Ireland is set to vote on repealing the Eighth Amendment.  It’s a measure of how far opinion has shifted on the issue that the relevant Parliamentary Committee has included among its fourteen recommendations a proposal that would permit abortion on demand below twelve weeks.  The Cabinet is currently considering, and the Dail debating,  the Committee’s report and recommendations.  It has been a tortuous journey thus far , reflecting the highly emotive nature of the issues involved for what is still an overwhelmingly Christian country (78 % Catholic  plus 5% other Christian). The Committee’s consideration of the issue followed from the deliberations and report last June of a Citizens Assembly which had examined the issue exhaustively.

There is still a distance to travel. First the referendum itself, with the options a simple yes or no on repeal, the more fraught path of replacing the existing article with a wording capable of satisfying enough voters and pressure groups to win, or a wording that would simply mandate the Oireachtas (in practice the Dail) to legislate as it saw fit . Assuming a vote for change, further heated debate can be expected in the Dail on any enabling legislation.

While the polls have shown a marked shift in public attitudes to abortion, the Taoiseach recently sounded a note of caution that the twelve weeks suggestion may prove “a step too far” for the majority of the public, adding that it was further than he himself would have anticipated a year or so ago. Fianna Fail as a party remain in favour of retaining the Eighth, though as I write leader Michael Martin has declared in favour of the twelve weeks proposal and emphasised that his party’s TDs will have a free vote on the issue. Whether the referendum will take place as early as May/June as initially signalled will depend on  how the political debate goes, with the prospects in the autumn of a possible Presidential election campaign (failing an agreed candidate) and of a visit by the Pope further factors to reckon with.

The gloves are already coming off. Abortion is an issue which stirs strong emotions at either end of the spectrum, even though at this point in time there appears considerable public support for change, faced with the reality of a constant stream of Irish women ( several thousand annually) travelling to Britain to secure an abortion.  It is an issue on which Varadkar must tread warily, given the minority position of his government and the precariousness of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail which keeps him in power. With recent opinion polls demonstrating a positive “bounce” for the Taoiseach and Fine Gael for the handling of the first stage of Brexit, there have been mutterings from Fianna Fail about pulling the plug if the current Fine Gael lead persists or increases. A setback in a referendum on such an emotive issue as abortion could prove seriously damaging to the Taoiseach’s prospects for re-election.

Another issue which may prove “a step too far” is the proposed referendum on voting rights for Non-Residents in Presidential elections which has been pencilled in for 2019. Currently Article 12.2.1 of the Constitution states “The President shall be elected by direct vote of the people.” 12.2.2 states “Every citizen who has the right to vote at an election for members of Dail Eireann shall have the right to vote at an election for President.”

The referendum proposal is the latest development in the official reaching out by the authorities here to the Irish Diaspora which has been a feature of policy in this century. A Task Force on Policy towards Emigrants reported in 2002, following which an Irish Abroad Unit was established in the Department of Foreign Affairs with me as its first Director.

The Unit now administers an Emigrant Support Programme which, since 2004 has assisted 530 organisations in 34 countries, spending over €158 million in the process. The Programme provides financial support to front line advisory services and community care organisations catering for Irish emigrants, focussing on the more vulnerable, marginalised and elderly. In addition the Programme has invested in a range of cultural, community and heritage projects among Irish communities overseas.

Official outreach has broadened and deepened in recent years with the nomination of a Minister for the Diaspora, the holding of two Global Irish Civic Forums and the acknowledgement of the Diaspora’s importance through the nomination of Chicago restaurateur Billy Lawless to Ireland’s Senate.

Relations with the Diaspora were given an additional impetus by the surge in emigration after the economic collapse of 2008 which has seen upwards of 250,000 Irish people forced to emigrate. This latest group, better educated and better qualified than earlier Irish emigrants, has maintained close contact with and interest in developments in Ireland through modern communications, the Internet and the social media.  Many of these regard their emigration as temporary and have been agitating  to have their interests taken into account by and within the Irish political process.  A potent argument advanced is that many policies enacted in Ireland have a direct impact on temporary emigrants and their ability to return home in terms e.g. of social welfare entitlements and educational  opportunities (and costs).

