Ireland’s top civil servant made ambassador to UK

By on 30/08/2021 | Updated on 01/09/2021
Martin Fraser, Ireland’s most senior official, will become ambassador to the UK next year. Pic by Department of the Taoiseach

The Irish government’s most senior civil servant has been appointed as ambassador to the UK, in a move widely regarded as an attempt to strengthen ties between the two countries amidst the turbulence caused by Brexit.

Martin Fraser, who for a decade has served as secretary general in the department of the Taoiseach, Ireland’s prime minister, will replace the current ambassador Adrian O’Neill in 2022.

Fraser, 51, who holds parallel roles as secretary general to the government and head of the civil service, is a career civil servant who joined the service in 1986. His experience in economic policy, Ireland’s response to Brexit, and the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol are likely to prove useful in his new job.

Long experience

Serving under former Taoiseach Enda Kenny during an easier period of UK-Irish relations from 2011-17, he is credited with building closer links between senior civil servants from the two countries in collaboration with former UK cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, including annual meetings for top officials in Westminster or Dublin.

During 2007-11, as assistant secretary general in the Taoiseach’s department, Fraser served as head of three divisions: Northern Ireland and international affairs; corporate affairs; and economic and social policy. Earlier, he served in the departments of social welfare, foreign affairs and agriculture and food.

The appointment, which comes at a critical time for relations between the UK and Ireland, breaks the norm for ambassadorial appointments, which typically go to career diplomats. It was announced as part of a suite of diplomatic appointments and moves intended to strengthen Ireland’s global influence.

Diplomatic push

Niall Burgess, secretary general in the Department of Foreign Affairs, will take on the role of Ireland’s ambassador to France, replacing Patricia O’Brien, who will become ambassador to Italy. Brendan Rogers, the DFA’s deputy secretary general, has been appointed as ambassador to The Netherlands, replacing the incumbent Kevin Kelly.

Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Geraldine Byrne-Nason, has been asked to stay on in post for one more year. In 2022, she will take on the role of ambassador to the United States, replacing Dan Mulhall, while the UN role will be filled by Fergal Mythen, director general of DFA’s Ireland, UK and Americas division.

Katherine Zappone, who was minister for children and youth affairs and Ireland’s first openly lesbian lawmaker from 2016 to 2020, was appointed to the newly-created post of special envoy on freedom of opinion and expression. However, she has not taken up the part-time post following an outcry over alleged “cronyism”, amid claims that the position was not subject to open competition. The row came after Zappone held a party in Dublin for 50 guests including former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is now minister for enterprise, trade and employment, during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The DFA is also setting up new consulates general in cities within Canada, the US and France – Toronto, Miami and Lyon – plus a new embassy in Senegal, in a bid to extend Ireland’s influence in key regions.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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