Ireland’s envoy to the UAE said she expects senior and extensive participation from her country at the Cop28 climate talks in Dubai this year.
Alison Milton said the UAE had the vision to make this a very significant global event and she was encouraged by its commitment to keep alive the goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Speaking to The National to mark Ireland’s national holiday, St Patrick’s Day on Friday, she said Ireland would work closely with the UAE with just eight months to go to the summit.
“Ireland will always want to champion the voices of the most affected countries,” said Ms Milton, who is from Co Clare. “And that they will have decision-making power.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Milton also reflected on the 25th anniversary of the agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland; how she wants to promote Ireland more to Emiratis; and the UAE’s vibrant Irish community.
Ms Milton, Ireland’s first female ambassador to the UAE, took up the post in August having previously become Ireland’s first envoy to Colombia.
Based in Abu Dhabi in a diverse embassy which employs about 10 nationalities, she is also envoy to Kuwait, Qatar and with responsibility for Afghanistan.
Ms Milton first wants to highlight three major anniversaries this year. The first is the 100-year anniversary of Ireland joining the League of Nations; the second being 50 years as part of the European Union; and, thirdly, the 25 anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast agreement, that brought peace to Northern Ireland.
The peace deal, in particular, informed her work in Colombia where in 2019 she became Ireland’s first ambassador there. It came three years after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebel group and the government in 2016 signed a peace accord.
“They were finding it hard,” she said. “But in Ireland, we are more than 20 years post-peace deal and are still working on a daily basis to keep it solid. That messaging from Ireland: don’t lose hope, persevere; keep the channels open for dialogue ― that went down well.”
Ms Milton joined Ireland’s Foreign Affairs department about 20 years ago having previously worked in development such as in El Salvador in 1994 to establish a small credit scheme for former combatants in the conflict.
In the 2000s, her early work with the department focused on overseas aid and included trips to Lebanese and Jordanian refugee camps.
“I was always very much drawn into getting into international work helping other countries,” she said. “Why some had and others didn’t?”
Now as Irish envoy, Ms Milton is seeking to boost trade and tourism between Ireland and the UAE. The bilateral goods trade was €700 million ($741m) in 2021. Food is central to this with Irish produce on supermarket shelves from Spinneys to Choithrams, but the trade relationship also encompasses the equine industry, pharmaceuticals, medical technology and more. Links are growing. Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, led an Emirati delegation to Ireland in December bolster co-operation between the nations. Inward investment to Ireland is also an important area of focus, particularly in light of the country’s plans to expand renewable energy.
Turning to tourism, Ms Milton wants to increase the number of Emiratis coming to Ireland. Figures from 2019 showed that 75,000 visitors came to Ireland from Middle East and about 65 per cent of those were Emirati. But with visa-free travel for Emiratis and three direct flights a day from the UAE to Ireland, she wants to see this much higher.
“This country has traditionally looked more to the UK and to London as a city. I’m hoping to work with my team to see Ireland as a destination,” she said.
“Emiratis who have discovered Ireland, particularly around horses, have really, really enjoyed it and go back.
"But I’ve also met a lot where it is completely off their radar. [The fact we are] an independent country with our own history, culture and all the rest is still something we could do more to promote.”
She is also keen to engage with the Emirati reverse diaspora – the many students who spent years studying medicine and other subjects and then returned to the UAE.
“[I want to] tap into that and to say tell us what are your impressions of Ireland, what we have in common, what we can do more with.”
From the early pioneers such as Colm McLoughlin, who in the 1980s helped establish Dubai Duty Free, the Irish community in the UAE is between 10,000 and 12,000. Teachers make up about 3,000 of the total but the Irish play a role in health care, academia, agriculture and the financial sector holding senior roles in top companies.
It is a busy week at the embassy and for the Irish community, Josepha Madigan, Ireland's Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion is here and Irish groups are holding events to keep the links strong.
For Ms Milton, the job has got off to a whirlwind start but she is hoping to learn some Arabic and is looking forward to experiencing her first Ramadan in the UAE.
“Every day is a school day in trying to broaden my understanding,” she said. “It is a huge privilege.”