Lobby groups have pressed for the right of those abroad (there are estimates of one in six Irish born citizens residing outside the state) to vote in Irish elections, citing the practice in most European countries and other liberal democracies. There has been little public debate on the issue so far and that not necessarily very profound, with one (opposing) refrain citing the reverse of the 18th Century American Colonists’ slogan of “No Taxation without Representation” – i.e. if you want to vote, pay Irish taxes. The more considered reservation would be the concern that circumstances might occur in which an outside group not bound by any consequences could influence political decisions and policies within Ireland.

The Government has proceeded cautiously thus far. The Constitutional Convention in 2013 voted well over 70% in favour of permitting non-residents to vote in Presidential elections.  An examination at official level of the issues and practicalities involved followed. These included whether all Irish citizens should be eligible or whether the franchise should be restricted to those born in Ireland or recently emigrated, as well as the logistics of where, when, and how non-residents would vote.  An options paper in March 2017 is well worth studying. On 14 November Diaspora Minister Cannon told the Seanad that a referendum was envisaged for mid-2019, describing the initiative as a “very tangible expression of our commitment to ongoing engagement with the global Irish”.

A lively debate promises, though hardly on the scale of that on abortion. The Lobby wants more. Those in favour see it as a right of citizenship and one similar to that enjoyed by most expat citizens of liberal democratic states. Those against see it as the thin end of a wedge that could eventually end in non-residents voting in all Irish elections. There’s no talk of this at present but debates can often become side-tracked and issues distorted. And who can tell what result a referendum will produce.







2017 was not all bad news.  In November Ratko Mladic – the “Butcher of Bosnia” – was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. While some would consider appropriate in Mladic’s case the words of Bishop Moriarty of Kerry in 1867, condemning the Manchester Martyrs, that Hell was not hot enough nor Eternity long enough a punishment, nevertheless the life sentence imposed on the 74 year old Mladic should suffice to ensure he will never set foot outside jail again. He joins his chief partner-in-crime, Radovan Karadzic, who is serving 40 years for similar crimes. Karadzic has lodged an appeal. The third major Serbian warmonger, former President Slobodan Milosevic, died in 2006, during his trial.

The Tribunal was wound up at the end of 2017, having successfully convicted and sentenced 90 of the 111 persons brought to trial. The court has been criticised on a number of grounds, including partiality and selectivity, but at the very least it succeeded in bringing the major surviving players to justice and permitting a certain measure of closure to the relatives of the victims. There are gaps of course – many minor killers were not pursued, Mladic was nailed over crimes in Bosnia alone rather than in Croatia, and what measure of closure can realistically be provided to the relatives of the 8000 plus men and boys massacred in Srebenica or to those killed in smaller massacres across Bosnia and Croatia?

Clearly also emotions still run high in the countries and among the communities and individuals concerned. Mladic rejected the Tribunal’s verdict and claimed throughout his actions were ultimately on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. Since he was able to evade capture without disguise for over fifteen years a lot of people in Serbia and Bosnia clearly agreed. Ditto with Karadzic, though he DID use disguises and aliases. And, in a curious development shortly after Mladic’ conviction, a Bosnian Croat, Slobodan Praljak, committed suicide by poisoning before the Tribunal’s judges when his appeal was rejected, proclaiming as he did so that he was not a war criminal. However heinous his crimes (chiefly around Mostar) they were minor compared to those of the other two. His death evoked considerable public sympathy in certain quarters among Croats and even Serbs, further proof, if any were needed, that significant numbers of Serbs and Croats continue convinced (still) of the justice of their cause.

While a line – of sorts – has been drawn under the four conflicts that raged across what had been Jugoslavia in the 1990s, the process of reconciliation, particularly in Bosnia, clearly still has a long distance to travel. The major players are either dead (Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic, and Rugova ) or in jail (Karadic  and Mladic), two of the former republics, Slovenia and Croatia – significantly the two wealthiest – are in the EU, while Serbia ( the third richest) is negotiating for membership. The three less prosperous republics, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as Kosovo, which broke free from Serbia a decade ago, have aspirations only. The dead totalled at least 130,000, with estimates of 100,000 in Bosnia, 20,000 in Croatia and 13,000 in Kosovo. The numbers displaced internally or of refugees ran into millions, many of whom will never return. The wars popularised the term “ethnic cleansing,” reintroduced genocide as a parallel process, and in a grisly development, used rape, almost exclusively of Bosnian Muslim women, as a weapon of war.

