Vincent O’Neill: My first act of diplomacy was learnt in a bar

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His excellency Dr Vincent O'Neill at a Young Scientists forum
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Vincent O’Neill is not your typical diplomat. He is supposed to treat disease, but he doesn’t do that these days; he diagnoses (pun very much intended) foreign policy instead. In fact he is a Doctor Diplomat who has lived and worked in Africa for much of his professional life. He is a medical doctor – not of letters – and a large part of his life has been to craft and advice on policy relating to HIV prevention and aid under his government’s Foreign Ministry. He has been in the trenches too, having lived in Sierra Leone, Uganda and Malawi, traversing Africa to treat, counsel and advice.

In October 2014, his Government requested him to re-establish the Irish Embassy in Nairobi, a call he enthusiastically responded to. How does a scientist hack it as a diplomat, you wonder? In his own words, he applies scientific principles to dissect socio-political issues. To let the weight of those words sink in, he took a detour to give us a brief history of his country – including the fact that they were colonised by the British, they achieved independence in 1922, they are a committed member of the EU and that he is a representative of a small country with a wide reaching global footprint.

By Kevin Motaroki and Shadrack muyesu

As a boy, Vincent O’Neill worked in some of his father’s bars – an entrepreneurial man, he owned a few of them – in Dublin. It was then that he learnt his first act of diplomacy by watching the patrons! Sometimes customers got rowdy and refused to pay for their drinks, or did so while hurling insults at him as barkeep. An observant lad, he had long deduced that if he wanted them to keep coming back, he had to mind his reaction. He learnt to manage difficult situations by talking to them, settling disagreements, and holding back his words even at times when he would have preferred to speak his mind. These were key lessons for the future diplomat!

After medical college and doing stints as a volunteer – at one time he was director at a community hospital in Uganda – he joined Ireland’s Foreign Ministry 25 years ago as an advisor in Public Health for the country’s international aid programme. After he established himself, he advised primarily on Irish Government supported aid programmes in Africa. When, in 2014, his government decided to reopen the Irish Embassy in Kenya after an absence of 26 years, he was asked to lead that process. He arrived in Nairobi in October of that year with two other diplomats, with little more than their travelling bags!

How does a doctor become a diplomat?

Pondering for a while, he says he is a firm believer that nobody should remain in the one career throughout his or her working life. He believes life is transitional, and that things always change – almost always for the better. “You can use experience from one profession to thrive in another. For me, it is about applying the right skills in what you find yourself doing, even if you didn’t learn them there. For example, if you have a severe pain in your abdomen, a doctor has to find the cause by listening to your story, by examination, by deduction and by running tests. While modern diplomacy is a very different profession – many of the same principles of analysis and coming to a conclusion apply! Scientific skills work everywhere!”

There are about 1,500 Irish citizens in Kenya, which he notes is a considerably small number than in previous years. However, their footprint, starting about a century ago, he says, is remarkable.

Irish people came to Kenya as missionaries, as businesspeople or as travelling citizens. Irish missionaries are responsible for establishing key health and educational institutions in Kenya such as the Mater Hospital, St Mary School – where the President and many other prominent Kenyans schooled – and the Loreto Convent, among many others, especially in the Rift Valley and Western Kenya.

“We have a strong positive legacy in Kenya,” he notes, “and there is a real opportunity to build on that positive history to re-establish our official relationship with, and presence in, Kenya.” This collaboration extends to trade, sports and culture, as well as to development cooperation programmes supported by the Irish Government and delivered through Irish non-governmental organisations operating in the country today.

It is all about business then…

No – he is emphatic. Business is important and we are interested in increasing levels of trade between Ireland and Kenya – is ways that are of benefit to both of our countries. However Ireland’s relationship with Kenya is about much more than that. Our relationship also includes strengthening political relationships, promoting cultural exchange, supporting our citizens, promoting institutional cooperation and opening up opportunities for Kenyans to travel to and study in Ireland. Our membership of the EU is also extremely important to us. The current Brexit negotiations are bringing into focus the importance of membership of, and our commitment to the European family.

Feels honoured

How do you feel as Ireland’s Ambassador to Kenya?  “When your government asks you to represent it in a foreign country, it is a great honour,” he says, not without some pride. “But it is also a great responsibility – because you are the face of your country – and that is not something to take lightly.”

He speaks fondly of his team and refers to everything in the second person. “Everyone here does a great job,” he says. The Embassy in Nairobi is accredited to and looks after the affairs of its nationals in Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.

