GETTING TO KNOW: Ambassador of the Republic of Ireland to South Africa, His Excellency Mr. Liam MacGabhann. 

Over a century ago, a number of Irish nationals were sent across to South Africa to undergo military training around the time of the Anglo-Boer War. Over 11 decades on, the flow of nationals between the two countries grows stronger still, more fruitful, and though a friendly rivalry exists on the sporting field, the relationship between the two countries continually prospers to new heights. We sat down with Ambassador of the Republic of Ireland to South Africa His Excellency Mr. Liam MacGabhann to discuss his time in South Africa thus far and the exciting responsibilities that his posting entails.

Your Excellency, how long have you been in South Africa and what moment stands out for you in particular?

I’ve been here almost 2 years now, we arrived at the end of July 2014. I suppose the most outstanding moment for me is a personal moment. We drove from Pretoria to Cape Town after Christmas last year and stayed overnight in the Karoo area, then travelled back the same way 10 days later. Seeing the whole landscape in the Karoo region, talking to people there, and getting a much better understanding of life outside the main cities in South Africa was a hugely enjoyable and also educational time for us, those few days in the heartland of South Africa. I’ve also visited some of our development projects and some of the townships in South Africa, in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Cape Town. And to see the people and how they live, the challenges they face, how they meet those challenges, and how resilient they are. It’s a wonderful people in South Africa. That for me has been a very memorable side, to see how people live their lives.

Has your lifestyle as a family man changed whatsoever during your stay here?

Very much so. I think the house we live in in Ireland would probably fit into this house five times. We live a much more humble existence in Ireland. I am a civil servant, I am a diplomat, I represent my country abroad, and as a diplomat, we get great postings abroad, but we also get postings back home. The theory of our system is that you work for a period of time abroad and then you’re brought back home to work in the foreign ministry. We have our own home in Ireland, in Dublin. I would say it is quite a modest home. We have a lot of family in Ireland, and our lifestyle as any normal civil servant is a nice lifestyle and a very interesting lifestyle. Not like the lifestyle of a diplomat that lives abroad. Living abroad your function, your role, your responsibilities are quite different to the responsibilities that I as a senior diplomat might have at home. Before I came to South Africa, I was Director for Sub-Saharan Africa in the Foreign Ministry, and I had a responsibility towards the policy direction of the Irish government in sub-Saharan Africa. I looked after all our embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa, so I got a great picture and a great flavor of what Africa is about, and what Ireland’s interests in Africa were, in preparation for this particular role that I have now in South Africa.

And you were stationed in Africa before this post?

Yes, before I went back to Ireland and became Director for Sub-Saharan Africa, I was Ambassador for four years in Malawi. I went there from China in 2007 and I opened a new embassy, the Irish Embassy in Malawi. It was a fantastic experience, a real challenge, Malawi is a very different country to South Africa. We enjoyed the challenge very much, enjoyed our life there, and enjoyed the work. Our focus in Malawi is quite different to the focus we have here in South Africa. The work we do in Malawi is very much aimed at a developing cooperation – one of our biggest developing cooperation programs in Africa is based in Malawi. We were working in the agricultural sector there, and we provided support to the government and to civil society for development within that sector. From a personal perspective we very much enjoyed our lives in Malawi, and from a professional perspective, I had the opportunity to set up a program there that I very much believed in. I wasn’t taking on an old program that somebody else had set up, I set up this program and it was very much suited to what I believed was the right thing to do, but also suited to support the needs of the Malawi government. We have also had a very strong personal interest in Malawi in that we adopted a child there who is now eight years of age. So she has seen a change in the balance of our lives, she is very much the focus of our attention now as she gets older.

Could you describe as a whole the relationship between your country and South Africa? In what areas would you say this relationship is most fulfilling and would you say that there are areas that could benefit from further cooperation?

