The Irish connection – COVID-19 Pandemic Our islands are stronger working together

Minister Ciaran Cannon T.D. with Ahmed Saeed vice-president ADB operations, at the ADB annual meeting in Fiji last year. Picture courtesy of ADB/SUPPLIED

Islands by their nature are separate on the surface but connected in the deep. Living on an island is a daily reminder of the power of nature, of sea and sky.

It requires ingenuity and resilience, a strong sense of community — especially when storms rage.

Today, islands such as Fiji and Ireland, are sheltering from the COVID-19 storm.

Our safety and our recovery from the virus and associated economic and social difficulties can be secured by us drawing on our deep connections and acting together.

Since I became Ireland’s Minister for Overseas Development, I have prioritised building and deepening our relationships with other small island, big ocean, states.

That journey has brought me to Fiji and to many other Pacific islands, and brought me many new friendships.

Despite the distance between Atlantic Ireland and Pacific Islands, I often reflect how we have much more in common than just the blue waters that surround us. I have found warm welcomes, natural beauty, rich cultures and many similar traditions.

Indeed, at the heart of Ireland’s new partnership with Small Island Developing States, launched last year in a conversation with the UN ambassadors from Fiji and other Pacific Island friends, is the Irish tradition of Céilí.

These are, for us, informal spaces where friends talk, listen and share ideas, a tradition and experience which echoes the Talanoa — which Fiji introduced the world to such great effect when it chaired the UN Climate Change negotiations in 2017.

We now meet our Pacific island friends in a Céilí at least twice a year, and those encounters are always rich exchanges.

I enjoyed Fijian traditions of hospitality while attending the Asian Development Bank Annual Meeting in Nadi last year, the first time a Pacific island hosted the ADB family. Your island style was unforgettable.

While in Nadi, I launched Ireland’s “Trust Fund for Building Climate Change and Disaster Resilience”, a tangible further expression of our partnership with Island States of the Pacific especially in meeting the challenges posed by the climate crisis.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold was a reminder of the unique, possibly existential, challenge which this crisis poses for Pacific islands. I extend my sympathies to all those affected.

Covid-19 presents us with a new set of challenges which, like the climate crisis, require a global response.

If even the most advanced health systems, the most advanced economies, are struggling to respond, countries which are not so advanced or which are uniquely exposed to economic winds have to overcome even more complex constraints.

The temptation at times of stress can be to look inward, to look only upon our own needs. That, however, is not the island way – as you say here, e sega ni vuka na kaka me biu toka na buina, a reminder of the importance of working in harmony.

That echoes an Irish maxim, ní neart go cur le chéile, meaning from unity comes strength: island life teaches us that to get over the storm we must work together.

It is firmly in that spirit of common endeavour that I have developed Ireland’s international response to the stresses and strains to which the virus has given rise, and with particular attention to how we work in support of our small island fellows.

As islands, we know that geography and distance matter.

That is why Ireland is determined to make the most of our existing partnerships in ensuring that our support helps Pacific Islands respond to COVID-19.

That is why Ireland has made a $US1m ($F2.23m) contribution to the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) specifically to assist small islands.

A total of $US2m ($F4.45m) from Ireland’s ADB Trust Fund is available for immediate help to the islands of the Pacific, for social protection, including income supports for those out of work, and to fund food security measures so that food shortages can be avoided.

This complements Irish support for the ongoing efforts to recover from STC Harold.

In addition, and in full recognition of our own modest size, Ireland is working hard within the EU and at the UN to advocate for the needs of those most vulnerable Pacific states. Ireland is party to the EU mobilisation of $US130m ($F289.60m) to respond to the pandemic in the Pacific.

At the UN, we often speak about leaving no one behind.

Now, during this period of crisis and hoped for recovery, our collective voices can add volume to that call. I want to explore how Ireland can work together with fellow small island states not just on crisis response but also on that recovery.

One possible way Ireland and the Pacific Islands could cooperate directly would be to share our ideas as we rebuild our hard hit island tourism sectors in a sustainable and more resilient way.

For now, wherever we are, we face the daily reality of lockdowns, waves of unsettling news stories, and the fear of a loved one becoming ill.

We mourn the loss of every one of those in our communities who succumb to this terrible virus. But we can take comfort that we are not alone.

That we will endure. There is a huge mobilisation of international resources to help those most in need, including here in the Pacific.

This is a source of hope – and as we say in Ireland, hope is the physician of misery. By acting together, as a family of nations, we are stronger.

Let me finish by extending to each of your readers the good wishes of the Government and people of Ireland.

  •  Ciaran Cannon is a member of the Irish Parliament and Minister for Diaspora and International Development. The views expressed are his and not necessarily shared by this newspaper.

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