by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN – In December, 2019 news emerged of a novel strain of a coronavirus with an alarming infection rate. To date, some 652,343 people worldwide have been reported to have died because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s toll throughout the world has been devastating, wrecking economies, stressing health care systems and causing countries around the world to impose travel bans and restrictions to thwart the spread of the virus. As Ireland continues to lift many of the restrictions previously imposed to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic, even while delaying others, it gives us time to reflect upon the work of diplomacy in action and the critical role played by the Diplomatic Corps in continuing to serve people during the crisis.
We are profiling several diplomatic missions in Ireland to provide an insight into how diplomacy has been conducted during these trying circumstances and provide some insight into the challenges that may lie ahead. In this interview, the Canadian Chargé d’Affaires, Ambassador Sabine Nölke, was generous with her time and shared some of her thoughts with me about the pandemic and diplomacy during this period.
Sabine Nölke, a law graduate of both the University of Western Ontario (LLB) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LLM), began her career with External Affairs and International Trade Canada in 1992 as junior counsel in the Economic and Trade Law Division. In 1993, Ms. Nölke began her service as Counsel with the United Nations, Criminal and Treaty Law Division and as Director of the United Nations, Human Rights and Economic Law Division. She began her service abroad at the High Commission of Canada in London and with the Canadian delegation to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna and from 1999 to 2004, Ms. Nölke served as Co-Counsel in Legality of Use of Force (Serbia and Montenegro v. Canada, ICJ, Case No. 106) before the International Court of Justice. Prior to her appointment as Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Canada’s Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ambassador Nölke also represented Canada’s interests before the international courts and legal institutions based in The Hague. Ambassador Nölke is the recipient of a Minister of Foreign Affairs Award for Foreign Policy Excellence. In 2019, Ambassador Nölke served as Canada’s Acting High Commissioner to Ghana. In February 2020, Her Excellency Ms. Sabine Nölke was appointed to the Canadian Embassy in Ireland as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim.
Your Excellency, we met when I was a Defense & Security Analyst for CTV News in Toronto and I’ve followed your career in human rights protection and chemical weapons control with admiration. I appreciate you taking a moment to discuss the events of recent months and the Covid-19 pandemic with Diplomacy in Ireland – The European Diplomat.
You were in a unique position in Ireland’s Diplomatic Corps. Your Céad míle fáilte was arriving just as the pandemic took hold and began to cause chaos worldwide. I believe last month you and the Ambassador of India, His Excellency Mr. Sandeep Kumar, had to participate in a unique online commemoration for the Air India bombing victims instead of visiting West Cork as had traditionally happened. Madame Ambassador, what did you find to be the greatest challenge that emerged for your Mission during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The transition to telework was a challenge, including how to communicate in this new virtual world. We did not have the necessary equipment for everyone to work from home and some of us were somewhat more technically challenged than others. And then there was the consular team, who had to come in to assist Canadians, so we needed to establish rotations and safety protocols to protect the team, make them feel comfortable and ensure that they felt supported and resilient; and find ways to communicate with the Canadian community proactively so as to keep questions down and ensure people knew we would handle face-to-face visits only in emergency cases. Everyone showed great flexibility and a willingness to take on tasks they would not normally do.
How many people did the Canadian Mission assist to repatriate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?
For Ireland it is hard to say, as commercial flights were available throughout. We ensured that information on open routes was communicated proactively through our website, social media and messaging to registered Canadians. Overall, Canada repatriated some 50,000 people on government-assisted flights (including in conjunction with other governments) and approximately 6,000 passengers and crew from cruise ships around the world. We also facilitated a drop-off of a dozen or so Irish citizens, during a re-fuelling stop in Dublin on a flight from Nigeria to Canada!
With a general prohibition on travel and restricted visits to Embassies, what are some of the ways your Mission adapted to meet the needs of people asking for services?
We pushed out information through our “ROCA” system (Registration of Canadians Abroad) the voluntary online system available to Canadians travelling or living abroad; through our social media (including pinned tweets with links to “frequently asked questions”); proactive engagement with universities where we knew there were Canadian students; etc. We arranged for people to come safely into the Embassy for cases of genuine emergency (travel documents etc) with a view to minimizing contact and exposure.
Was your Mission involved in helping to facilitate the provision of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to Ireland or within the EU or for your country? If so, please explain.
Our commercial section liaised with Irish companies concerning the possible purchase for PPE for Canada.
There are accounts of diplomats, their spouses or staff serving around the world who fell victim to Covid-19 in the service of their countries. Did your Mission or country experience any losses or illnesses in your diplomatic community during the Covid-19 pandemic to date? If so, is there someone you would like to remember or mention?
Within the diplomatic community, we were very sorry to hear of the loss of the Argentina Ambassador to Ireland, Laura Bernal who died from Covid-19. Ambassador Bernal’s last weeks in office were used to repatriate her fellow nationals back to Argentina. At the request of her surviving family in Argentina, she was buried in Foxford, Co. Mayo which was a home-from-home for her during her four years in Ireland. Due to the Covid restrictions, we were unable to attend her funeral and pay our respects.
What are some lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic that you think will have an impact on how diplomacy is conducted in the future?
Maybe we don’t need to spend so much time meeting in person? On the other hand, the lost opportunities from meeting in person – having discussions on the margins, getting business done over coffee, reading body language – are huge. Choices will need to be made about appropriate approaches, and when people-to-people contact is essential.
Are there any changes in the way you will provide Consular services for the foreseeable future?
We may stick with the “appointment” system, upon consultation. We will encourage visitors to consult the information that is readily available on our website or if they can’t find the information they need to phone the mission, rather than just drop in. This will allow our Consular Officers to focus their attention on more complex cases, where assistance is critical.
What are the plans for your country to move towards a ‘normalisation’ of travel and tourism?
For now, the Government continues to discourage non-essential travel, and the more than 5,000km border with the United States – our largest source of visitors – remains closed. Internally, plans are handled province-by-province.
Any pandemic is a tragedy. But even in such situations there are always stories that inspire. Would you care to share one?
I think our little embassy team really pulled together – every one did their part, protected each other, and looked out for one another from a mental health perspective. People dropped off things for each other (seeds for the garden, yeast for baking, flowers); zoom “TGIFs” allowed us to see faces even in lockdown; on our team “WhatsApp” people shared photographs, funny memes, recipes, inspiring words, family news – I think sharing this experience and growing together as we learned and adjusted brought people closer.
On the diplomatic side, I was inspired by the cooperation. We placed Canadians on flights organised by other friendly governments, and likewise transported stranded passengers from other nations on feeder flights, or dropped them off on route to Canada. These networks were established quickly; Embassies notified each other as soon as they learned of a flight being organised. This allowed many more people to return home, while at the same time reducing the cost burden of repatriation flights for governments. International cooperation and friendship for the win!
Ambassador Nölke, I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. On behalf of everyone at Diplomacy in Ireland – The European Diplomat,, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule. We wish your Excellency, your staff and the Canadian people good health, prosperity and happiness. Thank you very much for taking time to speak with me.
Thank you, Miceál.