Amb. Cliona Manahan: If I don’t sound authentic, nobody’s going to listen
Cliona Manahan, Ireland’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, says that her approach to the post is based on reaching out and making connections – and that she see her embassy in Prague’s Malá Strana as a kind of informal “Ireland House”. But how does Manahan manage to keep in touch with the Irish community in this country, local representatives and other diplomats at a time when face-to-face meetings are almost completely ruled out? We discussed that question, and much more, ahead of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.
What led you to Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic service?
“I think the most important thing about all of this is, why you do it?
“And the answer really is I would have been interested in arts, creative industries, literature – but I grew up in Ireland at a time where we dealing with a screen full of violence, human rights, what was going on.
“Nobody was prepared to talk about these issues in my school; nobody felt equipped to.
“So it reduced me to listening to the news and having debates with my dad.
“My dad was a public servant and I think really fostered this interest.
“So right through my teens I got more and more interested, I got more and more political.
“I applied to get into Trinity [College] and was delighted to get in, because the law degree I did had [future president] Mary Robinson and Kader Asmal, who was dealing with anti-Apartheid issues.
“So it was a dramatic eye-opener – from just growing up in this little area of Dublin to what was happening all around the world.
“That is in fact what made me stay with it. And then in Trinity I did the Law Journal and I free legal aid and women’s aid – and more and more things came on my screen and I was really concerned about trying to do my bit to make a difference.
“And that’s what led me into foreign affairs.”
How has the reality of the job been compared to the expectations that you had going into it?
“From day one they put me into working on the [Northern Ireland] peace process and once you’ve had, as I’ve had, a freelance journalism background, you could see immediately how the news was made.
“Obviously I started a while back, so it was pre-internet and it meant that we were connected – and we could see that by the work we were doing, it was directly relevant.
“So lobbying, working in Europe, working in America, working with Britain – that was what I was put onto immediately.
“I worked in embassies on the front line of those issues with brilliant colleagues.
“So I think you could really feel, OK, public service can be difficult – nobody would deny that – but if you put all that talent together and you’re open to listening, because that’s one of the key skills, you can make a difference.
“The peace process certainly showed that. Our work at the European level. Brexit. Our work now as members of the [UN] Security Council [in 2021–2022].
“People trust us. They know that without a colonial past we’re pretty honest and straight with people.
“People know that without a colonial past the Irish are straight with people.”
“We won’t be forgotten, and they won’t be forgotten, after our membership of, say, the UN Security Council is over; as members you’ve an opportunity to make the difference.”
You’ve been here in Prague since 2019, I believe. When an ambassador moves to a new country, typically how do they find their feet and orient themselves in this new environment?
“You listen. You do a huge amount of reading. You talk to people who have been here before you, you talk to the people who know Czech thinking, you talk to Czech people.
“I regret – thank you for doing this in English – that we don’t have enough time to learn languages.
“So you really hit the ground running, but I always feel we’re not where we can be if you’re not speaking the language.
“I envy you when I read what you’re posting, because that connectivity around the city and around the country really matters.
“The homework doesn’t stop. It’s lifelong.”
“So the homework doesn’t stop. It’s lifelong.
“You never stop reading. You’re constantly plugged in. And you’re thinking about those issues and what Ireland and the Czech people could be doing together.”
Being Irish, many people ask me how big the Irish community in the Czech Republic is. I always guess around 1,000. Would you know roughly how many Irish people are based here?
“Officially that’s the kind of figure. But there are a lot of students who would come in and out for Erasmus.
“There are a lot of young lecturers, there are a lot of creatives who come in and do a stint here.
“I’m always surprised by how many people I meet who may not be based here full-time but do business here – so there is a floating population.
“And that is very important to us, because very often by hearing, or reading, a journalist, you go, Oh, that’s interesting – that person is working in such and such a place, we must make contact.
“So it means that we’re much more open. We’re not a formal Department of Foreign Affairs.
“We know that if we don’t have relevance to people and we’re not involved in outreach, we could be left in our little embassies all alone.
“So working in this way isn’t news to us. You have to do it and it’s part and parcel of the day.”
Given that we’ve had Covid with us here in the Czech Republic for a year and you can’t see members of the Irish community very often, how do you maintain that sense of community, or how do you stay in contact with Irish people here?
“Most of the time we are like yourself: You’re working virtually and you are getting better at it.
“There are so many different ways of doing this. Now I think we’re all missing each other so much that it feels very real.
“It no longer feels like you are detached.
“So on a day-to-day basis you’re plugged into meetings all the time: You have webinars, you have VCs, ministers are talking to each other – you’re setting up meetings.
“You mentioned the pandemic – you’re making sure that any exchange of information whatever is good practice; whatever those challenges are, we’re looking at that.
“The WHO is here; we’re plugged into the WHO.
“There’s an amazing network of ambassadors, representing all regions, and everybody wants to talk.
“So the connectivity, whether it’s WhatsApp groups or whether it’s what we’re doing now – I think those really matter, and they’re working.
“We’ve got 24, 25 women ambassadors [in Prague] – that’s a very high proportion.”
“The women’s network here is remarkable. We’ve got close to 24, 25 women ambassadors, and that’s a very high proportion.
“Many of them come other regions and are not just European ambassadors, so that means immediately if you want to know what’s going on in Africa, Latin America, Central America or Canada you have friends everywhere.
“I think this really has brought us… it’s ground zero in terms of how to do your job – if you can’t communicate, we couldn’t operate.”
