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Because that is what Europe is all about – it is about solidarity in difficult times

Michael Forbes was born in Dublin and is an economics graduate of the famous Trinity College in his hometown.

He has a career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland. From 2005 to 2009 Forbes was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of his country to the state of Israel. From 2009 to 2012, he was the Director for Europe and Asia at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Prior to his appointment in Bulgaria, Ambassador Forbes served as Permanent Representative of Ireland to the OECD and UNESCO in Paris.

E. Mr. Michael Forbes presented his credentials as an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to our country in October 2016. He admits that the appointment delighted him greatly and shares: "I was privileged to serve at the Irish Presidency in Brussels during our 2004 EU Presidency when Bulgaria concluded its accession negotiations. That was a special moment for me…"

- Your Excellency, even in Sofia we celebrated the national holiday of your country – St. Patrick’s Day. What does it mean for the Irish?

- St. Patrick’s Day can be looked at in many ways, but it is basically our national day, it celebrates the coming of Christianity in Ireland. That is, because St. Patrick came from Christian Europe to pagan Ireland in the 5th century. He baptized the pagans of Ireland, who previously confessed their Celtic beliefs, and converted them to Christianity. And the shamrock which, as you know, is not exactly the official symbol of Ireland, but is deeply related to our national day, is honoured because St. Patrick used its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish. This year we commemorate St. Patrick’s Day also as the beginning of the Irish engagement with Europe, in other words we recommit ourselves this year, with hearts and soul, to being Europeans and being strong members of the EU. Which is very important at this particular time.

- Irish history is abounding. Which moments from it fill your heart with pride?

- It is interesting that, after the baptism of the Irish in the 5th century, Europe was invaded and conquered by assailants from the East and Christianity diminished, while in Ireland it remained strong. During those dark ages, Christianity was preserved in our country - mainly in isolated monasteries or even tiny islands of the West of Ireland. And from there, Irish monks and holy men later traveled back to Europe, to re-Christianizeit. We take great pride in that accomplishment, having remained firm and untarnished keepers of the European civilization.  And perhaps that is one of the reasons why we consider ourselves strong Europeans. We may be a small island, but we feel attached to Europe. At the same time Ireland is a very international country. And that is something we celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day as well – there are Irish communities scattered all over the world.

- On the same day, there were vast celebrations in New York as well…

- Yes, there were. In fact, St. Patrick’s parades were first initiated in America, but are now held in Argentina, Australia, parts of Asia and Africa and all over Europe. So in a way St. Patrick’s day is an international day. As I said at the reception on the occasion of the national holiday, on St. Patrick’s Day everyone is a little bit Irish.

There is also another, more serious, point.  We represent a people who are scattered all over the world. We have had to find our home in all sorts of different cultures. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes we had to fight a lot for our rights, including in the USA. Very often we were treated as second-class or third-class people, when we settled outside the borders of our country.  Now we’re doing well, and we’re treated well. But from that experience of ours we understand what it is like to be a migrant. And we have the sense that we were all migrants once. And I think we should all reflect on that, especially at this time, when some people seek to inflame differences between people. Nowadays Bulgarians also travel abroad quite a lot too – to live and work in other parts of Europe. But they do not take from those other countries: they contribute to the other countries they live. They contribute economically just like the Irish did over the centuries and they contribute culturally. Being citizens of the world, being citizens of Europe, does not make us less a citizens of Ireland or Bulgaria.

- Ireland has contributed greatly to the international relations dealing with the overcoming of global challenges, the eradication of poverty in a global aspect.  Now you have a new policy for international development "A Better World"…

- Actually, this policy is not new, but rather updated. We have had development policies since the 1970’s. Ireland has always been very active in the international relations going back to our independence. But it would be fair to say that since our economic take off in the 1990’s, we have contributed more and more to the international development. Moreover, Irish doctors, nurses, teachers have been engaged actively in the so-called developing world since 19th century. Very often if one met an African leader he would say he had been educated by Irish teachers. Therefore we have a tradition of engagement in Africa as well as countries from Asia and Latin America. The majority of the resources of our development aid go to the least developed countries, those who are in the greatest need in Africa – either through partnerships with international organisations, or through two-way programs, or through collaboration with other countries. For example, in alliance with the American administration, we worked very hard on reducing mother and child mortality in parts of Africa. We were to the forth in developing the UN development goals so the government is committed to reaching the UN targets for development aid, 0.7% of our GDP. Even throughout the economic crisis we strived not to reduce that help.

