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Ireland Asks Citizens: How Do We Fit Into the World?

Foreign Minister Dick Spring sees evolving ties with Europe and the US

DICK SPRING is foreign minister of the Republic of Ireland. He was interviewed recently by Monitor contributor Alexander MacLeod.

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You have just been holding a series of seminars in various parts of the Irish Republic, involving citizens' groups, about your country's future foreign policy. Why was it necessary to have such a review?

In the past there was not a great deal of exchange between the government and the public on foreign policy. I wanted to give the Irish people a sense of ownership of foreign policy. We held seven seminars in all. They were very well attended, with good participation. Also, the decision taken at Maastricht to review the European Union's common foreign and security policy in the 1996 intergovernmental conference made us realize we were going to have to reflect on these issues. One of the weaknesses of European thinking in relation to Maastricht was that the public weren't engaged or consulted.

Historically, the Irish Republic adheres to a policy of neutrality. How big an issue was that in the public consultations you had?

It was one of the major issues. Effectively, we have said that the Irish government will put the outcome of any negotiations involving participation in a common defense policy to the people in a referendum. The question of neutrality will be decided by the people.

In Britain, if you were to give the people ''ownership'' of foreign policy, many would say ''No'' to Europe. Is there not a danger that by consulting public opinion you are going down a populist route?

My party was in opposition at the time of the Maastricht Treaty, and we felt there was a lack of access to information. We are trying to avoid that happening again.

In the late 1960s Pierre Trudeau, then Canadian prime minister, initiated a wide-ranging foreign-policy review. Quite a sea change in foreign policy resulted. Do you anticipate anything comparable happening in the case of Ireland?

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I see no necessity for a sea change, but debate is essential. I detect in the EU [European Union] a wish to reassess foreign policy and security interests in the light of the post-cold-war situation. Old threats have been replaced by new risks. New responses are called for. We in Ireland have to decide what role we can play in a European security system.

Are you concerned that in economic terms the EU appears to be headed toward a two-speed future, with countries such as the Irish Republic in the slow lane?

In Ireland we have always favored a single-speed approach to European integration, and there is widespread support for that within the EU. There are individual areas such as economic and monetary union [EMU] where Ireland perhaps considers it appropriate to make provision for approaching a common objective at different speeds, reflecting different national situations. But on EMU, Ireland is among the countries on course to move into the final stage.

What is your time scale for a single European currency?

Under the Maastricht Treaty, the final stage can begin in 1997 if a majority of eight member-states qualify. And it's to begin in 1999, without a majority, if the process has not already started. Ireland is committed to the timetable according to the strict criteria laid down at Maastricht.

In the United States one can detect a disposition to roll back from global commitments. How concerned are you that American encouragement of European integration may be abating?

Obviously, we have to wait to see how the relationship between the new Congress and the Clinton administration works out. The US has a very important role to play in relation to transatlantic politics. I think there is a special relationship between Europe and the US. There is a degree of reassessment taking place on both sides of the Atlantic at the present time. We have to be mindful of the EU's relationship with the US, but also of America's relationship with Russia.

In Northern Ireland, the US has been playing a dominant role in the peace process. Assuming substantive negotiations begin, how important is it for the US to sustain its commitment?

It would be difficult to exaggerate the critical importance of the US role in achieving and consolidating the peace process, and in encouraging the early start of comprehensive dialogue. The US government is a friend of both the Irish and British governments, and indeed of both communities in Northern Ireland. President Clinton's personal interest is of particular significance. The administration has consistently sought to reach out to both communities, and in Washington May 24-26 there is to be a conference on trade and investment that will be a unique forum to demonstrate the exceptional attractions of Ireland, North and South.

If the IRA meets British demands on the decommissioning of arms, and talks begin, how long can the negotiating process be allowed to continue without people concluding that no real progress is likely to occur?

If you had asked me that question 12 months ago, I would have said I would want negotiations to be concluded very quickly. Now I prefer to take the longer view. This is a peace process. We have to bring a lot of people with us, gain support from a cross-community gathering. That will require skill, time, and patience, and a spirit of reconciliation. If you are trying to resolve a 700-year-old problem, you don't want to stick rigidly to a particular timetable. There is a unique opportunity to develop peace, and obviously we will all give it our best efforts and our best resources.

So you are optimistic?

After visiting Belfast, and meeting with community groups in particular, listening to opinions on all sides of the political divide, there is optimism in Northern Ireland. That puts the responsibility firmly on the leaders of political parties on the island of Ireland, and indeed in the United Kingdom, to get on with the job.

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