I think the relationship between Ireland and South Africa is unique. It is the only Embassy in the Irish system that has three very significant blocks of work. The first would be on the trade and commerce side. In 2014 we had trade of €1.2 billion, which is equivalent to about R20 billion between the two countries – 90% of which is exports from Ireland to South Africa. I have tried to address that issue, trying to get more exports from South Africa into Ireland. There are very significant investments from Irish companies in South Africa outside of that trade. In the energy sector we have two very significant companies in solar energy and wind energy in the Cape area. We have very big food producers, one of the biggest food producers here is Irish, QK Meats, which operates in Johannesburg. It has been here eight years and already has a R4 billion turnover, employing about 2000 people. So we have very significant trade between ourselves and South Africa, and also very significant investment from Ireland into South Africa. Irish companies are employing 15,000 South Africans. On the other side, we have very significant South African companies investing in Ireland, companies like Aspin Pharmaceuticals, Investec in the financial services. One of the big successes is Spar. Spar, a huge supermarket chain, bought over the Irish franchise in recent years, and if you listen to the financial news in the morning, the most profitable area of Spar South Africa now is the Irish franchise. The second area that we address is the development cooperation area. We have a Development Cooperation Program running about R20 million between here and Zimbabwe. We support development in the health sector, with regard to gender-based violence in terms of health, HIV and AIDS. We are also doing a lot of work around capacity development and skills development. One of the biggest programs is called the Kadar Asmal Scholarship Program and this year we sent 15 graduate students to Ireland to do Masters Qualification. We had a huge entry, probably around 100 applications, but the quality of those applications was absolutely superb, so we had a real challenge picking the best of those and making sure that it was people who actually needed scholarships, not just given to the best qualifiers. The Development Cooperation Program is something I feel very strongly about maintaining even though South Africa is a so-called middle-class country now, and normally our development cooperation programs are chartered at countries in the early stages of development. The third element of the work we do here which is very significant is the relationship between the Irish community and the Irish diaspora. We have about 35000 Irish passport holders living in South Africa and we have another 55- to 60,000 South Africans who have the Irish link, whose grandparents or great-grandparents immigrated to South Africa many years ago and they’ve ended up living here. They don’t necessarily have the Irish passport but value the link hugely.

And I believe that this Irish presence in South Africa has a historical background, I remember once you mentioning to me the role that the Irish played during the Anglo Boer war. What is the value of this historical presence?

This year is the centenary year of the 1916 uprising in Dublin, when some of the Irish independence leaders for the last time rose against the British for one week. We were badly beaten, it only lasted a week, and a lot of them ended up in prison or were executed as leaders of the rebellion. This year we commemorate the centenary of that rebellion. It led to the independence of Ireland even though we lost the battle, what happened was it started negotiations for independence – which we got in 1921. We became a Republic in 1949 so we’re not actually a member, as some people think, of the Commonwealth. We are a Republic and we don’t have any political ties to Great Britain anymore. But a lot of the leaders and the fighters in that 1916 rebellion had military training during the Anglo Boer war and some of the leaders who have shown their pride are well known for that. If you go back before that, a lot of Irish people came to South Africa to the gold mines around Johannesburg in the late 19th century. So the Irish connection with South Africa goes back almost 200 years to the Irish missionaries and the people emigrating for economic reasons.

In the township of Mamelodi it is not uncommon to come across Catholic Nuns and Priests who are very involved in missionary work there. From a religious perspective, the presence of Ireland in South Africa is also important.

Absolutely. To my surprise I discovered that we have almost 300 Irish missionaries still living and working in South Africa. The most senior of those would be Archbishop William Slattery who is the Archbishop of Pretoria, who has been here for 40 years but still has his Irish accent, and in fact speaks about six or seven local languages. I learned recently in fact that he officiated at the mass for Nelson Mandela, when the great leader died a few years back, and spoke in all of those languages during the course of the mass. It was a great tribute to him. But we have around 300 Irish Nuns and Irish Priests and Irish Brothers still working in the education and health sectors in South Africa. About twice a year I try and bring them all together in this residence and in Cape Town to celebrate and commemorate what they do and what they’ve achieved. And to celebrate the way in which they have contributed to what we are now doing here, because they are the forerunners of our development cooperation program particularly. The work they have done in the health and education sectors is now setting an example for what we do in the Irish education and health sectors. So I think we have a great appreciation, not just in Africa but in Ireland, of the work that these missionaries undertake on this continent.

Is there a platform whereby Irish nationals travelling to South Africa can get into contact with this community?

