“without the partnership of countries like Japan … we cannot effectively address global challenges”

Shared ambitions for a stronger future

Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland Simon Coveney


JUNE 2021  / The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photo by Julien Behal

Simon Coveney was elected to the Dáil (Irish Parliament) in 1998, becoming one of the youngest members of parliament to represent his party, Fine Gael. He has served as Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for Brexit, and as Tánaiste (deputy prime minister). He was appointed to his current post, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, in June 2020.

How has Ireland responded to the coronavirus pandemic?

The Irish government has taken extensive and unprecedented measures to support workers and businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. A total of over €11 billion in payments has been made to date under the government’s three main support schemes — the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme, and the Covid-19 Restrictions Support Scheme.

The enormous scale of government intervention has laid the foundations for a swifter recovery, by ensuring businesses can survive and that jobs can be retained. This has been supported by the resilience of Irish exports of goods and services worldwide. I would particularly like to note the positive impact that Japanese customers and partners have had in maintaining a high level of trade throughout the pandemic.

How have you seen EU member states strengthening ties through this experience?

The EU is committed to taking a global role in addressing the pandemic. Ireland is supporting discussions in the EU on a vaccine-sharing mechanism to ensure that no country is left behind, regardless of their economic circumstances. As Ireland’s Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, often says, “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” The EU is the world’s biggest global exporter of Covid-19 vaccines and has exported a little less than half of the total quantity of vaccine doses that have been produced within its borders. As of 17 May, the EU has approved for export worldwide some 210 million vaccine doses to 45 countries, including over 90 million to Japan, the nation receiving the largest number of doses.

As with all the crises the EU has lived through since 1957, it is my hope that we will emerge from this crisis as an even stronger EU, based on solidarity, partnership, and common values.

Could you tell me about Ireland’s cooperation with Japan in the international community?

Ireland and Japan are close partners. We cooperate on many levels, including bilaterally in the fields of politics, trade, investment, research, culture, and people-to-people exchanges.

Ireland’s relations with Japan are strengthened greatly by the fact that we are both party to the EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement [EPA] and the EU–Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement. For goods and services combined, in 2019, two-way trade between Ireland and Japan reached €13.8 billion. Now in its third year, the EPA will continue to provide new and real opportunities for business in both directions, which benefit the citizens of both of our economies.

Ireland is actively engaged with our EU partners in developing the strategic approach of the EU towards the Indo-Pacific region. We know that without the partnership of countries like Japan in the region, we cannot effectively address global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and the pandemic, as well as challenges to the rules-based international order.

by Leon Farrell, Photocall Ireland

How would you like to see the relationship with Japan develop?

Ireland looks forward to capturing with Japan the shared ambition of our relationship in a new and strengthened Ireland–Japan Joint Declaration to be concluded this year. Our aim is for it to bring our bilateral relations and exchanges to a new, higher level across many sectors over the next five years and beyond.

Ireland’s ambition for elevating our relationship with Japan is also exemplified by the new Ireland House in Tokyo. Due to open in 2024 in Yotsuya, Ireland House will be a state-of-the-art platform for promoting everything that dynamic, innovative, digital Ireland has to offer Japan in the decades to come. Ireland House in Tokyo is the largest capital investment ever undertaken by Ireland overseas.

Also, both of our administrations agree that digitalisation is significant, an area full of opportunity for Ireland–Japan collaboration. Ireland is a global digitalisation hub where front-rank, global and indigenous industry, research institutions, as well as government are close strategic partners. In 2020, the European Commission ranked Ireland number one in the EU for integrating digitalisation into business. I believe that Ireland’s strong, globally recognised digital credentials situate our nation as an ideal partner to support the determination of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government to accelerate the digitalisation of Japan’s economy, administration, and public services.

Having been the minister responsible for Brexit, what is your view on the agreement reached between the EU and the UK?

It is in our interests that the EU–UK relationship is as strong as possible. This is important for Ireland and for our valued international partners like Japan. In that context, I am glad that agreements are in place to enable further cooperation and to address the range of issues created by Brexit. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement, together with the Withdrawal Agreement — which includes the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland — means that Ireland’s key Brexit objectives have been achieved. We now have the full toolbox to make the best of the new framework for EU–UK cooperation.

Regarding the Ireland–UK relationship, we wish to strengthen this in any way possible, including through our people-to-people, economic, and cultural ties, and our shared responsibility for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

What are the Shared Island Dialogues? And what were a couple of the key points you made in your recent talk?

As part of the 2020 Programme for Government, a new, cross-government Shared Island initiative was launched. We are working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.

I participated in a Shared Island Dialogue in March with over 120 civil society representatives — from across all communities and political traditions on the island. I spoke about the vital role played by civil society in our peace process and in building consensus on complex social and cultural issues.

Through our Shared Island initiative, the government has set an agenda that everyone on the island — Irish, British, both, or neither — can engage with confidently. It does not diminish or compromise anyone’s identity or beliefs. It is how we are taking the next steps in the peace process and the journey to becoming a more reconciled island.

“Our aim is … to bring our bilateral relations and exchanges to a new, higher level across many sectors”