Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Words on Wednesday...with Ambassador Sobkow

Welcome to this week's Words on Wednesday feature here on United Irelander, a concept unique to the Irish blogosphere, which sees me interview various figures from all walks of political life.

Taking my questions this week I'm pleased to say is the Polish Ambassador to Ireland Witold Sobkow.

I'd like to thank Ambassador Sobkow for very kindly agreeing to be interviewed. With that being said, let's begin.

What initially attracted you to political life?

I am not a politician. I am a civil servant. Before the democratic changes in Poland in 1989, I had not wanted to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was a lecturer at Warsaw University, as it was a free profession, enabling me to do what I wanted to do, without having to be a member of the Communist Party. After 1989 new opportunities turned up and I could enter for an open competition in autumn 1990 to become an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I managed to pass the examinations and in March 1991 I became a desk officer responsible for Italy, Malta and the Vatican. Then I was promoted to the post of Head of Section, and afterwards to the post of Deputy Director. I am a career diplomat, not a political nominee.

You are the Polish Ambassador to Ireland. Talk us through a typical day in your life.

A typical day in my life is work, work, and work, as I consider myself a workaholic. I spend most of my time in the office, I attend conferences, various seminars, I have lectures all over Ireland, I see Irish politicians, civil servants, businessmen, scientists, academics and students to explain Poland's official position on matters that interest them, or to try to broaden co-operation between Poland and Ireland. I often write letters or articles that are later published in different Irish newspapers, I give TV and radio interviews or answer different queries. As far as my free time is concerned, I usually listen to music or watch DVDs. Since I have a little daughter, I try to spend with her as much time as possible.

If you could change three things about Irish society, what would you change and why?

Ireland is a very friendly, hospitable country. Poles here feel at home. I would not change much. What I do not like, probably like most of the Irish, are high prices, much higher than in Poland. I do not complain, however, about the weather. My impression is that it is only the Irish that complain about the weather - foreigners are happy with your variety of sunshine, storms, rain, and wind. I look forward to the end of the construction of the Port Tunnel, as it would save us a lot of time to reach the airport.

There are estimated to be over 100,000 Polish people living in Ireland, mostly in Dublin. What are their thoughts on Irish society?

Poles see a lot of similarities between Ireland and Poland. We are both Catholic countries, with similar history of oppression and semi-sovereignty, with a tradition of emigration. We have a similar sense of humour. We work hard, but we are able to have a good time.

Many European countries seem to have had problems with integrating minorities. Not too long ago in France for example there were race riots and this has occurred in Britain too, however Ireland hasn't had these kinds of problems. Why do you think that is?

Ireland has no huge problems with immigration because of many factors. In France, for instance, you have a sizeable marginalised Muslim community, which is a legacy of France's colonial past. Ireland has no colonial past. For Ireland immigration is a relatively new phenomenon. For France, Britain or Germany it isn't. Ireland is pragmatic and presents an attitude worthy of praise: "if you have a problem, solve it constructively". One example of such a positive attitude is a decision to give up the requirement of knowing the Irish language for Garda recruits - as a result more than 200 immigrants are being trained to serve the Irish and their national communities - this is a step towards a better integration. There are Polish shops, churches, school, and cultural centres in Dublin. We feel at home.

Not many Irish people would be familiar with how they are perceived in Poland. In Poland, how is Ireland viewed?

People in Poland love Ireland. It is a symbol of friendliness and European success. It is a hospitable and beautiful Emerald Island. People love Irish music, dancing, Guinness and whisky. We have Irish pubs in Poland, we celebrate St. Patrick's Day. A few folk music groups play Irish music. A lot of Irish trade and investment companies thrive in Poland. The Irish investment has exceeded 1 bln euro. Irish farmers lease land in Poland. There are a lot of mixed marriages. It's almost always a Polish girl and an Irish boy.

Ireland has done very well economically from the European Union. Poland of course joined the EU in 2004. What does Poland hope to achieve from its membership of the EU?