Absolutely. The Irish Association in South Africa has three chapters, in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban – very active chapters with very significant memberships. They organize a lot of events throughout the course of the year and the embassy tries to participate in all of those events. More widely we also have an association in Zimbabwe and we try travel there as often as possible to participate in the Irish events there. We also have Business Ireland in Southern Africa, a network of Irish business-people living and working here who offer support to Irish businesses in Ireland that are interested in exploring opportunities in not just South Africa but in the southern African region. The embassy works very closely with this network to encourage Irish business to look at South Africa as a potential market, not just for trade but also for investment. South Africa for us is what we call a priority country. By being a priority country it is a key target in terms of our foreign policy approach, we put a lot of resources – in terms of human resources, financial resources – into our relationship with South Africa. And there is a very big diaspora in the Irish community and in the Irish business network that we work with to support that development between Ireland and South Africa.

Towards the same topic, your colleague from New Zealand got very passionate: the field of rugby. Ireland and South Africa share a historical rivalry on the field and they’re going head-to-head again this June in South Africa. It’s an interesting rivalry because Ireland has never beat the Springboks on South African soil, but in the last six test matches in Ireland, your national team was victorious four out of six. How do you think the Irish team will fare this time around?

I was lucky enough to be here in November 2014 when South Africa played in Ireland to watch the game on television with a lot of South African people and watch the Irish beat the South Africans. Even though there is a very strong relationship, a friendly relationship, between South Africa and Ireland, when it comes to the sports field and the rugby field in particular, the competition becomes tough. Not just on the field, but off the field and amongst the supporters too. So I had great fun with the South African supporters that day watching the game. But as you say, we have never beat South Africa on South African soil. I think in Ireland now this tour has been very much in the news and there’s a lot of talk around who will be in the squad. We have one or two South African rugby players in the Irish squad now and they’re key players – so we are very grateful to South Africa for that contribution. (Laughs). But I look forward to the three test matches that are going to take place in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth in the coming months. My intention is to travel to all of those games and I will be meeting the Irish team, hopefully also the South African team. The sporting relationship doesn’t end at rugby. We have the Irish cricket team coming here in September to play some ODI’s against South Africa. We had the Irish hockey team here in January – they’ve qualified for the Olympics in Rio and they did a two week training stint in Cape Town. They have a South African coach, one of the top coaches in the world, and they’re well prepared for the Olympics now in Rio. I’m sure the rugby games will be sold out as well. Somebody was saying the Port Elizabeth game is already sold out and I can imagine that with the Irish communities in Cape Town and Johannesburg, there might be a shortage of seats.

And finally, we have noticed through these interviews the importance of arts and culture in nation building. Ireland is one of the few countries that have signed a film coproduction with South Africa, and both countries have a pretty decent incentive scheme for this industry. Have you in your time as ambassador seen the benefits of these incentives in both countries in terms of making and producing films and music together?

Ireland has a very strong culture across many different areas. We are the only country in the world that has five winners of the Nobel literature prize. Which for a small country is quite significant. We hugely value the role that culture plays – whether it is literature, music, film production – in the development of Ireland. An example, you can ask any Irish person to sing you a song. They’ll never admit to you if they can’t, because every Irish person is expected to be able to sing. We hugely value our culture, it’s a big part of our history and anywhere we go, we always try to promote that culture in any way possible. As you know, the incentives to produce films in Ireland and the landscape that is available within Ireland to produce especially actions type films is very significant. Star Wars was filmed in Ireland, and some of these big Hollywood movies are also filmed there. We have big incentives to attract these types of film production companies. We like to cooperate with other countries too. I know South Africa has great incentives to attract film producers to this country, and we try to work closely with them in terms of cooperation between our own Irish film board and the South African system. We had Michael Flatley here recently with Lord of the Dance at a packed house in Monte Casino for four weeks. In Johannesburg and Cape Town we now have Irish dancing schools and in Johannesburg we have an Irish football club, the South African Gaels. They have travelled to Ireland to compete against some of the Irish teams, so in the sporting sense, and in music, literature, film production, it’s a big role for us in terms of educating people about what Ireland is about, and our culture. And learning from others about their culture. So absolutely, a big part of what we do here.

We see that you are very proud of your work here. It has been very enhancing, the information you have given us about that closeness between the two countries, and we thank you for this opportunity to interview you and hope to see you in the future.

It’s a pleasure.