Lecarrow man flying the flag abroad

Courtesy of the Roscommon Herald

Ireland occupies a unique position on the world’s stage, not one based on military might or vast mineral wealth, but rather one founded on persuasion and empathy.

This is something that Lecarrow man and professional diplomat Séamus O’Grady knows very well.

“Ireland is a small island. We depend on trade, we depend on investment. So we realise we have to reach out, and in a way that is consistent with our values as a people,” he said. “It’s the job of our embassies and diplomats to represent that. We feel that we have something good to bring to the world. It’s good for others and it’s also good for us.”

Last week, Mr O’Grady, who is the current Irish Ambassador to Zambia and Namibia, spoke about the country’s international role to 5th and 6th year students at the CBS, Roscommon Town, as part of the Global Ireland Schools Project. The project aims to educate people about Ireland’s work abroad with the EU and the UN.

As a past pupil of the CBS, Mr O’Grady’s delight at chatting to the students and answering their questions was plain to see. A grandfather and father of four grown-up daughters, he has very fond memories of the school.

“I started here in 1967, the first year of free secondary education, and graduated in 1972,” he recalled. “It was a good place to go to school.”

And he thanked the school and Principal Fiona Gallagher for the invitation to speak.

Writing at the time of the school’s 80th anniversary, Mr O’Grady said that the CBS gave an education to many boys who otherwise may not have received it.

Speaking to the Herald, Mr O’ Grady said that Ireland’s experiences as part of the British Empire helped it connect with other former colonies.

“We’re seen, especially in countries like Zambia, another former British colony, to have a common history.

“Sometimes I visit schools in Zambia and the conditions might be pretty poor. I tell them I started in Mount Plunkett School – one room, one teacher and no toilets. When people hear that from you they feel that ‘this person knows where we are coming from and what we are trying to achieve’.”

The work of Irish Missionaries has also contributed “hugely” to Ireland’s reputation in English speaking Africa, and “that’s something I value highly”.

“We’re 40 years in Zambia this year as an embassy. And one of the reasons why Zambia was chosen as a location for an embassy was the missionaries already had a footprint there,” Mr O’Grady explained.

In November, Mr O’Grady and his wife Mary, who is originally from West Cork, hosted Irish missionaries for an annual lunch at  the Ambassador’s Residence in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka.

“There are about 60 left in Zambia, and we were lucky that about 40 could join us. In the mid-70s there were probably 300 or 400,” he said. “It’s a great day, as it gives us a chance to meet the missionaries. On average missionaries in Zambia are in their mid-70s and they are still working hard. The lunch is a way of saying thank you. Zambia is a huge country, it’s ten times the size of Ireland, so it also gives them a chance to meet people who they mightn’t meet from one end of the year to the other.”

Recently Mr O’Grady’s sister, Frances, and her husband Kevin raised almost €24,000 for a number of health and education projects in Zambia, such as the St Francis Centre for Orphans and Vulnerable Children.

“People can’t believe it when I tell them,” he said and he thanked those who donated for their generosity.

Despite being a resource-rich country, poverty remains a huge problem in Zambia, with approximately 60 per cent of the people struggling to make ends meet, he said. HIV/AIDS is also still a problem, although improved since the 1990s.

As well as being ambassador to Zambia, he is also the non-resident ambassador to Namibia.

“I go there about three times a year. It’s a former German colony and it is interesting to see the difference,” he said.

In 2019, he was an observer of the Nigerian elections. “They went off quite peacefully. There was no trouble but there could have been,” he said.

In the autumn of this year, he will be taking up the role of Irish Ambassador to Malawi, a much poorer, more rural country than Zambia.

“The population is about the same as Zambia but the population density is much greater as it is a much smaller county,” he said.

A man with an extensive CV, he started his international career shortly after getting married, working as an accountant with the Department of Foreign Affairs in Lesotho during the 1980s. An enclave country, surrounded by then Apartheid South Africa, Mr O’Grady learned much during his time there.

“It was fascinating. I learned about politics, Africa, and about development,” he said.

He then worked in Zambia between 1987-1992. From 1992 to 2007 he worked as a consultant and advisor in a number of countries in the area of public finance management, agriculture and trade policy, and agribusiness investment. He was nominated as ambassador to Zambia in July 2015, a role he will be leaving in August.

“It’s a busy job but it’s an honour to represent your country. It’s a very interesting job, there’s great variety in it,” he said, adding that it ranges from helping someone who has misplaced their passport, to managing an aid budget, to promoting trade and investment.

“You could be meeting the Irish community one day, an Irish investor looking at Zambia on another, or the Zambian Government could approach you about initiatives in Ireland it’s interested in.”

One example of this co-operation is the establishment of a partnership between the Irish and Zambian qualification authorities.

“I feel lucky and privileged to have such a job.”