New Technologies Help Address Old Conflicts: Digital Diplomacy is an Important Tool in this Uncertain Brexit Era

In his book, Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age, Tom Fletcher makes a strong case for the continued relevance of a brand of digital diplomacy powered by social media and by innovative promotional activity. Although I am the best part of a generation older than Tom Fletcher, I share his desire to refresh the somewhat staid image of diplomacy and to show that it can and must respond to the challenges of today’s world. Like it or not, today’s diplomats operate in a public space and we need to be savvy in our use of the various instruments available to us, including but not limited to social media.

Ireland’s diplomats around the world are part of a collective, strategic effort, steered by our Foreign Minister and supported by government ministries and state agencies at home, notably our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Our diplomatic service has a range of key priorities, the most relevant of which in the case of the Embassy in London are Ireland’s relations with the United Kingdom, the situation in Northern Ireland, and the future evolution of the European Union in light of the UK’s impending exit. These are areas in which public diplomacy and social media have an important role to play alongside the more traditional methods of our profession.

When I started on this road 35 years ago, diplomatic rlations were conducted in a more confined space and with a narrow enough focus on international political topics. At that time, diplomats engaged primarily with other diplomats and rarely spoke in public. Now we are the eyes and ears of Ireland around the world, but also a voice for the message we wish to convey to overseas audiences. Our work today has a much sharper economic focus. While I served as the Irish ambassador to Germany from 2009 to 2013, my time there was dominated by the effects of the economic and financial crisis, and the need to burnish Ireland’s international reputation as part of our recovery strategy.

My affinity with new ways of pursuing old ends goes back to 2011 when I became aware of the potential of social media. Sheepishly at first, I dipped my feet into this new world of Twitter. I have now been tweeting for more than five years, initially on our Embassy account in Berlin and since 2013 on an official personal account @DanMulhall on which I now have 10,000 followers. When I laid a wreath for the first time at London’s Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday 2014, the tweet I posted afterwards was seen by some 80,000 people, many of whom were based in Northern Ireland. Today, most of our embassies are active on Twitter which allows us to build communities of people with an interest in what we do, and to communicate with them instantly and inexpensively.

In my present post, I tend to tweet every day with a number of purposes in mind: to provide insights into my work as Ambassador; to engage with the large and diverse Irish community in Britain; to reach out to British audiences on issues of relevance to Ireland; to promote Ireland as a destination for British tourists, as an attractive location for foreign direct investment, and as a source of high-quality goods and services (two-way trade between Ireland and Britain currently amounts to around £1 billion each week); and to articulate Irish government policies, notably at present on what has come to be known as Brexit.

Last year I tweeted a daily quote from the poetry of W.B. Yeats to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. Those tweets attracted an appreciative following and this year I have included lines by other Irish poets. Why do I do this? Because I see our literature as a calling card for Ireland, presenting us to the world as a creative people with interesting stories to tell. Some lines of poetry by the Irish poet John Montague about “the wine dark sea of history,” which I tweeted at the time of his death in December 2016, have been seen by almost 90,000 Twitter users.

Throughout 2016, I blogged, tweeted, and made public appearances around the country on the subject of the Easter Rising of 1916. The aim of our efforts has been to promote better awareness in Britain of the distinctive dynamic of our modern history and how its legacy has impacted on our relations with our nearest neighbor. I saw this commemoration of an important turning point in Irish and British history as what our Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, has described as an opportunity “to reflect on and advance further the productive journey of reconciliation on which our two countries have been embarked for some years.” The Embassy’s program of commemorative events has been well received and a number of our panel discussions on the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme were screened by BBC Parliament, enabling us to reach much wider audiences.

The other big challenge for our Embassy during 2016 was the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Ireland had a distinctive position on the referendum as our citizens in Britain were entitled to vote. We wanted the UK to remain in the EU because we considered membership to be a significant asset to Irish-UK relations and with regard to Northern Ireland. While fully respecting the fact that this was a domestic UK decision, in the run-up to the referendum I explained our position on social media on a daily basis and made a number of public speeches. My overriding aim was to convey our government’s apprehensions about the potential impact on Ireland of a UK decision to leave the EU. I consistently argued that we in Ireland had a special interest in the outcome of the referendum on account of our unique, multi-stranded relationship with the United Kingdom.

Since the referendum, we have been coming to terms with a new reality and seeking to minimize any negative implications for Ireland of a decision which we regret but, of course, accept. Since June, I have delivered a number of speeches on the subject and have also given evidence to the House of Lords Committee on the implications of Brexit for Ireland. I have addressed the issue regularly on Twitter and my blog. It will continue to be necessary for the Embassy to be active in monitoring the evolution of the Brexit debate and, as part of our public diplomacy, to draw attention to the vital Irish dimension to this issue, not least when it comes to the situation in Northern Ireland which voted to remain in the EU by a margin of 56-44 percent. We would like the UK to remain in the single market and the customs union so as to limit the potential impact on our bilateral trade and on ties between north and south in Ireland.

I am absolutely clear that public diplomacy—including activity on social media—is just another means to an end. It augments but cannot replace more traditional methods. No social media or public diplomacy initiative can substitute for a visit by our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) or Minister for Foreign Affairs, who can connect with the British system at the highest political level.

Nor can a tweet match the utility of a confidential conversation with a politician or a senior official. Such activities can furnish us with vital insights into British thinking on key issues connected with the country’s exit from the EU and also provides an opportunity for us to raise our concerns about Brexit face-to-face with senior figures. For that reason, our Embassy devotes considerable attention to cultivating influential contacts in Westminster and Whitehall. Thus last Autumn I attended the annual conferences of the main British political parties, seeking to deepen our understanding of the political debate surrounding the Brexit issue and to highlight our requirements with regard to Irish-UK trade, the need to maintain an open border in Ireland, and the common travel area between our two countries.

Our Embassy is active on Twitter @IrelandEmbGB, but this does not mean that we can afford to neglect the mainstream media, which is why we pay considerable attention to developing our interaction with leading journalists and media organizations.

In Ireland’s case, we are not seeking to project power, but to maximise our influence within the EU, as a member of the UN, and as part of the global community of nations. Hard power can never be a recourse of ours. Ireland’s tools in international affairs are the quality of the arguments we can bring to the table as a member of the EU, our commitment to the UN and its peacekeeping operations, and our development aid program. For a country of our size, we are fortunate to be well-endowed with soft power resources—our literature, our theatre, our traditional culture, and the global spread of our people.

But we live in a world of almost 200 nation states, all of whom vie for profile and advantage in their international activities. This means we need to be smart and use all of the resources available to us in order to make our voice heard and our positions understood in an information-rich world. I see skillful, innovative public diplomacy and judicious use of social media as important means to the attainment of our foreign policy aims, but traditional methods cannot be overlooked.

Daniel Mulhall has been Ireland’s ambassador in London since 2013. He has had previous diplomatic assignments in New Delhi, Vienna, Brussels, Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, and Berlin. He has also held senior positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Dublin. A keen historian, he has written extensively on Irish history and literature. He tweets @DanMulhall and posts regular blogs on the Embassy’s website at In 2016, he co-edited The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment. He was recently named as Ireland’s next ambassador to the United States.