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Irish peace negotiator lands in Ottawa

By Lee Berthiaume      

In April 1998, a military plane carrying Ray Bassett and fellow Irish diplomats flew into Dublin from Belfast. As they got off, airport workers applauded and cheered. The news had already spread. The impossible had been achieved: A peace agreement for Northern Ireland had been reached.

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In April 1998, a military plane carrying Ray Bassett and fellow Irish diplomats flew into Dublin from Belfast. As they got off, airport workers applauded and cheered. The news had already spread. The impossible had been achieved: A peace agreement for Northern Ireland had been reached.

Now sitting in his office in downtown Ottawa as Ireland's new ambassador to Canada, Mr. Bassett, who spent more than 10 years as a negotiator on what eventually became known as the Good Friday Agreement, remembers that day clearly.

"It was the best feeling in our life in some ways," he says with a laugh. "I remember our ambassador in Washington, who had previously been my boss, rang us and said 'It's only downhill from here.'"

To say that the Good Friday Agreement was a major diplomatic achievement is an understatement. The Troubles, the battle between largely Catholic nationalists who considered themselves Irish and largely Protestant unionists who identified with the UK, had been raging in earnest since the late 1960s. More than 3,500 people were killed during this time, and walls were erected between neighbours.

A biochemist working on the metabolism of folic acid and vitamin B12, the gregarious Mr. Bassett decided in 1978 that "the test tubes are fed up of listening to me" and joined the Irish foreign service. His first posting was in Copenhagen, working on trade issues, but he quickly found himself working on the Northern Ireland file in the mid-'80s.

"My family is from the North and South so I was always interested in the area," he says. "And as you progress in an organization, people get to know your strengths and weaknesses. And so I was chosen."

While politicians took the lead, diplomats from the UK and Ireland worked behind the scenes. A large amount of preparatory work had to be done before actual negotiations could take place, Mr. Bassett says, "because you're dealing with problems that go back several hundred years."

Over the next few years, Mr. Bassett had a chance to interact with a variety of leaders and officials, including US presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair. The new ambassador has nothing but praise for Mr. Blair, whose presence he views as having been instrumental in bringing about peace.

Mr. Bassett also credits the role of some prominent Canadians, including former chief of defence staff John de Chastelain and former RCMP assistant commissioner Al Hutchison.

"One of the things that I believe probably hasn't been brought out enough is the role of Canadians in that," Mr. Bassett says. "It was contributions of individuals rather than government policy, unlike the United States."

The ambassador says working on the agreement was difficult because "if we hadn't succeeded, it would have been horrific. But if you did an opinion poll in Northern Ireland during the talks, I would say less than 20 per cent said it would work. So nobody expected it to work."

Mr. Bassett still has an apartment in Belfast, as well as family: His son lives there, and his first grandson will be born there in December. He says the whole of Northern Ireland has seen major changes since the agreement came into effect in 1999. However, there is still a ways to go until the walls that were erected between unionist and nationalist communities come down. This will take time, he acknowledges, but he is confident momentum is going in that direction.

More recently, Mr. Bassett has worked as head of the Irish foreign ministry's passport and consular section, which brought him to Canada several times. To that end, he enjoys interacting with Irish diasporas in other countries—something he's already done several times in Canada.

During last month's Diplomatic Forum in Prince Edward Island, the local Irish community held a reception for him.

"They produced Bassetts from the same part [of Ireland as him] who had come out in the 1820s," he says. "And they claimed we were related."

While he had seen the figures before arriving as ambassador—about four million Canadians identify themselves as being of Irish descent—Mr. Bassett is still amazed by the extent of the Irish presence in Canada.

"When I came here I looked up who was the mayor of Ottawa," he says. "It was Larry O'Brien. Who's the premier of Ontario? [Dalton] McGuinty. Then I'm going in and meeting [Finance Minister] Jim Flaherty, [Immigration Minister] Jason Kenney, Gail Shea, who's the fisheries minister."

While historic links will undoubtedly occupy a large part of Mr. Bassett's time in Canada, the new ambassador faces a new challenge that will put his skills to the test: Explaining that Ireland is still a good country to do business in and with.

Once regarded as a glowing example of the benefits of European Union integration and free-market reforms, Ireland's economy was rocked by the recent economic crisis.

In particular, the country's banking sector has been hit hard, requiring massive bailouts of about $65-billion and pushing the budget deficit to 32 per cent. The Irish government has promised to get that deficit down to three per cent by 2014 to meet euro-zone rules, but has also promised to keep corporate tax rates at a low 12.5 per cent, which will make the job harder.

Mr. Bassett acknowledges the situation is bad, but he argues it's not as bad as it appears.

"Even though the actual budget deficit this year will be about 10.5 per cent, we have to say it's 32 per cent because we've made the commitments [to bail out the banks]," he says. "So we've got an image problem at the moment, which has to be countered. But I don't think you counter it by trying to sell snake oil. You say this is bad, this is very bad, but we can work our way out of it."

Mr. Bassett says the success Canadian banks had in weathering the economic storm means Ireland's image problem isn't as significant here as in other countries, "provided we do what we say."

"We've been hit by the perfect storm. And we have no alternative but to pull through. And we'll do so in a very transparent way."

lee@embassymag.ca

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