By Sebastian Strohmayer
There is a little bastion of Ireland tucked away on the 2nd floor of the Mendelssohn Remise, right in the heart of Berlin. Staffed by 15 diplomats, consular officers, passport experts, and visa officers, the Irish Embassy in Berlin continuously works to enrich Ireland’s reputation, prospects, and interests in Germany. It may not be the fortified embassy of the United States but is instead a casual reminder of home in a foreign country for any and all visitors.
On the 20th of August 2017, I awaited with ridged nervousness my impending
meeting with Ambassador Michael Collins, the current leading Irish diplomat in Germany. Despite the warm welcome and excited organisation that had preceded the interview, my nerves began to twitch as my mind culminated the pre-interview information. Ambassador Collins doesn’t normally give interviews to Irish publications. Great! No pressure there. My question and topic list had been efficiently cut in half with an understandable refusal to engage in certain areas. At least it would be a short interview. After the first re-scheduling I began to think: this interview was far beyond my non-existent pay grade.
Ushered into the Ambassadors office, greeted by the lavish furniture, elegant yet simple in design it would come to be an apt representation of the man who harboured in it. Ambassador Collins has been the Irish Ambassador in Germany since 2013, his prior residency having been in Washington D.C, he is counted among Ireland’s leading diplomats. No Jacket, tie slightly undone and a friendly smile he beckons me to have a seat.
Before I can utter a coherent question the Ambassador sallies forth in a monologue that seems passionate yet rehearsed. He is a master salesman, his product: Ireland. Referring to his style of “soft diplomacy” he proudly recounts how the Embassy is engaging not only with the German state but also with the population. Opening invitation book readings with Edna O’Brien, film screenings and concerts are but some examples of the Ambassador and the embassy’s outreach into Germany. The point is clear, The Ambassador and his staff are selling Ireland. Both to Investors and Tourists, commodities Germany has stockpiled in large quantities.
Brexit and the United Kingdom
While the British referendum to leave the European Union has cast a shadow on Irish-British relations, Ambassador Collins is at the forefront of Ireland’s economic and diplomatic re-orientation. I am assured that this is no new development, for “[Ireland’s] dependency to Great Britain has diminished greatly over time”. There exudes an optimistic foresightedness from his prognostic on Irish-German and even EU relations, Ireland has “the great virtue of the single market, we need more and have more to give”. Any step that links Ireland closer to the EU is a good step, will this mean a step away from the United Kingdom and one towards Germany in particular? Only time will tell.
Economics and German-Irish Relations
Ireland’s willingness to engage in further and deeper economic ties to Germany has only increased following the referendum result. Ireland, of course, seeks a great and “diverse market” but it cannot be denied that, within the EU, Germany has the biggest market to offer.
“Ireland’s dependency to Great Britain has diminished greatly over time.”
Not that many of us care about how the world views this island nation, rest assured that, according to ot the Ambassador, Germany and the EU favour the Irish. “Our European credentials are not in doubt”, a message the embassy and the ambassador seek to continuously enforce. Yet the issue of Northern Ireland forces the diplomatic corps into a difficult position how to remain part of “Team EU” and maintain an open border with Northern Ireland. Though not the Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Collins is in an advantageous position to keep Germany as part of “Team Eire”, a country that equally shared a troublesome border within itself. This respect and shared memory, I am told, carries over into issues that aren’t felt or know of back in Ireland. Germans, the ambassador tells me, view Ireland in a very positive light.
Over the past three years, Germany has seen a tremendous increase in the number of refugees flooding into its country. How does Ireland respond to this unusual situation of mass immigration? Increased Irish co-operation and refugee intake could be a significant signal to Germany and the rest of Europe that Ireland is a strong and reliable ally in the future. Ambassador Collins reminds of the EU quota set for Ireland in the past and notes that Ireland did volunteer to be given a quota. Beyond this however there is little to indicate that Ireland’s ties to Germany and the EU will grow beyond finances, business and tourism.
“Our European credentials are not in doubt.”
Ambassador Collins is a veteran diplomat for Ireland and a steadfast reminder that diplomacy is a two-way avenue of representation. The ambassador may be Ireland’s leading diplomat in Germany but equally represents German lessons to be learnt in Ireland. For Michael Collins, the lessons we learnt as a nation in coming out of the bailout in 2008 have been the most valuable yet in the evolution of our clear and open dialogue with Germany and the EU. How Ireland handled the issues, roadblocks and seemingly insurmountable obstacles remains a diplomatic victory for Ambassador Collins and his colleagues in the department of foreign affairs. He notes that “our stock is extremely high [in Germany], there was huge dividends on our commitment, our word was our bond”.
As an Alumnus of Trinity College, I ask the Ambassador if he can recall his wildest memory from his college years. Luckily, he tells me, “I got married in Trinity in February of 1981 and will use that as my answer”. It may not have been his “wildest” memory and I am left wondering what stories hide behind the smile that curtails the face of Ireland’s most decorate diplomat after smoothly dodging my questions.
I am left with a certain sense of optimism for Ireland’s future in the EU. The Ambassador may not be the man creating Ireland’s foreign policy but his pride and optimism in delivering Ireland’s commitment to the EU is a reassuring reminder that Ireland is here to stay.
The Colloquium would like to thank Ambassador Collins, Maeve Killen and Theresa Millow and the entire Embassy staff for their co-operation in organising this interview and the warm welcome our idea received.
Originally published 1.12.17 in Vol. 1 No. 1.