Dominick Chilcott: Commemorating 1916

Photo: Dominick Chilcott, British Ambassador to Ireland, prepares to take part in a Law Society debate on 1916, he speaks with Patrick Kelleher about the significance of the Rising, the State’s commemorations, and British-Irish relations today.Dominick Chilcott was appointed the British ambassador to Ireland in 2012 at a pivotal point in Irish history – in what has become known as the decade of centenaries. During the decade of 1911-1921, some of the most influential historical events that shaped Ireland happened. From the 1913 Lockout to the 1916 Rising, the decade was a defining one. It is fitting then, that today Chilcott is joining UCD Law Society for a debate on whether or not the 1916 Rising is worth commemorating.Chilcott is very supportive of the commemorations for the 1916 Rising that have happened so far in Ireland this year. “I support what the Government is doing in its state programme to commemorate the 1916 centenary,” he says. “I think the inclusive way they’re going about it will help promote reconciliation and friendship, on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain, which is why I support it.”The State programme has included a vast number of events, as Chilcott explains. “Well the State programme is pretty comprehensive, I must say. We had a group of people over from our department of culture, media and sport, who are responsible in the UK for our commemorations of the First World War, so the same period, and the same interval in time therefore, and I think they were deeply impressed for the state programme of 2016, and how thorough it was, and how carefully thought through it was, so I think the state programme is absolutely excellent,” he says.Relations between Britain and Ireland have traditionally been fraught. From the War of Independence to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the 20th Century was filled with challenges for the two countries. Chilcott is quick to acknowledge this, but is also optimistic about current relations. “My experience of being here as the British ambassador is one of being in a country with whom we wish to be a good neighbour, and we wish to have a friendly cooperative relationship,” he says. “We have full respect for Ireland’s sovereignty and independence and traditions, and want to work with Ireland as a partner in Europe as well as a close bilateral country – a neighbour – with whom we have very long standing ties and a very interconnected history. So I think all those things have been very positive. So this has been, in terms of my personal experience, this has been the highlight of my career.”That career has been a distinguished one. Chilcott has been working for the UK Foreign Office for over 30 years, since his graduation from Oxford University. During that time, he has worked as the High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Maldives, as well as Ambassador to Iran for a six week period in 2011, before an attack on the embassy cut his time short there.“When I arrived in Iran in October 2011, it was pretty clear that the regime – or at least elements in the regime – wanted to have a very confrontational approach towards the United Kingdom,” he explains. “We were a target for all sorts of attacks in the newspapers, and indeed physical attacks against our buildings and our compound. There was strong sense of fragility about our presence there, because we knew at any moment if the regime or elements in the regime so decided, that we could be overrun and in a degree of danger, so when the embassy eventually was attacked, it was something that we had been preparing for and had been thinking about for a while, so we weren’t taken completely by surprise, although we didn’t know that the attack was going to happen on that day.”As Chilcott explains, while the circumstances were challenging, the biggest relief for them was that nobody was injured. “Eventually, we were all able to leave the country and nobody was killed or badly harmed, so thank goodness for that,” he says. “Having said that, of course, there are huge numbers of Iranians that are well educated, broad minded, who want a good relationship with the west, who were very friendly towards us, who are sophisticated, highly cultured people that you would like to meet anywhere around the world. And I think those people found their own regime at the time quite difficult to live with too, so one wants to separate to some degree the elements of the regime who were irreconcilably hostile to the west and the UK from the people who wanted to have a good relationship.”Chilcott also feels quite strongly about the upcoming referendum in Britain on leaving the EU. “My personal thought is I hope we don’t,” he says. “That’s also the position of the British government, that we should stay in a reformed European Union. And I think there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty about leaving the European Union, which that uncertainty must carry quite a high degree of risk from British national interests. But also I think there’s a great deal of good about being a member state of the European Union, which involves our working with those countries closest to us, to try and resolve common problems together, and I think there’s a sense that we’re stronger when we do things together with our friends rather than when we withdraw into ourselves. So I hope very much that we will stay in.”However right now, Chilcott’s mind is firmly focused on Ireland. He has a great deal of pride about his role as Ambassador to Ireland, and is clearly proud of how far the two countries have come in the century since 1916. “In the years after [the 1916 Rising], the establishment of the Free State, and in the early years of the Republic, I think relations went up and down a bit,” he says. “There was the economic wars in the 1930s between us, and there was a sort of wariness I think after the Second World War as well, and clearly during the times of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were moments of quite high tension between the governments, which were provoked by what was happening in the North. But I think those days feel like another era, and I think the era we’re in now is the era – as I said earlier – is of the era of good neighbours, and there’s an air of great cooperation and great friendship. So I think things have moved enormously, a huge distance, since 1916."Dominick Chilcott will be speaking as a part of UCD Law Society’s debate today in Theatre P in the Newman Building at 6:15pm.