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Morocco and Ireland turn the page on differences after a series of diplomatic ups and downs

In 2020, the Republic of Ireland will be opening its first embassy in Morocco, announcing the beginning of a new chapter in its relations with the Kingdom. After a period marked with ups and downs, especially when it comes to the Western Sahara conflict, the two countries have managed to establish partnerships in several fields, including the education sector.

Parliament Speaker Habib El Malki and Ireland President Michael D. Higgins. / ph. DR
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Although the Republic of Ireland became a member of the United Nations in December 1955, it took the European country more than 30 years before considering formal relations with the North African Kingdom. Indeed, in 1992, Morocco opened its first and current embassy in Dublin, opening the door to trade and partnerships with the country, a diplomatic source told Yabiladi.

Despite this rather positive step, relations between Rabat and Dublin have had ups and downs during the last two decades. In fact, the Western Sahara question was at the heart of a first crisis between the two countries.

In September 2012, Morocco recalled its ambassador to the Republic of Ireland Anas Khales in protest at a meeting that brought Ireland’s Tanaiste, deputy head of the government, and the former leader of the Polisario Front.

The Western Sahara conflict and the Polisario's vists to Ireland

Ireland's Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore «made it clear at the meeting with Saharawi Republic President Mohamed Abdelaziz that he supported the right of the Saharan people to self-determination», Irish newspaper The Independent wrote in November 2012. In Dublin, Abdelaziz also met with Irish President Michael D. Higgins and other senior officials.

The Dublin meeting was seen as «embarrassing» by an Irish delegation which was on a visit to Morocco during the same period. Speaking to the Irish newspaper, a member of the delegation said: «It was embarrassing arriving out there and the ambassador withdrawing. The government in Rabat weren't happy».

Around a month later, the Moroccan ambassador returned to Dublin, and efforts to change the Irish position on the Western Sahara were not really successful. In fact, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs stressed that it «has been long-standing policy to meet representatives of the Saharawi people and to support a referendum on the future of the region».

Former tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore. / Ph. DRFormer tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore. / Ph. DR

At the time, a spokesperson for the department has even told media that «the Moroccan government does not like [Ireland’s] position on Western Sahara».

A similar position was voiced by Ireland’s current Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister. Answering a question on the status of Western Sahara and the position of the European Union in December 2018, Simon Coveney indicated that just like the European bloc, Ireland recognizes «the United Nation’s classification of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory».

However, the Tanaiste made it clear that his country «supports the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara», stressing that «it does not have a view on the outcome of that decision, be it independence, integration, autonomy, or some other solution – so long as it is decided in a genuine exercise of self-determination».

During the same month, December 2018, the Seanad Éireann, Ireland’s Upper House, passed a bill that bans «the importation or sale of goods or services from settlements condemned by the United Nations and European Union as illegal».

Irish senators supporting the bill, insisted that «Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara would come under this legislation», according to an Irish Times article.

It is in this context that another Polisario delegation headed for Dublin. In March, 2019, two Polisario representatives were received by the Irish President.

«The meeting was an opportunity for the delegation to hand over the Irish President Michael D. Higgins a letter from Brahim Ghali», the Front wrote through its press agency.

In Ireland, the Polisario delegation held talks with several Irish politicians and managed to visit the headquarters of the Irish Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Rapprochement between Rabat and Dublin

This visit was again a setback for diplomatic ties between Rabat and Dublin. But instead of recalling its ambassador, like in 2012, Morocco decided to move forward, adopting a new strategy.

In June, 2019, a Moroccan delegation of elected representatives from the Sahara visited Ireland, where it held a series of meetings with Irish officials. Days later, the President of the Moroccan House of Representative Habib El Malki flew to Dublin, where he was received by President Higgins at the Aras an Uachtarain.

Moroccan Parliament Speaker Habib El Malki and his Irish counterpart. / Ph. DRMoroccan Parliament Speaker Habib El Malki and his Irish counterpart. / Ph. DR

According to a communiqué published by the President of Ireland’s portal, the President and El Malki «had a comprehensive discussion on a wide range of issues, including Ireland's relations with Africa, the EU's relations with Morocco and the wider region, and the challenges suggested by the climate crisis and the requirements for sustainable development».

Shortly after El Malki’s trip to Ireland, a high-ranked delegation from the Republic flew to Morocco. Headed by the Irish Speaker Sean O Fearghail, the delegation held meetings with several Moroccan officials, including the Head of the Government Saadeddine El Othmani, Justice Minister Mohamed Aujjar, and Parliament speaker Habib El Malki.

The Irish delegation brought promising projects with it, including the plan of opening an Irish embassy in Morocco, where the country is represented with two honorary consulates.

«Your embassy in Dublin has been strongly advocating for the opening of an embassy here in this country», O Fearghail told reporters in Rabat.

While in the Kingdom, the official addressed ways of strengthening diplomatic ties with Morocco, potential bilateral trade projects and discussed issues of common interest, such as migration.

The Western Sahara issue was also at the heart of this visit, as the delegation was able to meet officials from the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs. The Irish delegation has also been invited to visit the Kingdom’s southern provinces to meet Sahrawi representatives.

Ireland's honorary consulate in Agadir. / Ph. DRIreland's honorary consulate in Agadir. / Ph. DR

In addition to the political scene, rapprochement between Rabat and Dublin has also focused on the education sector. In July, an Irish delegation from the Dublin City University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Cadi Ayyad university of Marrakech, a diplomatic source told Yabiladi.

The Ibn Zohr University of Agadir was also covered by this partnership. In fact, the university signed a partnership with the National University of Ireland Galway to develop zoology and ecology.

Furthermore, the Irish university will «assist with the development of the first natural History Museum in Southern Morocco, participate towards the teaching of ecology courses and provide internships for Moroccan students», the institution said in July.

During the same month, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane received a delegation from Trinity College Dublin «to explore options to develop further students and professors’ mobility and to share mutual experiences in education programs and in research areas», Morocco’s embassy in Ireland wrote in a Facebook post.

Diplomatic and cultural activities conducted by the two countries are expected to enter a new phase by the opening of the Irish embassy in Morocco.

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