- Brexit has presented a unique and unmatched challenge to the EU, which affects Ireland the most…

- Brexit is the decision of the UK citizens. And of course we must respect such a democratic decision. But the country that will be most affected is in fact not Britain, but Ireland – in both political and economic terms. In a political aspect it is the threat to the Northern Ireland peace process – the famous Good Friday Agreement, which is a delicate enough process already. Happily both the Irish and the British governments have committed themselves to doing all they can to protect that process. Both governments state that they do not want a hard border between the North and South, which would undermine the peace process. But how exactly that is going to happen with one of the countries leaving the EU, is extremely hard. That is why we consider the agreement drawn up by the EU and United Kingdom last year, to be of extreme importance.

- Is your country ready for Brexit, if it happens?

- We do not know what exactly it is going to be like, as the British government and parliament have not reached their conclusive decision yet. It is hard to be very sure what exactly the consequences are going be.

On March 26th a leading Irish research institute published a report which says that, depending on the type of Brexit, between 20 and 100 billion euro could be taken out of the Irish economy over the next decade. This is an enormous sum.  That is why our government is trying to help the Irish industry to prepare. And that is the reason why advice packages are being developed. The food industry will be affected especially hard. 40% of its production is exported to Great Britain. Moreover, certain products are made in collaboration between Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, we have dealt with such predicaments before and know that our European friends will be helpful to us. Because that is what Europe is all about –it is about solidarity in difficult times and helping the weaker economies grow to become equal to the more successful ones. That is the story of our experience in the EU since 1973, when we were the poorest country in it, and now we are among the wealthy ones.  And I believe that these feelings are shared here in Bulgaria, as your governments have made wise decisions in favour of the EU through the years.  We certainly have the experience that when you give to the EU your fellow countries give back.

- Right now is the month of Francophonie. Your Minister of European Affairs, Helen McEntee has personally announced its start in Ireland. What is the meaning of Francophonie to the Irish?

- Last October, in Yerevan, during the Summit of Francophonie, we were accepted in it with the status of observers. I was honoured to be there. Our Minister Mrs. Helen McEntee expressed our delight at becoming part of the Francophonie. French is the first foreign language taught in Ireland and by far the most popular.

At the beginning I talked about our historic links with the continent of Europe which tend to go through Francophonic Europe, through France and Belgium. So we have a tradition of having Irishcologists in France and Belgium, and in Spain. In a sense it is linking back into that historical tradition. In deed a lot of the old Irish, who had to escape from the British colonization of Ireland, settled in Europe. First it was the clergymen who took up that route, and then many of the most prominent families. Some of them settled in France, including in the Bordeaux region. They entered the wine industry and established big wineries. Including the Hennessy cognac, which was created that way. They bear Irish names - preserved to this day. The Hennessey family, which originates from the 17th century from Ireland, is still involved in the cognac business today.

We have to say that the French Revolution inspired Irish Republicanism greatly and the ideas of the Enlightenment, the ideas of human rights. The three colours of the Irish flag have been greatly influenced by the French flag. Francophonie also gives us a strong feeling of inclusion in a different part of the world, which is a wonderful opportunity. Bulgaria has been a full member of the Francophonie for a long time now; we are observers at this point.

- The diplomatic relations between our countries can be described as relatively recent, since July 1990. How do you see their development?

­- It is true that our relations date back to 1990. Ireland did not have very deep relations into Eastern Europe until after the changes. So it was natural after Bulgaria regained its democracy in 1989 and 1990 to establish diplomatic relations. And they have developed very warmly since. I am very proud that I was part of the Irish Presidency of the European Council in 2004 in Brussels, which concluded the accession negotiations for Bulgaria to the EU. That was a priority of ours. And immediately after that, in 2005, we opened a permanent embassy in Sofia, after having a temporary one beforehand. I was hoping I would be sent here in 2005, but I arrived 11 years later and I found very rich and warm relationship. Although within the EU we are geographically far apart, we share a lot of similar approaches to policy issues. We are very committed to the strong Europe and we believe that all members of the EU should participate in all European policies if they are willing to. There should be no inside and outside tracks, we are all members of the EU together. That also has to do with the idea of solidarity, where those of us who are successful should help those of us who are not yet successful; because the loss of one, the lack of development of one, is a lack of development of all of us. Again, I take Ireland for an example. We have over the years received more money from the EU than we have contributed to the budget. It is not only about money. But at the same time we now contribute more to the European budget each year more than we get from. So Europe helped us when we were poorer and that made us richer, giving us the opportunity to contribute to the European budget now. I think Bulgaria understands what I mean. Money transferred to Bulgaria and other less developed communities of the EU, is an investment in the future wellbeing of Europe.