We hope to achieve from our membership of the EU exactly the same as in the case of Ireland. Ireland had hoped for positive changes when it joined the EEC in 1973. We had the same expectations in May 2004. Our membership is about prosperity, belonging to the same Western club of nations sharing identical values based on democracy. It enables us to have more influence on global affairs, our voice is heard better. Our membership lets us realise Poland's strategic aims, broaden co-operation in economic, political and cultural matters, use the benefits of the single market, develop faster. We have rights, but we also have responsibilities; we agree to pool a part of our national sovereignty. Our farming industry needs to modernise; our roads need to have higher standards. EU funds help us create a more modern Poland.

Ireland is very much influenced by its history and recent polls suggested that the majority of Irish people still favour a United Ireland. Would the Polish people coming into Ireland have much knowledge about this issue?

People coming to Ireland know little about history of Ireland. They have only basic knowledge. They know basic facts about the peace process, IRA, religious, political and social differences in the North, but it is very difficult for a foreigner to understand such a complicated matter. We are happy that the Good Friday Agreement has led people in the whole island to eliminate violence and to develop peacefully, in the spirit of understanding and solidarity.

In the future, Irish society is going to be made up of Polish-Irish, Chinese-Irish, Nigerian-Irish etc. How do you think this will affect Ireland?

Immigration affects each country. For example, in Poland we have a Vietnamese community. They have their restaurants, shops, places of worship. They are treated very well, as friends. We have refugees, too - from Chechenia, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc. Those people enrich our culture. If they work, they contribute to the wealth of our country. We respect them and embrace their diversity. We try to do our best to eliminate any signs of intolerance, racism and xenophobia.

A Polish figure who was very respected in Ireland was Pope John Paul II. How are Polish people viewing his successor, Pope Benedict XVI?

Pope Benedict XVI is widely respected and liked. He will visit Poland in May. It will be a special event for us. Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the closest friends of John Paul II and his valuable advisor. When you see TV pictures from the Vatican, a majority of visitors waving their national flags is still from Poland.

Recently the Irish State celebrated the 1916 Rising. What are your own thoughts on that?

We admired the events to commemorate Easter Uprising. For us it was a beautiful ceremony and an opportunity to deepen our knowledge about what happened in 1916. We look forward to the 100-th anniversary. We are happy those were peaceful and dignified events, so important in the endeavours to reach a lasting peace in the whole island.

What are your thoughts on the conflict in Iraq?

Iraq is a complex matter. Most people in Poland would rather see Polish troops withdraw from Iraq this year. Our decision to join the coalition forces was a difficult political decision, but we think that Poland, a member of Nato and the EU, needs to contribute to fighting oppression in different parts of the world. When we were under the communist rule, Solidarity Movement in Poland tried to make Poland a free, sovereign, and democratic country. We had a lot of assistance from abroad, from democratic peoples of the West. Iraq was the place where we thought it would be wise to help the oppressed people to remove Saddam Hussein, known for his atrocities. It was not just a threat of weapons of mass destruction that made us act. We look forward to seeing a prosperous, secure, sovereign Iraq, ruled by the Iraqis.

Ireland is known for its strong friendships with countries like the USA and Australia. Do you think one day Ireland and Poland will become just as close?

Ireland and the USA or Australia are very close for many reasons. The main factors are huge waves of Irish emigrants and the use of the same language. Poland and Ireland are slightly different in this respect, but our relations are excellent. They will develop further as we share a lot, and there are no serious disputes or differences between our countries. Polish immigration in Ireland makes our countries even closer. We are only different in our attitude towards defence, as Poland is a member of Nato. Poland and Ireland, being active partners in the EU, share a special bond with the USA.

Finally, I'd like to play a small round of word association. I'm sure you know what it entails. Basically just outline what word comes into your head when you hear the following names:

Bertie Ahern - excellent mediator; Westlife and successful novels (U know why)
Mary McAleese - Phoenix Park, fantastic woman, pride for Ireland, elegance
George W. Bush - Iraq, 9/11
Lech Walesa - Solidarity, moustache, Black Madonna
Witold Sobkow - .....

Next week, Irish Senator and former President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Joe O'Toole takes my questions. Be sure to keep clicking in to United Irelander for a firsthand look at Irish political life.


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