Thursday 19 September 2019

Keeping it green around the world

Enniscorthy native and Ireland's ambassador to Mexico Barbara Jones tells Pádraig Byrne about her busy life representing Ireland abroad and her desire to come home to Wexford and settle down when her days as a diplomat come to an end

A presentation to Ambassador Jones on a recent visit to her old school, Coláiste Bríde, in Enniscorthy. Pictured: students Sarah O’Dowd and Julia Dziadek, Barbara Jones, Principal Kiera O’Sullivan and Deputy Principal Neil Moynahan
A presentation to Ambassador Jones on a recent visit to her old school, Coláiste Bríde, in Enniscorthy. Pictured: students Sarah O’Dowd and Julia Dziadek, Barbara Jones, Principal Kiera O’Sullivan and Deputy Principal Neil Moynahan
Barbara Jones pictured at The New York Library for Performing Arts with Wexford town native, Michael Londra, in her time as Consul General there
The 1916Commemorations in Enniscorthy are described as being among Ambassador Jones’ proudest moments. Pictured at the event in 2016 are Brendan Howlin TD, John Carley of Wexford County Council, Minister Paul Kehoe, Chief Supt. John Roche, Major General, Kieran Brennan, Barbara Jones, Assistant Garda Commissioner Fintan Fanning and Supt. Jim Doyle

A million miles away from the quiet narrow streets of Enniscorthy, town native Barbara Jones sits behind a desk in the Irish Embassy in Mexico City. With a population of nearly 9 million people in the city alone, the chasm separating her from her hometown is not just geographic, however, it is here she now calls home, where she works as the Irish Ambassador.

While Mexico is a huge country, it's not the only one which falls under the Enniscorthy woman's remit. In fact, she is effectively the Irish representative for most of Latin America, covering places like Cuba, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru and even the current tinderbox that is Venezuela.

Having served nearly 30 years as a diplomat, Ms Jones has risen to become one of the highest ranking officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs, taking her all over the world including stints in Dublin, London, Belfast, San Francisco, Luxembourg and New York where she served as Ireland's Consul General.

While she has travelled all over the world, home is still very much home for her and she retains her love and enthusiasm for all things Wexford.

'I'm delighted to be interviewed for the local paper,' she laughed. 'My Dad always loved to read all the local papers and he would've been delighted!'

With her father coming from Cork and her mother coming from Carley's Bridge, Barbara was born and raised in Enniscorthy, a place she still holds great affection for.

'My Dad moved there from Fermoy,' she said.

'He got a great welcome there and there was always a great sporting rivalry with him being a Cork man in Wexford. He was a great man and he was involved in setting up the local Athletics Club and he also played a role in the local tennis club and things like that.'

Speaking very highly of the education she received in Coláiste Bríde, somewhere she recently returned to give a talk on the Global Ireland initiative, Ms Jones moved on to UCD where she completed an arts degree before training as a teacher.

She found herself working in France in the 1980s, just as the turmoil of The Troubles created tremors around Ireland and the world - something which drove her to her current path.

'I was in France as the Troubles hit their peak in the 80s,' she explained.

'The violence in Northern Ireland was just terrible. I was constantly asked about it and there was this impression out there that the whole country was behind this violence. At the time, it was clear that government policy was being so misunderstood. I was teaching history and English at the time and I remember thinking "how can I manage to promote understanding of this?" - and that's diplomacy.'

A career change followed and as luck would have it, the Department of Foreign Affairs was overseeing an expansion. 800 applied for the positions. Five were appointed and the lady from the banks of the Slaney was one.

'I was so happy when I got in,' she recalled.

'Two things happened. I got the job of my dreams and then my husband was also I suppose you could say I got the man of my dreams as well,' she laughed.

Now 30 years into her career as a diplomat, Barbara carries the same enthusiasm for her role as she did on day one.

'I really feel it still, when I wake up every morning, I have the honour of representing my country,' she said.

'I know sports stars talk at length about that, but I really feel that I'm out there every day pulling on the green jersey and representing Ireland as best I can.'

Coming through the ranks at a time of change for the women of Ireland in particular, Barbara has a number of 'firsts' attributed to her name.

'I was the first woman Consul General, I was the first female secretary to Belfast...I suppose I got the opportunity that a lot of other women didn't get the chance to get,' she said.

'It's for that reason that I'm committed to supporting and encouraging girls out there to take on these roles and establish their careers. It's something I feel is very important.'

Throughout her career, there has been a lot of proud moments for Ms Jones, but a couple in particular stand out.

