Ambassador Justin Harman. :: Sur
Ahead of this weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, SUR in English speaks with His Excellency Justin Harman, the Irish Ambassador to Spain.
Here, he shares his thoughts on Irish-Spanish relations, the European Union, the economic crisis, and the “greening” of Spanish monuments in honour of Ireland’s patron saint.
Mr Ambassador, you’ve been the Irish Ambassador to Spain since 2009. How are you finding the role?
It has been a splendid experience and I am thoroughly enjoying my role here in Spain. It has been thrilling for me both professionally and personally as I spent some time here, mostly in the north of the country, as a student. It’s been wonderful coming back and seeing how Spain has transformed since that time. In many ways it’s like a different country but it still has the same qualities that I remember from before.
Previously, you were stationed in Moscow. How do Russia and Spain compare?
The two countries are very different in many ways, including their respective climates, of course. Ireland, perhaps due to its membership of the European Union, its cultural ties, the strong trade links, and because there is greater movement of people – around 1.3 million Irish nationals visit Spain every year and approximately one million Spanish people head to Ireland - is perhaps more closely aligned with Spain.
You mentioned the European Union there. Ireland currently holds the presidency of the EU. How significant is this?
It’s an extremely exciting time for Ireland as since 1st January this year, not only does it hold the presidency, it also celebrates its 40th anniversary within the European Union.
The presidency allows Ireland to drive forward the European agenda on a variety of policy issues, including finance. I believe this will be helpful for Spain too as Ireland and Spain, two countries which have both been badly affected by the economic crisis, share a fellow feeling on many issues, such as the need for a banking union.
Do you believe there’s a shared sense of compassion between Ireland and Spain because of the economic crisis?
Yes, because both country’s current economic problems come from the same origins: the bursting of an asset price bubble which was fuelled by growth in the financial sector. When that bubble burst, property prices fell, domestic demand became depressed, and unemployment especially youth unemployment, shot up. Today, in Ireland we export almost 100 per cent of what we produce because domestic demand is still so low, and there’s a similar situation in Spain.
But, of course, it’s not just the current situation, nor the important trade connections you mentioned earlier, that seems to bind Spain and Ireland.
No, there are rich historical and cultural ties too. There’s been a constant flow of Irish visitors, from the early pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago to the young people who were sent to Spain from Ireland from the 17th century right up until the 1950s and 60s to be educated here because of the religious wars in Ireland. Indeed, it was during the influx of Irish people in the 17th and 18th centuries in which the famous Irish Colleges, such as those in Salamanca and Valladolid, were established.
And, there’s some evidence to suggest that the first people in Ireland were in fact from the Iberian Peninsula, meaning our connections could date back to pre-historical times.
Today, a shared sense of history does, in my view, help unite the Irish and the Spanish and we do get on very well and, in general terms, we share a similar outlook.
Spain really excites the imagination of the Irish. This is demonstrated by the fact that the number of Irish visitors to Spain, and the number of Irish nationals living in Spain, haven’t decreased significantly since the start of the economic crisis.
Similarly, the Spanish are attracted by Ireland’s history, culture and social life; and this is shown by the high amount of Spanish people, especially young people, who visit Ireland every year or, indeed, go there to work.
How many Irish people currently live in Spain?
Officially, on the census there are about 20,000, although we sense this figure is much higher as many Irish haven’t registered on the ‘padrón’. The Irish in Spain are remarkably well-integrated and this does make it difficult to track them, so we rely on Spanish statistics to a large extent.
How will you be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day?
St. Patrick’s Day has become a global celebration that grows in popularity every year, as not just the Irish themselves, but the friends of Ireland join in the festivities.
I’ll be attending several events, including an exhibition in Madrid of contemporary art created by Irish artists; but there will, of course, be events all over Spain, such as the currach [a wooden boat traditionally used off the west coast of Ireland] regatta taking place in Barcelona. And, as always, many key Spanish monuments, such as the Tower of Hercules in La Coruña and the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, will be ‘greened’ on St Patrick’s Day to celebrate Ireland and the Irish.