns.

Republicans have an advantage in that they can urge protest on behalf of the Palestinians through the Irish government. That is because Sinn Féin, the largest political party in Northern Ireland is also the largest political party in the Republic and has significant prospects of being in government there within a year.

Ireland, as the Republic calls itself, has a department of Foreign Affairs and a Defence ministry, the Tánaiste, both currently represented by Micheál Martin.

Sinn Féin is urging him to break off diplomatic relations with Israel and to join with the South African case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, accusing the country of genocide.

Israel is worried about this case, not to be confused with another case before the International Criminal Court which Israel does not recognise and couldn’t care two hoots about.

Israel will be shamed before the whole world if the South African case succeeds.

So this case demonstrates how a country far from the actual field of conflict, can make use of international institutions to lean heavily on a major power with the potential even to curtail military action.

Why wouldn’t any country want to have access to influence like that?

Currently Ireland is concerned not to expel the Israeli ambassador because that would break communications which still might have value, certainly for Irish passport holders in Israel.

And Martin does not, I presume, want to be seen to be acting at the behest or Sinn Féin, his party’s chief political rival.

And why bother when the case will go ahead anyway?

But he is a foreign minister. He’s only a hundred miles down the road and he is more accessible to us Northern Irish than David Cameron, his London counterpart.

There are three ways in which Northern Ireland can have a foreign policy. One is to merge with the Republic, a prospect that is still a long way off. Another is to elect a political party in the North which has a realistic prospect of governing the whole UK, that is a Labour party or a Conservative party, neither of which can get sufficient votes here to take even one of the ninety seats in Stormont.

And the third is to create an independent Northern Ireland, an idea so remote and farcical that no one in the political sphere even bothers to suggest it

And since we are not going to do any of these things we are just going to have to work through Dublin to get a hearing or give up any hope of having influence on a global stage.