It could be said that diplomacy was born when our ancestors decided that it might be better to listen to the messenger rather than to kill them. Coming with news from neighbouring tribes, these original diplomats served as relayers, negotiators, and purveyors of peace, precursors to those we now know as ambassadors.
It is thought that the first permanent diplomatic mission was established in 1455, representing the Duke of Milan in Genoa. Since then, ambassadors in host countries around the world have been promoting the interests of their home countries while serving the greater interests of their states.
Diplomacy has had its ups and downs. Back in the sixteenth century, British ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, then serving in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, is said to have defined his ilk as such: ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’ In times of war and upheaval, the role of ambassadors takes on new meaning. It could be argued that in recent years, the presidency of Barack Obama has done much to put diplomacy back at the heart of foreign policy, and perhaps earning it another descriptive, that of ‘the velvet glove that cloaks the fist of power’.
For the last three years here in Hungary, the Irish in residence (an estimated 1000 or so) have been fortunate in being represented by Irish Ambassador to Hungary, Kevin Dowling. Under his auspices, Irish culture has enjoyed a renaissance of its own. Major events on the Irish social and cultural calendar, such as St Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday, are marked with aplomb, most notable for the wide participation not just of Irish citizens, but their myriad Hungarian friends, too. The Leopold Bloom Award, a special contemporary art award was established by an Irish logistics business with a Budapest presence, Maurice Ward and Co., with the prize given to young Hungarian artists every second year in Budapest. Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and WB Yeats have been celebrated in the city, most notably with the birth of the Yeats Society set up to mark the 150th anniversary of the great man’s birth this year. Irish films continue to feature at the Titanic Film Festival and the Irish Embassy, under Ambassador Dowling’s steerage, has been extremely supportive of initiatives such as the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, the St Patrick’s Day Parade, and the charity speech slam, the Gift of the Gab.
Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the USA, in his 2009 account of British diplomacy Getting our Way, says of diplomats that theirs is a delicate job that requires ‘a quick mind, a hard head, a strong stomach, a warm smile, and a cold eye’. In the three years that he was at the helm, Ambassador Dowling wore his credentials well. As citizens living abroad, we can find ourselves in need of a mother ship, somewhere to go should we have difficulties and require assistance over and above what our friends can provide. And for this to happen, an embassy, and its ambassador, has to be open, accessible, and interested in those it serves.
Gyngell & Wesley’s 2003 description of diplomats being seen as ‘a caricature of pinstriped men gliding their way around a never-ending global cocktail party’ has had its day. As so laudably epitomised by Ambassador Dowling and his team, embassies and their staff have a role to play within the various expat communities in providing help, support, and encouragement to their own in addition to fostering good relations with the host country. As Ambassador Dowling returns to Ireland at the end of his term in Hungary, he goes with thanks and appreciation for a job well done, knowing that he has served his community well. Le mile buíochas.
First published in the Budapest Times 28 August 2015