There have been bloodier and more savage conflicts in the last quarter century, yet the Balkan wars continue to fascinate, especially for anyone who was there. And for Europe, where there has been ongoing soul-searching over the behaviour of the Dutch troops at Srebenica, and over the broader issue of the European Union’s role in the early stages of the conflicts.  In 1991, as the centrifugal forces that tore Jugoslavia apart were gathering strength and becoming apparent, Europe’s politicians, flushed with hubris following the collapse of Communism, blundered into involvement, best summed up in Luxembourg Foreign Minister Poos’ unfortunate statement that “the hour of Europe has dawned.”

At Brioni in early July, faced with how to respond to the imminent declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia, the EU, together with the principals, cobbled together an agreement for negotiations, hopefully to preserve Jugoslav unity, including establishing what became the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) to supervise de-escalation and disengagement. It proved a forlorn hope, with Europe’s leaders either unaware or at best only dimly aware, of the hatreds that festered.  Anyone with knowledge of recent Balkan history or even anyone familiar with the passions generated in the conflict in Northern Ireland, would have been sceptical. The immediate effect of the Brioni Agreement was to bind Europe to the escalating conflict.

It’s not as if Europe was kept in ignorance. All the major European countries had embassies in Belgrade, which presumably reported back regularly. In addition on 16 January 1991 Milosevic spoke at the traditional European Ambassadors’ lunch, where he painted in red his position, and that of Serbia. (What follows, and which smacks of authenticity, is reported in Honig and Both’s “Srebenica”). Were Jugoslavia to break up, Slovenia could go (there were no Serbs there) but the Serb inhabited areas in Croatia and Bosnia would remain part of a new federal “greater” Serbia. The existing internal borders were not sacrosanct but merely administrative.  This was Serbia’s ultimate compromise. If it was not obtainable peacefully, Serbia would be forced “to use the tools of power which we possess, and they do not.” It was the blueprint, ceteris paribus, for the bloodshed of the next five years.

Six months later European leaders recognised Croatian and Slovenian independence. By then the Slovenes had successfully repelled a half-hearted assault by the JNA. By then also the Serb areas of Croatia had been occupied (the Krajina), the Croatian town of Vukovar razed to the ground and other cities and towns (Dubrovnik, Osijek, Karlovac) heavily bombarded. There had been massacres, up to 20,000, overwhelmingly Croatians, killed and another half a million Croats ethnically cleansed.  Europe wanted out, its politicians without stomach for the bloodshed, with its unarmed white clad Monitors derided by both sides as “Ice Cream Men” (“I was that soldier”), and reduced to patching up partial local ceasefires and evacuating  JNA armour and artillery from Croatia into Bosnia to facilitate the conditions under which UN Peacekeepers could be introduced. The Serbs gave assurances the evacuated tanks and artillery would not be used against Croatia.

Those EU recognitions received considerable criticism as premature both then and later, but, on paper at least, Milosevic had got what he wanted. So had Croatia, and its EU champion Germany. I recall discussing the recognition at the time with a German diplomat in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. He posed the rhetorical question: what was Europe to do, faced with the aggression and crimes of the Serbs? Croatia was on its knees, with 20,000 dead, its land occupied, its economy ruined, and hamstrung by a UN Arms Embargo which rendered it militarily at the mercy of the Serbs. The die, in any event, was cast. No going back or thought, then, of Bosnia.




December 2017 may well prove a “watershed moment”, for Ireland, for Britain and for Europe. The hyperbole may in this case be justified. We shall see. The issue was Britain quitting the European Union –Brexit; the event was the December European Council meeting; the result was agreement to proceed with substantive negotiations on future EU-British trade and other relations. For Ireland, the country with most to lose from Brexit (apart from Britain!), the outcome was positive and reassuring, but there remains much to play for.

Up to now Brexit has appeared slightly surreal. Yes it was to happen, in 2019, the outcome of a narrowly won plebiscite on a flawed and inadequate question and after a campaign of disinformation and misinformation on the one hand and ineptness on the other.  The losing Prime Minister walked away and his successor has shown weakness and crass political misjudgement, arguably digging an even deeper hole for her country than that produced by the referendum result. All this compounded by the antics of her Cabinet colleagues who have thus far minimised or distorted the very difficult nature of the process of disentanglement and extraction  from forty years of regulatory integration, while also misrepresenting  post-Brexit Britain’s future  prospects.

