From Ballinrobe to Oslo
Gary Ansbro’s career has taken him to three continents – but it’s not all ‘Ferrero Rocher’ receptions for the Ambassador to Norway
WHEN he arrived in Oslo in mid-August, Gary Ansbro couldn’t see an awful lot of difference between Ireland and Norway. People looked the same as they did at home, though there were more blondes in Scandinavia. Neither was the summertime climate unlike what he was used to at home. Now, with winter well and truly arrived, the contrast is starker – the temperature is ‘hovering around one degree or two’ in Oslo, and when we speak, at 3pm local time, the sun is going down.
The Ballinrobe man is three-and-a-half months into a four-year posting as Ireland’s Ambassador to Norway. This week the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, is in town to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which was agreed in Dublin in May. A small cultural group based in the University of Limerick are also visiting. “You’re on the go all the time!” he says with a laugh.
The focus of his early days in Oslo was a State visit by the President in mid-October. Mary McAleese was accompanied by her husband, Martin, and the Minister of State for Food and Horticulture, Trevor Sargent. The group spent two days in the capital and one in the northern town of Trondheim.
“It was a great opportunity for me, but it was also a great opportunity for the country,” the Ambassador explains. “A Presidential visit like that really opens every door to you, and you get a fantastic opportunity to meet people at every level.”
The State visit included a gala dinner at the Royal Palace hosted by King Harald and Queen Sonja, and a meeting with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. The President addressed a business breakfast organised by Enterprise Ireland, and spoke at the Nobel Institute on the Northern Ireland peace process. She also attended a number of cultural events. On a visit to Trondheim, the President opened a seminar on renewable ocean energy, and toured the Coastal Heritage Museum.
“Trondheim has old, old connections with Ireland,” says the Ambassador. “They have Viking graves up there with goods that were ‘removed’ from Irish monasteries more than a thousand years ago! It’s your typical larger Norwegian town, with the fjord and the hills – it reminded me of the Kerry coast.”
Two things surprised him on arrival in the country. For a start, there was Norway’s sheer size – Tromsø in the north is the same distance from Oslo as Rome. Second, he was taken aback by how close Ireland is – flying time from Dublin to Oslo is less than two hours.
“I think we in Ireland have an idea that Norway is very far away. But it isn’t. It’s on our doorstep, in a manner of speaking, and the Norwegians are discovering that in their tens of thousands now, because they’re travelling as tourists. But the Irish probably haven’t realised that Norway is a place to come to. It’s expensive, but it’s an amazingly interesting country.”
People were journeying between the two countries long before Ryanair offered cheap flights to Torp airport. Those with fond and not-so-fond memories of studying ‘Peig’ at school might be surprised to hear of a Norwegian connection, which the Ambassador fleshes out in detail.
“Norwegian scholars went to Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. Norway just became independent in 1905, and a bit like the Irish, they were looking back into their past to develop their own separate identity. Norwegian scholars studied Irish being spoken in the Blaskets; they studied our folklore, and made quite a contribution in encouraging Irish-speaking writers like Peig Sayers and others to write in Irish.”
Lift a stone, he says, and you’ll find connections between the two countries. President McAleese saw an Irish boat type called the drontheim and a currach in the Coastal Heritage Museum rowed by a Donegal man. She also met Norway’s oldest Irish citizen, Shirley Bottolfson, a 72-year-old Tipperary woman whose charity work was the subject of a television documentary. There’s a strong relationship between the Department of Archaeology at the University of Trondheim and the west of Ireland. Remarkably, a Claremorris company is currently surveying areas of archaeological interest in Trondheim.
“We reckon we have about 1,000 Irish citizens [in Norway], but they’re not all Irish-born,” he says. “We possibly have about 300 in Oslo. There are several categories. One is people who have married Norwegians and are living here for quite a while. There are oil industry people on the west coast – [they] are passing through, so we don’t get to know them very much. Then there’s a fair scatter of younger Irish people in Oslo working in IT or businesses or as researchers.”
Much of the embassy’s day-to-day work involves ‘looking after our citizens’ and sorting out passports and visas. As a new ambassador, he’s spending a lot of time getting to know people, particularly in the political and business worlds. There are also EU-related issues to consider – though Norway is not part of the EU, it is a member of the European Economic Area. On the day we speak, the Ambassador has just met with an official in the foreign ministry about the recently-launched EU Arctic policy. He’s also learning the local lingo.