Like visitor like host

He then spoke of the history of his country. Ireland is a country with a history that has been dominated by centuries of colonisation, by famine, by migration and subsequently by liberation. For many centuries the Irish were very poor, which caused many to immigrate. This gives Ireland a global footprint of about 70 million globally, not just the 4 million who live in Ireland. Because of this phenomenon, the Irish are quite nationalistic and understand the value of community, of culture, of identity.

“We can draw some parallels between Kenya and Ireland. If we consider the periods during which we attained independence, our countries are both young nations and very committed to democracy. While from time to time our democratic institutions were not as robust as we would like them to be, they are nevertheless strengthening as our commitment to democracy is evolving. That is something in which to take pride.”

Does liberal democracy work, in his view?

While its application is not universally accepted, it is the best form of government, he asserts.

“There are principles of democracy that we share, which can be common to many societies, but the manner in which they are institutionalised can be different, justifiably so… I am in huge praise in the manner Kenya has progressed in internalising many of those principles…” O’Neill offers.

“There are differences in our societies. We don’t have 43 tribes in Ireland, for example, but we have had our own unique problems too. Ireland has had a fractured history too. After our independence in 1922, part of Ireland remained within the UK, a remnant of our shared history, and a legacy of years of conflict and efforts to reconcile the interests of different communities living on our island. Within Northern Ireland – part of the country that is in the UK – there are communities that consider themselves republican Irish while others see themselves as firmly British citizens. Between the 1960s and 1990s, there was a bloody and protracted conflict between these two communities, incorporating terrorist elements on both sides.

But we have come through that and now, after years of trying to address the problems by the gun, we have addressed it politically. We are not pretending that we resolved those issues completely; there remain historical grievances, of course. But we now have political structures and key institutions in place to make harmonious living possible. The lesson here is, if you have violence and fracturous relationships between communities, everything else – including the economy – gets affected. The idea is to recognise the grievance (on both sides) and provide the opportunity for political dialogue to address these. Of course, as current difficulties between the political parties demonstrate, there need to be mechanisms in place to address ongoing disagreements – to prevent communities from returning to violence.

| From left: Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, Bro Colm O’Conell (Rudisha’s coach), Kenyan runner David Rudisha and Dr Vincent O’Neill.
| From left: Dr O’Neill, Irish Government Chief whip and minister for Culture Joe McHugh
and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta during the celebration of 100 years of Ireland in Kenya last year.

A shining example

Notwithstanding current political difficulties, he lauds Kenya’s “remarkable” steps, since independence, to institutionalise democracy, while accommodating as much diversity as the country does. He thinks it is something “to be celebrated much more than it is to be feared.” However he points to some divisions in the country apparent after the elections and the need for the political system to promote cohesion and inclusiveness.

What is his legacy in Kenya?

His team members call him transformational. He states he wants to be remembered as the person who led the process of re-establishing Ireland’s official presence in Kenya. He is passionate about efforts to deepen trading links with Kenya and to expose Kenyan businesses – particularly in agri-business – to opportunities in Ireland. A major achievement also is the launch, together with the Ministry of Education, of the Young Scientist Kenya initiative. This will build on the achievements of the Science Congress and will become the supreme event for Kenyan student’s to exhibit their science projects and compete in international science competitions. It has been in existence in Ireland for five decades and has hugely contributed to our success in economic and social development. . A number of corporates are already on board with significant financial commitments that will see pupils and students get opportunities to study abroad to hone their skills. The idea is to encourage boys and girls to want to learn science – all forms of science, including social and behavioural dimensions.

What kind of leader is he?

“My style is reflective and consensual. I like to work with a team – people I can engage and solve problems with. Of course, sometimes I have to take decisions in an instant, but as much as possible, I love to engage.”

Does the man define the leader, or the leader the man?

He ponders a while and wears that solemn face that says he is about to respond philosophically.

“It is a mixture of both, but everyone decides for themselves. I think we all ask ourselves what has made us into what we are. At the core of that is that, for me, I have always wanted to do new experiences – I have been a teacher, doctor and diplomat… I don’t know what I will be tomorrow! Life is enriched by not being afraid to have new experiences. But also, one has to be grounded in very solid foundations – self-confidence, often created by strong family, a good education, and the belief that you are not a servant of the system. We all need to work within the system but also provide leadership within. We have to be masters over the system, not servants to it.”

Parting shot

As we conclude, he shows us a framed photo of Kenyan runner David Rudisha with his coach Irish Brother Colm O’Connell together with CS Amina Mohamed and her Irish counterpart, Minister Simon Coveney.

“The relationship/partnership between Rudisha and his coach sums up what Ireland and Kenya can do together. When we work together as partners, we have a fantastic future together. When we come together on a level field, we create incredible potential for the benefit of both our societies. The best times are ahead of us.” ^

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