­- During the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018 our political connections were strengthened. What should we expect in the future?

- Our Prime Minister was the first to visit Bulgaria in the beginning of 2018. He was only in his job for 6 months then and did not come just to talk about the EU, but to signal our wish to have closer relations with Bulgaria, and to build his own personal relationship with Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov. This year our Minister for Rural Development and Digital Economy – Mr. Seán Canney, was in Bulgaria to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with us. For the first time an Irish minister has attended a celebration of our national holiday here. I think that is a significant sign on its own. He also had three important meetings with his colleagues from the corresponding ministries in Bulgaria.

But it is not all politics. It is also cultural relations. For the past two years and a half, I have been happy to build up our cultural program of interaction with Bulgaria. Especially in the areas of literature, music and dance.

- And what is the level of economic cooperation between our countries at the present? Are there investments and if so – in which sectors?

- There are both some bigger and some smaller investments. Some of the smaller ones are quite interesting, because they are in the modern IT sector. And as we all know it is the small and medium size enterprises that produce the jobs. But I also see a very large Irish multinational company in the area of cardboard packaging, interested in buying Bulgarian companies.

- What is our tourist exchange like?

- In the field of tourism, I think, about 35 thousand Irish tourists visit Bulgaria annually. They go mostly to the Black Sea coast and some ski resorts, especially Bansko. Ryan Air, which is an Irish low-cost airline, flies to Sofia as well as Varna and Burgas. These direct flights were a great boom for the development of tourism in Bulgaria. And those to Sofia in particular revealed a whole new set of possibilities. There are three flights a week between Sofia and Dublin. This enables the Irish to travel to Bulgaria and the Bulgarians- to Ireland.  Many Bulgarians who have settled in Ireland can now come and visit their families on a regular basis.  For us, Ireland and Bulgaria on the periphery of the EU, having low-cost air transportation is extremely important for both the business and our citizens. Travelling is no longer just a privilege of the rich. Everyone who works hard can travel. I think low-cost air travel has been so important for our economic and cultural development. I see the same happening in Bulgaria. I think that this is something that Ireland has given to Europe - a simpler but much more democratic way of transport. It is wonderful because it brings us together.

- You have been in Bulgaria from 2016 and already know us. How do you feel here? What are the similarities and differences between the Irish and the Bulgarian people?

- I feel very at home here in Bulgaria. I think our histories are quite a bit similar. We had hundreds of hundreds of years of colonization and that has left its impact. You at least maintained your language, while we lost ours. The Irish language is very much a minority language. But I think the colonial experience has affected very much the way we think and we operate, it has held us back from fulfilling our full potential. In addition, neither of our countries did very well in the 20th century, until the end of it. But the EU has allowed us, and I think it is allowing you, to get beyond that colonized past and to reestablish confidence in ourselves and in our own abilities. At the same time our colonial experience has given us the sensitivity towards issues of humanity and human rights, and particularly the struggle of minorities. That certainly forms our foreign policy when we approach international issues on the bases of human rights and what is just. So we are able to cooperate very well on the international scene. As nations which have been oppressed in the past, our culture, songs and dances have been of great importance to us - to maintain our independence, even in times when we were not politically independent. I see it very strongly expressed here in Bulgaria- even during the very dark days Bulgaria’s cultural treasure has been preserved. I was so delighted at the reception on St. Patrick’s night when, after a few children danced Irish dances, spontaneously some of the guests started dancing Bulgarian home dances, including our visiting government minister. I think that is a bright example of our relationship.

- What do you like to do in your free time… Your favourite spot in Bulgaria?

- My main problem is that I do not travel outside of Sofia enough, because I have to work too hard in Sofia. But I quite often opt for the opera at the weekends. So often I am committed to cultural activities here in Sofia. When I do get a chance I do like to travel. I have been to all the normal places: Plovdiv, Melnik, VelikoTarnovo, Burgas, Varna, Chepelare, Bansko, Borovets, Koprivshtitsa, and to my favourite place Bozhentsi. I am a little past half way in my mandate here and my desire is to travel more. The unspoiled nature is so wonderful and reminds me of my own country, although in a very different way. I think this simplicity, this integrity of the nature here and in Ireland is very real.

The photograph was provided by the Embassy of Ireland to the Republic of Bulgaria.