But do you still feel like you’re lacking something? I always associate ambassadors with going every evening to receptions and hobnobbing and meeting their counterparts from other countries face to face very often.
“You miss normal conversation. Of course you do.
“My family are based in Dublin, so I miss them.
“But they’re all in creative industries, so they live like this. One’s a filmmaker, the other’s working as a digital executive at the National Library.
“So they have encouraged me, really, to use this.
“Does it work as well as being with people? It’s not the same.
“But it can actually free you up, because in the traditional way that I would have been travelling… I’ve been head of Asia Pacific and Latin American work, I worked with the president – we never stop travelling and the travel is in fact very exhausting.
“So if you free people up and you do what we did this week – we had an amazing meeting with the Portuguese Presidency [of the EU] on what the green recovery is going to be.
“That was really interesting and it brought together experts all the way from Portugal, all the way around the Czech Republic and into Brussels.
“So I think we’re going to not go back fully to what it was.
“I think a lot of people are going to say, Really, do we need 27 meetings a week and all those air miles? Wouldn’t be better to concentrate the resources and do more of this? And to keep it going – don’t just wait to go to Brussels but make sure there’s a pick-up in between times, and that’s definitely happening.
“Every single topic is now online. There is no way to say, I was in America and I couldn’t do that – now you can.”
“Regular meetings of Foreign Affairs, General Affairs, environment issues – every single is now online.
“There is no way to say, Oh well, I was in America and I couldn’t do that – now you can.
“So it is in many ways more effective.”
I know a key activity of the Irish Embassy here in Prague is helping to cultivate business ties between Ireland and the Czech Republic. In concrete terms, how do you do that?
“I would be very interested in a kind of ‘Ireland House’ approach.
“I don’t see myself as just in a rarified bubble dealing with political and day to day issues.
“We’re all about the outreach. So Enterprise Ireland is in the same building.
“This St. Patrick’s Month marks a kind of opportunity to say to people, Look, this is what our companies are capable of.
“So you take Czech innovation and Czech skills and you put that together with what we’ve got and you have an enormous impact.
“Mergon Plastics, Ventac and other companies are now coming up with solutions which will be part of this green recovery.
“So it’s an opportunity: If you put that talent together, you can really go global with it.
“And Ireland with a diaspora of probably close to 75 million – we genuinely have markets everywhere.
“So does the Czech Republic. I think we’re very likeminded and we’re very keen to see more of that happen.
“Tourism Ireland: the same thing. As the tourism offering changes here, Prague is going to go from, what, 11 million visitors a year down to, you know, ground zero, like Ireland.
“So what does that mean when you come back to business? Do you really want millions of people? Or do you want to look after the city and think about what those solutions will be?
“Again those are the areas where we can talk. Science Foundation Ireland, collaborations between the universities – all of those.
“I’m constantly looking to see where there is excellence in the Czech screen – and see is there something that should be awakened back in Ireland.
“So in fact the job works both ways; you’re warming things up here, but you’re also building the pipeline to and from Ireland.”
One thing I’m also very curious about is if the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin deliberately foster some kind of image of Ireland. Are you given directives about what kind of image to create?
“They would only want you to be, I think, positive and be realistic.
“If I don’t sound authentic, nobody’s going to listen.
“So it does help to have this background and see what Ireland has achieved.
“Ireland has been transformed in my lifetime. Through European Union membership, through being active in the UN and working on the peace process – it’s been very humbling.
“We don’t go around telling anybody we’ve got the solution.
“But we’re able to say that we went from a screen that was filled with daily violence to a country that is of totally different standing.
“Members of my family went abroad. Emigration was the pattern.
“Now they stay, and they’re bringing all that talent home.
“We’ve gone to nearly five million at home. There are a million and a half up in Northern Ireland.
“Suddenly you’re six and a half million – you can really scale up what we should be doing.
“For me that’s the interest – that continues to be the interest.
“It doesn’t mean we’re perfect. We would never say we are. We’ve got a lot of issues that we’re still looking at, and making changes after the financial crises.
“Now, obviously, the pandemic has thrown up issues around social models, about public health, about housing. There’s lots of areas where we’re challenged.
“So is the Czech Republic. So is Europe. Nobody has the answers but put it together and we will get those answers.”
Unfortunately this year again there won’t be an Irish Embassy St. Patrick’s Day party in Prague – they’ve always been so good over the years. But I’m wondering if at this you have any message for the Irish community here in the Czech Republic, or others of course?
“Yes, well, the answer is that for anybody who feels a little bit Irish, or likes being around Irish people, there will be a global marking of this.
“We’re very aware this is a deeply sad anniversary – it’s 12 full months of this pandemic – and everybody everywhere has sadness and loss.
“So we’re producing an online celebration that links everybody right around the world.
“In the local region it’ll feature literature and music, obviously, and I think it will bring comfort.
“The idea is also to connect, so that people can plug in and you can join the virtual celebrations all around.
“That will run for a couple of days and it means that no matter what the weather is doing people have the opportunity to look at it.
“You can do it live or you can do it after the event.
“But I think it does mean that we’re kind of really celebrating what culture and creativity has brought to the world.
“It’s been amazing. When you think about the 23rd Irish American president [Joe Biden] in Washington during his inauguration, everybody’s heart was lifted by listening to 22-year-old Amanda [Gorman].
“Now we’re hearing the people who will be performing.
“And in Ireland one in five people is no longer just Irish – they weren’t born in Ireland.
“So the diversity is very important to us, and very inclusive.
“And that’s the kind of St. Patrick’s that we want to share.”