Joe Hayes - Irish ambassador to Prague looking forward to momentous EU presidency

Joe Hayes

In just over a week's time Ireland takes over the presidency of the European Union. It will be a momentous presidency, culminating on May 1 with the accession of ten new members to the EU, among them of course the Czech Republic. Ahead of the Irish presidency, I travelled across the city to the Irish Embassy in Mala Strana to talk to the Irish ambassador to Prague, Joe Hayes. I began by asking him about his background, and why he had become a diplomat.

"I joined the Irish Foreign Ministry in 1972, that's a long, long time ago. I was a lawyer and a journalist, and I joined the Foreign Ministry because it seemed an exciting type of career, with the chance to travel outside of Ireland. I joined and I worked for a while with our then foreign minister, who was quite a figure in Ireland, Dr Garret Fitzgerald. My first posting was to Germany, then I went to Moscow, where I spent five years. It was difficult. The Moscow that I remember in the 1980s was characterised by long queues, stifling bureaucracy, a lack of personal freedom. All embassies, even that of small neutral Ireland, were harassed by the security services. I got to know, in so far as we were allowed, a number of Russian people who became friends. But it was a grim time to be in Moscow."

When you say you were harassed how do you mean?

"Simple things; for example at the weekend you might decide, I had young children, you might decide well we were going to go on a trip out of the city. But western embassies couldn't travel more than 30 kilometres from the centre of Moscow without the permission of the Foreign Ministry. I distinctly recall taking the kids for a picnic in a wooded area perhaps 40 kilometres from Moscow, being surrounded by the police, being arrested, being escorted back to Moscow. And I thought come on, for God's sakes. The children were terrified."

Did you get the feeling that you were being watched or followed, or were you simply watched or followed?

"It's hard to say. I would have thought that back then in the Soviet Union there was just a vast, vast security apparatus, with a lot of people with nothing better to do. And if you were a westerner, particularly one that spoke Russian, and tried to integrate into the community - which was your home, it was home for us for five years - you were suspect, for no particular reason. But then there were good times too. We survived it for five years and tears were shed when we left."

You've also spent time in another one of the most interesting countries in the world, China. How long were you in China, and how was that?

"I spent five years as our ambassador in China. That was extraordinary. That was truly one of the best postings I've had at the Foreign Ministry."

Did it feel like a country that was changing rapidly when you were there?

"Yes. Literally. Week by week it changed. This was an economy which was just in overdrive. There were extraordinary changes happening all the time. China as we all know is well on its way to becoming an economic superpower, candidly. And I was there when that momentum was just beginning to develop. So, lot's of changes."

How long have you been in Prague and how has it been so far?

"I'm here a little over two years. Prague is a special place, Prague is one of those postings that diplomats really look forward to. This is just a great city. It's an easy country to be in. It's almost like a holiday, but an agreeable one, a holiday with lots to do. But this is just a great place to be."

In general what are the good and bad sides of the diplomat's life?

"A diplomat's life is about moving, moving, all the time. Places are home but only for short periods of time. And that's the down side, that you can't ever put down roots in a way that most people can. It can be a lonely life, personally challenging. It's hard maybe to make friends. The good side is that no day is the same. If you do a different job you're in the same office, going up the same steps to the same office every day for maybe ten, fifteen years of your life. Here I don't know next year where I'll be. Two years from now I really couldn't guess. You're forced, obliged - and this is a good thing - to live in the present."

The more times you move does it get harder, or easier, to up sticks and move again?

"Oh well, my answer to that is the older you get everything gets harder. I don't just get used to it, I guess, you just do it. You try to be positive; you look for the good things in the day. You look for the good things in whatever country you're in. You tend to look for the positive things. If you don't, if you start to complain or feel sorry for yourself, then no posting, no matter how pleasant, is ever going to deliver what it should."

A lot of people around the world when you tell them you're Irish have an automatically positive response, be they Mexicans or Albanians or whatever. Does that make your job easier?

"Well, the problem is most people when they look at Irish people, of course they have a positive reaction, but you meet people and they say you're Irish, then you're going to drink more than most, you're going to party the longest. There's an expectation that you're going to be a particular stereotype. I have to say, though, that Irish people tend to live up to the stereotype. Most people regard us as open, warm-hearted, people that wear our hearts on our sleeves. And that's good, that's good. I have no problem living up to the better parts of the stereotype."

From January 1 Ireland will be the president of the EU. That will be even more complicated now, after the recent breakdown of talks on the EU constitution. Has your workload here at the embassy increased as the presidency approaches?

"I suppose it's a bit too soon to answer that question. We'll know better in January what the demands will be. We'll have to chair a lot of EU meetings here. But our colleagues here in Prague in the EU embassies and those of the accession countries are a pleasant, agreeable, sensible group of colleagues who know the demands that will be put on us. We'll do a good presidency I have no doubt, because we'll get the detail right. We'll get the logistics right, we'll chair meetings well. The big task for us as a president, the big challenges by our ministry in Dublin, and I have no doubt they'll deliver as well."

Czechs will be allowed to work in Ireland from May 1: do you get Czechs coming here to the embassy looking for information about working in Ireland?

"Yes, we do and we're delighted to welcome them. There's a fear in certain quarters that May 1 the floodgates will open and suddenly thousands of Czechs will flock into Ireland. We've never believed that, that's not going to happen. Czechs will continue to come to Ireland, continue to work there, as they do at the moment - there are several thousand Czechs working and living in Ireland and contributing hugely to Ireland's economy. We're delighted to see them come. We've no problem with, from May 1, making Czechs welcome on the same basis as Irish citizens."