“Norwegian is kind of a halfway house – somebody said to me that Norwegian is Germanic in vocabulary and English in grammar,” he explains. “I studied German for a while, and that’s a help. So I’m beginning to utter a few sentences in shops and so on. My objective is to be able to read the newspapers, [but] I haven’t quite got to that point yet!”
Gary’s mother, Evelyn, taught in the Convent of Mercy in Ballinrobe, and his brother Noel has recently retired from the staff of Ballinrobe Community School. He also taught for a period, but always had a great interest in current affairs and politics, and decided to ‘have a go’ at the civil service.
That was 30 years ago. The job has since taken him to Paris, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Chicago (where he was Consul General), Ljubljana in Slovenia (his first ambassadorial post) and Belfast (where he was Joint Secretary of the British-Irish Inter-governmental Secretariat) in between stints in Dublin (his house is in Malahide).
“If you choose a career, you choose it because you want to do it, so you always have to be adaptable,” he reflects. “There’s constant change and uprooting from one place to another, but at the same time, you’re working for the same outfit and with the same colleagues, even if they’re at a distance. So that makes it easier. It’s much harder on your family, particularly as kids are moved from place to place and school system to school system, and hard on your wife as well, who isn’t inserted in the system the same way as you are. Our spouses give tremendous support to us, and to the State, and our children.”
A year or so ago, he discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the life they had led with his children, who are all now in their 20s. They had ‘certainly lost a certain amount in terms of the continuity of friends’, but ‘generally feel they’ve gained a little more in terms of broad experience’.
“It’s not an easy life,” he adds. “People think it’s the ‘Ferrero Rocher’ lifestyle! But it’s hard graft, basically, and the hospitality side of it is basically work. But at the same time, I’ve had a very rich working life, in terms of my postings and the continents I’ve been in and the friends I’ve made. I chose it, I have enjoyed it, and I’m continuing to enjoy it.”
‘A small cog in a wheel’
BEFORE arriving in Oslo, Gary Ansbro spent three years as Joint Secretary of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Secretariat in Belfast. He had ‘some exciting moments’ during his time there and is ‘very satisfied’ to see progress being made in Northern Ireland.
“I was a small cog in a wheel,” he explains. “I certainly wouldn’t want to exaggerate [my role], but there is a great sense of satisfaction in being part of a process that you see actually coming to fruition, which we saw with Ian Paisley becoming First Minister and Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister.”
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Secretariat was originally part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and subsequently part of the Good Friday Agreement. It was established as ‘a meeting point’ between British and Irish civil servants on all major issues, ‘particularly political and security matters’. Being based in Belfast, the Irish civil servants also act as quasi-representatives of the Government – “We’re certainly seen as that way by the local political world, and by the population,” he explains.
Violence had ‘practically ceased’ by the time Gary Ansbro went to Belfast in 2005, but the Northern political parties weren’t talking to one another. The transitional assembly was eventually restored, and there were long negotiations before and after the St Andrew’s Agreement. He cites a recent lecture on the Irish peace process, in which President McAleese said that ‘the implementation of an agreement needs as much energy and effort and application as the negotiation of an agreement’.
The Northern Ireland executive recently met for the first time since June. The devolution of policing and justice seems to be on its way, which will, Gary Ansbro says, be ‘the icing on the cake’.
“What’s really positive is that I think all parties now talk to the Irish Government and regard it as a facilitator – certainly not as any kind of threat. I was a small part of that, but the principal work was done at the political level by the Taoiseach and Minister [for Foreign Affairs]. But it is very satisfying to be part of the oil in the machine.”
Our man in the Balkans
GARY Ansbro was Ireland’s senior diplomat in three countries from 2001 to 2005, serving as Ambassador to Slovenia and also acting as the country’s representative to Croatia as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina. The three countries were at different stages of development, and at different points in their relationship with the European Union – “One on its way in, one successfully applying, and one trying to get to the ante-room,” he explains.
He established the embassy in Ljubljana, and was there for Slovenia’s entry into the European Union, which came while Ireland held the EU Presidency. Croatia applied for membership during the Irish Presidency, so it was a busy time for the Ballinrobe man.
There was a sizeable Irish presence in the Balkans throughout his time there. Members of the Irish defence forces served in the Bosnian cities of Sarajevo and Tuzla. The Head of the EU Police Service and the Head of the EU Monitoring Mission were both Irish, so there was ‘quite a little Irish community’ in this corner of south-eastern Europe.
“In a situation like that, Ireland is regarded as not having any particular axe to grind, being neutral,” he explains. “It means you’re welcomed everywhere, which I was, by all sections of the community. I found it utterly fascinating as a posting.”