Now there can be no doubt. Britain is on the way out. Much remains to be negotiated but a significant milestone on the path to no return has been rounded. As I write it appears that every party has got some of what they wanted. In Ireland’s case, critically, Britain has been faced down over the Border post-Brexit. For Britain, the decision by the European Council that the Brexit negotiations can proceed to future trade arrangements, something seen as the Brexit Holy Grail and  fundamental by gung-ho Brexiteers, and, in the real world, something welcomed by  the increasingly nervous British captains of commerce and industry. For the EU relief that there is now the potential for an orderly exit and future relationship by and with Europe’s second largest economy and avoidance of a British crash-out.

For Taoiseach Leo Varadkar events came thick and fast. One of those small hurdles which can bring a government down suddenly cropped up during November when the Maurice McCabe Garda Whistle-blower affair surfaced again. The McCabe affair has already claimed several notable scalps, including a former Minister for Justice, Garda Commissioners and top civil servants. This time it added another – that of Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who took one for the team, resigning with protestations of innocence to head off the Government’s collapse. Her Secretary General also left abruptly. An overhaul of the Justice Department is pending, while the problems besetting the Gardai continue.

For a while an early election seemed on the cards as relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail deteriorated sharply. The sour aftertaste left has led most observers to expect an early general election. This at a time when the negotiations over the Border post-Brexit demanded maximum Government attention.

Relations between Ireland and Britain took a nose dive in the run up to the December European Council.  The British goal was simple – to achieve EU agreement that negotiations could proceed to future trade relationships between the two entities. Three conditions were necessary: agreement on the size of the “Divorce Settlement” to be paid by Britain upon departure, satisfactory arrangements to protect the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and agreement on the Border arrangements in Ireland. The first two were a shoe-in, despite some initial bluster from the Brexiteers. Britain agreed to pay roughly €50 billion over a period and also gave guarantees regarding EU residents. Which left the tricky issue of the Irish Border.

The Border and all it represented has long been the running sore in relations between the communities in Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. With the advent of peace the situation changed. The security apparatus was dismantled and, with the introduction of the European Single Market and the Customs Union, border posts and barriers disappeared. This “soft border” between the two parts of Ireland has been one of the elements central to the success of the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process. Its importance has been acknowledged by all parties, not least by the EU which has strongly supported peace in Ireland.

However, with Britain due to leave the EU after March 2019, the Border will become effectively the external frontier of the EU and of Britain, with all that that implies. Ireland, with the support of the EU, has stressed from the outset the importance of maintaining the Common Travel Area between the two jurisdictions and the open border with free movement between North and South. In the negotiations to date over Brexit a satisfactory outcome over this was one of the EU’s three preconditions for Britain to satisfy. And from early on Britain has stressed it wants a “soft Border” to remain.

In practice however this involves squaring a particularly difficult circle. The soft Border is predicated on membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, both of which Britain is to leave. This exit is not set in stone – it was a commitment by Teresa May at a Party Conference – but so much rhetoric has been expended in support of leaving that a change here seems currently off the radar.

In the run up to the Brussels’ Council the British side huffed and puffed and stated repeatedly they wanted a soft border, without, however, going into specifics. The Taoiseach made clear that it was a national interest for Ireland and that we would hold our position and that moreover the problem was not of Ireland’s making. As Britain gave way on money and citizens’ rights the pressure on Ireland increased. The British tabloids joined in, excoriating Leo Varadkar as only they could. British politicians and commentators on TV expressed outrage that Ireland would/could/might hold up Brexit’s Manifest Destiny. Yet our EU partners held firm in support for the Irish position.

Something had to give, and it did. On December 4 May blinked and a form of words acceptable to Ireland was signalled. Then an immediate hitch. The DUP, who are keeping May in power, demurred at any arrangement that would mean some form of regime applying in the North different to the rest of the UK. May backed off.

The stalemate lasted for several days. Ireland and Brussels remained firm. May eventually agreed to further changes. Then another hitch. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, described the agreement as not legally binding but merely a declaration of intent. In the uproar that followed Davis hurriedly backed down and the assurances ultimately given enabled the European Council to declare sufficient progress had been made to proceed.

Which is where we are at. But without a definitive answer as to how the circle will eventually be squared. Negotiations will commence shortly on the length of the transition period after Brexit, with two years being currently envisaged. Will Britain move on remaining in the Customs Union or the Single Market? Will the current British government survive? How quickly will there be progress on trade? Will Brexit eventually come to naught with another referendum? What else can/ will happen?