Senior diplomat to return to Donegal

A senior diplomat with Donegal links who opened the first Irish embassy in Moscow during the Cold War is standing down after decades representing the country around the world.

James Sharkey, presently Irish Ambassador to Switzerland, Algeria and Liechtenstein, also helped forge influential Irish-American relations during the darkest days of the Troubles, that later proved crucial to securing a peace deal in Northern Ireland.

The Derry man has strong family links to Urris in Inishowen and has written a number of books about folk history in the peninsula. Following his retirement from Switzerland, his sixth Ambassadorial appointment, Mr Sharkey said he will return to his native Derry and Donegal.

Sharkey, whose remarkable career inspired Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney to pen a verse about him, said he was looking forward to returning home.

"You always miss Ireland," he said.

Mr Sharkey was Ireland's first ever official representative in Russia when in 1974, as Charge D'Affaires, he turned the key in the new Irish Embassy in Moscow.

The former teacher was just 29 at the time, and had only joined the Department of Foreign Affairs four years earlier.

"It was an extraordinary thing to encounter Russia in those days," he said.

"Moscow is now one of the great cosmopolitan, bright and shining cities of the world. But back then it was very dark."

Mr Sharkey, who studied Russian and Russian History at University College Dublin and Birmingham University, recalls the simple practical hurdles to setting up the first embassy.

"You couldn't get simple things. I was trying to fit out the Irish Embassy and I couldn't get light bulbs that worked," he said.

"All the furniture had to be imported. Even some of the great big name shops in Moscow had hardly any goods, and anything specialised had to be bought with coupons, only available to communists and foreigners.

"Everything was extremely old fashioned, almost as if the clock had been stopped sometime around 1946."

It was his earlier experience as a delegate to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe - also known as the Helsinki conference - that set him apart as the ideal candidate for the Russian job.

The talks were the first major conference that brought Western countries face-to-face with the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, and eventually helped to end the Cold War.

"It was a very exciting time, we were entering into an unknown area," he said.

During the early 1980s, Mr Sharkey was posted to Washington at a time when influential Irish-American politicians Tip O'Neill, Ted Kennedy and the now US vice-President Joe Biden were setting up Friends of Ireland.

As political counsellor in the Irish Embassy, he was involved in brokering relations between the Ronald Reagan administration, the Irish-American senators, the Irish Government and John Hume's SDLP.

"It was a tough period, the period of the hunger strikes and there was the 'special relationship' between Britain and America, but Reagan was Irish-American," he recalls.

"But it was a time when the British became aware of a very high-profile, influential Irish-American lobby that could not be criticised as being supportive of violence and whose views would be taken into consideration by the American administration.

"It was a period when the British had to take on the Irish American community who wanted progress in Northern Ireland."

Mr Sharkey has, unusually for Irish diplomats, spent the greater part of his career overseas, including in Rome, Washington, Russia, Japan, Australia, Scandinavia and Strasbourg.

His far-reaching role was invoked in a light-hearted poem by Seamus Heaney, called Alumnus Illustrissimus, to mark the diplomat being awarded a prize of the same name in 2005 by his former school, St Columb's College, in Derry.

Other recipients of the prize included fellow past pupils, Heaney himself, Brian Friel, John Hume and football manager Martin O'Neill.

Despite the accolades and distinguished career, the married father-of-three, whose sons were all brought up in different countries, said he strived to always keep his feet firmly on the ground.

"I did try to live a modest existence, not to be overwhelmed or intimidated by the pomp and privilege of life as a diplomat," he said.


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