Colombia took the first step when it opened its first Embassy in Dublin last year, and in January, Ireland reciprocated, with its first-ever diplomatic representation in the country. The City Paper talked with Irish Ambassador Alison Milton in the new Embassy to discuss the motives for having an Embassy in Bogotá and plans for a Colombia-Irish agenda.
Ireland’s presence in Colombia dates to back to Simón Bolívar and the Independence campaign when 1,000 Irish volunteers left Europe in the 19th century under the command of the Cock-born General Daniel Florence O’Leary (1801- 1854). “We have a very long history with Colombia,” says Ambassador Milton, recalling one of Bolívar’s closest confidants and well-known figure in Colombian history. The opening of an Irish Embassy in Bogotá was, therefore, the Ambassador explains, “in the offing for some time” and a decision that comes as Ireland expands its missions’ network across Latin America.
Where previously, the Emerald Isle’s presence was underrepresented in comparison to its European peers, Ambassador Milton views the Colombia-Irish relationship as two-way: “this is not an aid relationship […] but one of equals and a partnership where we can really work with each other.”
Peacekeeping is naturally a strong objective, and Ireland, since signing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, is well placed to support Colombia with its own peace process with former FARC. “During the conflict, there were strong political links between Ireland and Colombia,” remarks Ambassador Milton and afterwards, “at the time of the peace accords, Ireland worked very closely with President Santos’ government to set up a lesson learning program from our peace process.” Referencing prominent politician Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s former Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and the EU’s special representative to the Colombian peace process, Ambassador Milton explains how Ireland “felt a duty to provide international support to Colombia.” This historical approach of experience sharing and particularly lesson learning will help Colombia “learn from the things we didn’t do.”
Ireland’s commitment to peacebuilding and conflict resolution is part of the Irish DNA. “We are not going to talk about the Peace Agreement evermore,” she says, “but we are going to talk about peace and security in Colombia evermore, for the purposes of economic growth and development and equality.”
Reflecting on how wider geopolitical issues can threaten a halt in the maintenance of peace – such as Brexit for Ireland and Venezuela for Colombia – the Ambassador states that processes are “never perfect, never linear, with plenty of obstacles along the way,” but concludes that perseverance is key. “We really believe in sticking the course with the Peace Agreement,” she says.
Looking to the year ahead, the Ambassador expresses an expectation that current Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney will visit Colombia to mark the opening of the mission. Having addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for the first time on February 25, and attended a conference on disarmament, the Ambassador emphasizes the Tanaiste has a “strong personal interest” to re-visit Colombia. The Ambassador is also hopeful that Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins will meet his Colombian counter-part President Iván Duque in Bogotá.
Commerce is high on the bilateral agenda and of special interest to a country that has rapidly become one of the most important hubs of technology innovation in Europe. Even though Ireland may be a relatively small island, it is famous for creativity, from skilled musicians and famous writers, to film makers and entrepreneurs. With the success of the ‘Creative Ireland’ brand, Ambassador Milton believes her country can contribute to the development of President Duque’s Orange Economy, based on empowering with tax incentives the country’s cultural and tourism offering. “This is something we can really help with,” noting how Ireland’s private sector supported the rebuilding of its economic reputation, after the economic crisis of the 1990s.
When it comes to Irish commercial players in Colombia, there’s the low-cost carrier Viva Air owned 100% by Ryanair, and the paper and packaging company Smurfit Kappa. The latter’s long-standing presence in Colombia is a sign that Irish companies have plenty of potential in the Colombian market. And tourism is another sector of expansion, with 5,000 Irish visiting Colombia last year on holiday. The Ambassador believes science and technology will also open up future partnerships, especially with Colombia’s second largest city Medellín, which shares similar demographics with cities such as Cork and Galway given its young tech developers.
And for the country that gave the world James Joyce, Yeats, and Bono, there’s plenty of room for cultural partnerships. “We seem to have a natural affinity,” says Ambassador Milton, remarking on the possibility for cultural exchanges between musicians, dancers, writers and artists. “We have huge potential in Colombia to bring over people to share their experiences.”
And for those interested in higher education in Ireland, the country’s leading Universities are opening up to more foreign students, and Colombians will be no exception, now that both countries are enjoying “the best moment in their history of bilateral relations.”
To mark St.Patrick’s Day, the Colpatria Tower will be lit Emerald Green for the celebration on March 17, and a Green Ciclovía, that same Sunday will begin at 11:00 am at the Parque Hacienda Santa Barbara (Calle 114 with Cra.6a) and conclude, quite rightly, with pints at Irish Pub in Zona T.