“An evening of storytelling and negotiation”: The British Ambassador to Ireland visits SOFIA

Alannah Owens reviews SOFIA’s first event in a series of weekly talks

The British Ambassador to Ireland, Robin Barnett was invited by the Society for International Affairs (SOFIA) to speak about “The World in 2019” on Thursday evening. Barnett admitted from the get-go, however, that the title of the talk was misleading. What was in store for the audience that filled the Robert Emmet theatre was not an hour-long description of the current state of the planet, but rather a commentary on the world as His Excellency Robin Barnett CMG had experienced it throughout.

This talk labelled as a “networking” event on SOFIA’s Facebook page, comes as part of their series of weekly talks which will bring diplomats, international lawyers and others from the field of international relations to Trinity. It is an invaluable opportunity for students interested in such careers, and also for those who would like to gain a deeper understanding of a world that is, as the ambassador himself acknowledged, sometimes misunderstood, misrepresented or simply misses the limelight. As he took to the stage, an evening of storytelling and interrogation of both personal and political issues began. 

Ambassador Barnett’s speech was woven out of personal anecdotes that aimed and succeeded in giving the audience a flavour of how the job of a diplomat had changed over the years, as the world in which we live grew “ferociously complex”. Dealing with issues such as antimicrobial resistance, climate change and artificial intelligence are part of the twenty first century diplomat’s job nowadays, and that’s not to mention Brexit – which he purposefully left aside, correctly predicting that the audience would ask him a question on this at the end. 

For the benefit of all freshers he drew on personal experience and discussed the difficulties of his own transition to university as a student. For more seasoned students, Mr. Barnett had career advice. “Know how much money motivates you”. Mr. Barnett said that for him, money is not the top priority. He thrives on the satisfaction his job provides him with.  He opted for a career in the civil service that would lead to a much smaller pay cheque than would have awaited him in a legal practice. We are often told that we are a generation that will have many jobs, and while this seasoned diplomat said he is like a “green dinosaur” having worked in his own job for 40 years, the overwhelming message of the talk was that his position is one that has changed completely in terms of the tasks and roles expected of the worker. Why would he consider changing his profession when his job is already ever changing? The art of diplomacy today according to Ambassador Barnett is “the art of refining information into a simple set of options,” Diplomats need to be able to distill the most important points out of the sea of information out there, as opposed to writing lengthy essays, which he implied academia often teaches us possibly too well. 

One core aspect of his position that has remained essential and constant is the need to get to know the local scene and understand the mentality and behaviour of the local people. He credited this as crucial for the smooth running of operations, as “diplomacy is a team sport”.  There is a psychological element to the job, and a question from the audience tested whether he has competency in this art. He remarked how in Ireland funerals are a big thing. Everyone goes to funerals. You are invited even if nobody says it. The chuckles and surprised familiarity of his observation of Irish funerals earned him a pass with flying colours.          

You would be forgiven for thinking that much of the speech would have revolved around  Brexit, however the ambassador chose to nearly exclude it entirely, knowing that he would be asked about it during the Question and Answer section that always follows the speeches at SOFIA’s talks. True to prediction, the questions were kicked off by the fateful, is there room for negotiating a Northern Ireland only backstop?  Ambassador Barnett noted that the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, failed three times to get the backstop through parliament, and he asserted that at some point we need to look at how else we might achieve the desired outcomes. Reminding us that the backstop was always a protective measure for a case where all else failed, `’now we need to focus on the alternatives” the Ambassador said.  Revealing something about the process of inter-state negotiations, he said that it is not possible to do complex negotiations entirely in public, and often at the most crucial moments, it is quiet because things are at work, and all energies are being put into trying to get a deal through. Perhaps this is a hint at what is going on at the moment. 

SOFIA’s treasurer,  Zahar Hryniv commented that “of course we try and coordinate our events with what is going on in current affairs, but this was just excellent timing”. Hryniv also  assured that “in the future SOFIA hopes to have more events such as this, where [they] encourage dialogue and debate on the most pressing issues in international affairs.”  From their Fresher’s week Salsa class,(surely) aimed to get everyone’s dancing shoes ready for their Ambassador’s ball later on in the year, to their weekly talks by figures from foreign affairs, this society which received the CSC Societies Choice Award 2017, has a lot to offer. So far, my €3 spent on SOFIA membership has been well worth the sacrificed cappuccino. The turnout for this talk was indeed “fantastic” and Hyniv “hope[s] to keep the momentum going throughout the year”.