Today, Africa Day, we in Ireland celebrate our links with Africa, Africans and people of African heritage, especially those for whom Ireland is home. We mark the strong bonds of friendship that have connected Ireland and Africa for generations.
Many of us grew up with stories of Africa, told by uncles and aunts working in far off places who took the wonder of their African experiences to our childhood firesides – missionaries, educators, development workers and volunteers. Our mind maps navigated the highways and byways of Nigeria, of Botswana, of Kenya, the places they called home.
Today, over 60,000 Africa-born people call Ireland home. Many are Irish citizens. They are our doctors, nurses and carers. They are at the heart of our national effort to resist the pandemic. Africans in Ireland are entrepreneurs, scientists, public servants, and artists. They are our national sporting heroes. Africans in Ireland are our neighbours, friends, classmates, and family.
Africans in Ireland make this a better place for us all. Our new connections build on our historic links, bringing a fresh dynamism to Ireland’s relationships with the African continent. A dynamism that the Government’s Africa Strategy builds upon.
Today the Government publishes the first annual report of progress during the first year of its Africa Strategy. That report shows the breadth of Irish engagement with the continent, the maturity which has grown since we opened our first Embassy in Africa 60 years ago, in newly independent Nigeria.
There are twelve Irish Embassies in Africa, each managing a diverse range of political, economic, cultural and people to people links, in addition to the investments which Ireland is making in the development of the continent through the highly regarded Irish Aid programme. The OECD last year found Irish Aid to be ‘an inspiration to other donors.’
This year, Ireland will open a new Embassy in Africa, in Morocco, with two more to follow by 2025, deepening connections in both directions.
The continuing and exciting development of Africa over the sixty or so years since decolonialisation began in earnest is demonstrated by increasing trade and investment links in both directions. In 2019 total Ireland – Africa trade was nearly €5 billion. Irish agribusinesses such as Devenish are investing in Uganda and Kenya; the South African animation company Triggerfish is investing in Galway. With four South African teams due to play rugby against our provinces on a regular basis, new opportunities and connections will follow.
We want to build on this.
We want to do more.
One of the things we are doing through the Africa Strategy is investing in enhanced political partnerships with African countries, enabling us to work together, including in the international rules-based system, to tackle global problems including COVID-19 and climate change.
Ireland’s membership of the UN Security Council presents us with a real opportunity to deepen those political partnerships. We are working closely with African members – Niger, Tunisia and Kenya – on issues of global concern, and those of importance to Africa and to Ireland. Our work is informed by the deep experiences of our diplomats of African issues, drawing upon longstanding friendships and Irish links with African countries.
Of course, Africa has long been at the heart of Ireland’s engagement with the United Nations. 61 years after their first deployment to Africa, the Irish Defence Forces continue to serve with honour, peacekeeping today in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Western Sahara. Irish Aid is complementing their work, providing humanitarian and other supports to help address the impact of conflict in those countries, and elsewhere.
We have had a brutal reminder over the past year of how interconnected is our health and wellbeing in Ireland with that of others, no matter where in the world. Dr Mike Ryan’s maxim that no one is safe until everyone is safe is an eloquent encapsulation of that interdependency, which goes well beyond health – our climate, our oceans, our security are all best guaranteed through mutual support.
That mutual support is manifest in the response to the pandemic: African healthcare workers here are among the health care heroes who have given so much over the past year to protect us all. In return, Ireland, through Irish Aid and the HSE, is strengthening public health systems in Africa: in addition to investing almost €100 million which will help health systems respond to COVID-19 and other serious illnesses, and to reduce maternal and infant mortality, we share our expertise with and learn from our African colleagues.
It is also why Ireland is contributing generously as part of the ‘Team Europe’ response to the pandemic to ensure vaccines will benefit everybody in the world, including in Africa. The EU is the largest contributor to the COVAX Facility, which is providing vaccines to less well-off countries to vaccinate at least 20% of their population. Already 67 million vaccines have been delivered through COVAX and this number will increase substantially.
Due to the pandemic, we cannot celebrate Africa Day as I would like. That is why I am pleased that my Department has been able to work with 20 City and County Councils around Ireland to mark the day and encourage everyone to join in. We also have a special website, www.africaday.ie , with audiovisual and other treats – please drop in during the day.
This piece first appeared in the Irish Independent on Tuesday, 25th May 2021.