by Miceál O’Hurley
Dublin – In December, 2019 news began to circulate of a novel strain of a coronavirus was infecting people around the globe. To date, some 428,790 people have been confirmed to have died because of the Covid-19 pandemic that has gripped the world’s attention, wrecked economies, stressed health care systems and caused countries around the world to impose travel restrictions. As Ireland begin to lift many of the restrictions put in place to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic it gives us time to reflect upon the work of diplomacy in action and the Diplomatic Corps critical role in serving people during the crisis.
We be profiling several diplomatic missions in Ireland to provide an insight into how diplomacy been conducted during these trying circumstances and provide some insight into the challenges that may lie ahead. In this interview, His Excellency Adriaan Palm of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Ireland shared some of his thoughts with me. His previous postings have included service in Manila, Kyiv, The Hague, Moscow, and Warsaw. His Excellency Adriaan Palm presented his credentials plenipotentiary to President Michael D. Higgins on 28 February 2019.
Your Excellency, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak tous about the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on diplomacy and your Mission. What did you find to be the greatest challenge that emerged for your Mission during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The main thing for us as an Embassy is to ensure the health and wellbeing of people, in the Netherlands, Ireland, the EU and worldwide, a challenge that exists till now, also in view of the economic situation.
With travel bans and restrictions being imposed by many countries, what challenges did Dutch citizens living, working or visiting Ireland experience in regards to returning home to the Netherlands?
As Dutch citizens in Ireland had and have the possibility to go back to the Netherlands throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we didn’t have to help people from here going back to the Netherlands. But worldwide, Dutch embassies have helped thousands of Dutch people coming back home.
Historically, during times of difficulties, the Diplomatic Corps has been creative in meeting arising problems, be it in natural disasters, times of war or even pandemics. Were there instances where the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Ireland worked in concert with other diplomatic missions to meet the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Here in Ireland, I assisted the Chilean Ambassador in helping her citizens get back home via Amsterdam and Paris.
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 closed the Embassy for visitors, but did and do help people who needed to travel in case of emergency. For example, we issued emergency travel documents for Dutch citizens. And, we were able to help many people by answering phone calls and emails.
What was your interaction like with the Department of Foreign Affairs or members of the Irish Government throughout this crisis?
I talked over the phone to a lot of people, including TD’s outside Dublin, to get a clear picture of the economic and health situation elsewhere in Ireland and to see how and where we can cooperate to meet the needs of the people, both on COVID-19 and in other areas.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) availability became a pressing issue around the globe. Was there a role for the Netherlands to play with regards to ensuring health care workers, first responders and the public in the EU, including Ireland, had the resources they needed?
As an EU Member State, we were involved in the discussion in Brussels on ensuring that there is sufficient PPE for all people in the EU.
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 in your diplomatic community during the Covid-19 pandemic to date?
Of course my thoughts are first and foremost with the families and friends of those who lost a loved one. The death of our Argentine colleague, Ambassador Laura Bernal, has hit us all. And I think within the staff of any Embassy here in Dublin there are people who have lost friends or loved ones.
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?
These lessons can be divided in two categories.
Firstly, the lessons how to react to a new health epidemic, both nationally and internationally. We will do more on prevention and preparation, as we are seeing now in the EU as a whole. And it’s clear that international cooperation is crucial in addressing those kinds of pandemics.
Secondly, the way we as diplomats work, just like everybody else, will be a bit different. For almost three months, we have all been forced to work from home. And we found a way to do that, through phone calls, video calls, webinars, etc. We, as diplomats, have to show flexibility now, and we will show flexibility in our working methods in the future too. But one thing remains crucial — diplomats bring people together, if not physically, then virtually.
Are there any changes in the way you will provide Consular services for the foreseeable future?
Yes. We want to ensure that our customers feel secure when entering the Embassy building for consular services. We are currently identifying what steps need to be taken to ensure this, including adjusting the infrastructure for social distancing. Then, once we open the Embassy again for regular consular services, people will hopefully feel both welcome and secure.
What are the plans for The Netherlands to move towards a ‘normalisation’ of travel and tourism?
Travel to the Netherlands from abroad is now possible from a number of countries, including from Ireland, and under certain conditions. Please follow this link for further information https://www.netherlandsandyou.nl/documents/frequently-asked-questions/qa-holidays-to-the-netherlands
Please note that these are the guidelines from the Dutch government. Local regulations and/or advice for transport and travel should also be taken into account if you are considering a visit to the Netherlands. Please follow this link for the latest advice from the Irish government: https://www.gov.ie/en/campaigns/c36c85-covid-19-coronavirus/
Any pandemic is a tragedy. But even in such situations there are always stories that inspire. Would you care to share one?
I think that every day in the news, you can find stories that inspire. The stories of the unsung heroes, working in the frontline. Naming one of those stories would do injustice to the others.
Your Excellency, thank you for taking time to discuss the work of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Ireland with me and Diplomacy in Ireland – The European Diplomat. We all fondly recall the very successful State Visit of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima to Ireland last year and specifically your work in making it a success. I wish the Dutch people much health and happiness and you continued success in your diplomatic Mission in Ireland.
Thank you. You are most welcome.