'There's been major changes in the attitudes and relationships between Ireland and the UK in my lifetime,' she said. 'One thing I'm particularly proud of is the Queen's first visit to Ireland. I was working in London at the time and I saw her off at the airport. I had met with her several times before that and spoke to her about Ireland, but it was wonderful to have played a part in such a historical moment. I have great respect for the work done by the British and Irish governments around that time.'

Another moment which stood out for her began in New York and finished slightly closer to home.

'In Enniscorthy, we have this tradition of rebellion,' Ms Jones noted. 'A real high point for me was, while I was Consul General in New York, leading commemorations to remember the men and women of 1916. New York of course played a big role in the rising as well, providing funding and support. It was a huge event and it was unforgettable. Following this, Minister Paul Kehoe invited me to attend the commemorations back in Enniscorthy. As things worked out, I was actually home and was able to be part of it and it was absolutely perfect. A source of real genuine pride.'

Over the years, Barbara has encountered some of the most high profile world leaders. While she describes the likes of Michael D Higgins, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson as 'a joy to work with', one figure in particular left a big mark on her.

'I was very impressed by Julius Nyerere when I met him in the midst of the Rwandese crisis,' she said.

'This was just after one of the worst genocides we had seen in our generation. He showed such strong compassion and belief that violence can be stopped. In the face of such devastation, he was confident that there was hope for the future and I found that message really inspiring.'

Having taken up her current role in September of 2017, Ms Jones has found the region in which she's based a hive of activity.

She believes that the Irish and Mexican people have more in common than one might think. With US President Donald Trump adamant that he will build a wall to prevent illegal migration from the south over the US border, Ms Jones says that the Irish people are probably better placed than most to understand the feelings of the Mexican people.

'It's one of many issues I feel we understand better being Irish,' she said. 'We have seen the impact of migration. We know about having a bigger economy next-door. I mean, how many people travelled from Enniscorthy over to England in search of work? Similarly, when I was in New York I saw first hand the contribution of the Mexican people and of Latin American people as a whole to that wonderful city.'

'I think there's a solidarity there,' she continued. 'We have problems also with Irish people in the US who don't have their papers in order. There's a shared experience of migration there and I think that makes us very sympathetic.'

While it's a necessary part of her role to maintain a level of impartiality, in relation to Trump's comments on the Mexican people and persistence in stopping them crossing the border, she said: 'You can see how hurtful it is. It is for any of us whenever anyone says something negative about our country. As Irish people we have experienced this ourselves and we feel great sympathy in relation to these prejudices. I think one of the things we work on is how to promote greater tolerance, but there is a great solidarity with the Mexican people and these shared experiences are things that shape your values as a nation.'

The main topic on everyone's lips in the region, however, is Venezuela. The country is in turmoil with the likes of the US and UK supporting interim president Juan Guaido, while the likes of Russia and China back the current regime of Nicolas Maduro. For the most part, Ms Jones keeps an eye from a distance, but she did provide assistance for Irish company Smurfit Kappa, who found that one of its biggest paper mills had been seized by the Venezuelan government last year.

'I am the named Irish Ambassador for Venezuela,' Ms Jones said. 'But I've never had the opportunity to present my credentials to the Venezuelan government.'

She added that the situation there was playing havoc across the whole region.

'It's an extremely difficult situation,' she said. 'Around three million people have been displaced and that puts a terrible burden on neighbouring countries.'

'The sheer pressure on poor countries is huge. It's the largest movement of people that has been seen in this region and it's a real humanitarian issue. People are presenting at the borders every day, malnourished, mother's unable to feed their babies, it's harrowing. Venezuela should be one of the richest countries in the world, but instead it's facing a major crisis.'

While her busy working life has taken her all over the world, there is one goal which remains constant for Barbara Jones - returning to her home county.

'It's my long term plan to move back to my home county and hopefully get stuck in and help in any way I can,' she said enthusiastically. 'I've already persuaded my husband, so when I finish up in ten years time or whatever it may be, I'd like to build a house in South Wexford and move home. Maybe it's something that you can only see looking from the outside, but there are so many committed people in Wexford and there are such big plans for the place. Things are really starting to come together.'

'If you look at the tradition, history and culture that exists in Wexford - our great writers and poets, our sporting talent etc - sometimes I feel like we really don't give ourselves enough credit.'

It's clear that someone of the experience and knowledge that Barbara has would be welcomed back to the fold with open arms upon her return to Wexford and, in the meantime, she's hoping there will be a few more chapters to add to her illustrious career as she continues in her role as a wonderful Ambassador, both for Ireland and for Co Wexford.

Wexford People

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