Diplomacy in the Time of COVID-19: Rallying around each other in tough times “Part of the Irish DNA”

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Consul-General David Costello imagines a bright post-coronavirus future with business breakfasts, virus-free air and Hong Kongers visiting the oldest whiskey distillery in the world on the Irish coast.

Photo: Giants Causeway courtesy of Mike Shaw / CC BY-SA.

Follow the Spyglass podcast to listen to the upcoming in-depth interview with Mr David Costello. For early access, please support us on Patreon.

The small team Irish Consulate in Hong Kong, established only five years ago, has a robust and far-reaching public diplomacy programme. The current Consul-General is Mr David Costello, appointed in 2018, is only Ireland’s second full-time Consul-General in Hong Kong. An avid reader of Irish and Hong Kong history, Costello is working alongside the consulate team and local Irish author Mark O’Neill on a book about Ireland’s role in Hong Kong’s historical development.

Costello’s background includes working in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, serving in the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government (1994-2008) and then briefly in the Roinn na Gaeltachta (the Government Department responsible for advancing the use of the Irish language).  He also was the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassies of Ireland in Bucharest (2010-2014) and Mexico City (2014-2018). Now, he is Ireland’s point man for COVID – and everything else – connected to Hong Kong and Macau.

What functions did you stop or slow in your office on the consular, trade, immigration or other fronts during the height of the pandemic?

The shutdown that Ireland and the rest of Europe has experienced over the past few months has never happened here in Hong Kong. So we haven’t had to close the office at all and public counters have remained open. Some services which relied on Dublin, such as our passport office, have been shut down since March when the city went into lockdown. 

Naturally, the demands on Consulate services have changed. For example, even though Ireland was the first country to agree to a working holiday visa regime with Hong Kong, demands for international travel facilities have diminished over the past few months and applications have tailed off.

Surprisingly, our trade in the first quarter is slightly up this time last year. While mainland China and Japan remain our largest trading partners in Asia, Hong Kong’s position as our third largest export destination, was consolidated rather than impacted by the coronavirus.

Were any additional functions needed to accommodate the virus situation?

Within the office we took extra measures to match with the needs of the situation and respect government guidance. For example, we suspended our walk in services and changed to an appointments only service. We have initiated a new cleaning regime, disinfecting the public counter area after every customer so that the next one can be sure that they are in a clean environment.

We put in place alternative team working arrangements. We divided our small team into two groups of three with teams coming in on a day-on day-off basis. This was to build-in some robustness into our working patterns because we were aware of government policy that all close contacts of a confirmed case could be subjected to mandatory quarantine. We also committed to limit social contact colleagues from our own team to ensure that the integrity of protecting each other was intact. It was quite difficult – with colleagues not seeing each other for two months! The working from home arrangements have been stopped now that Hong Kong is safer, but we are still operating on an appointments only service.

Nonetheless, we are not letting our guard down even though the threat of coronavirus has eased. An Irish company – Novaerus – have developed an air filtration system that kills airborne viruses, including coronavirus. It sterilises the air every half an hour or so and any viruses in the air, including coronavirus, it kills. We’ve just installed a Novaerus unit in our office to ensure that our customers have the highest standards of customer safety.

What kind of outreach measures has the office carried out to make services accessible to your nationals?

There’s a bit of a ‘love affair’ between Ireland and Hong Kong – we’ve had Irish people travelling to and making Hong Kong their home since the 1830s with many street names and landmarks paying tribute to the work that the Irish did here in the past.  In modern times, Hong Kong continues to be a popular destination for the Irish and is home to our biggest diaspora in Asia.

When the Irish come to Hong Kong, they feel its home and embed themselves well into the community.  By and large our community are professionals, many work as financial services and we have a significant number of teachers too. The Irish rally around very well in times of need, it’s just part of our DNA. When there’s a threat, we support each other first, the post-mortem can wait till a later date. In that regard, we at the consulate take on a leadership position, representing our community with the local authorities, but we’re glad that the community is largely self-sufficient and very supportive of one another.

Our diplomacy strategy during this period has been about being accessible, and accessibility is also part of the Irish DNA. We try not to make things overly bureaucratic – the community knows that they can come find us if they need us.  I personally try to be quite accessible and members of the community have access to my WhatsApp, LinkedIn and so on. I also tend to send out a regular bulletin every 4 to 6 weeks or so to the community in Hong Kong updating them on what’s happening back at home and to keep them apprised of our events in Hong Kong. 

Photo: Mr David Costello, Consul General of Ireland to HK, courtesy of the Irish Consulate.

Has your home office asked you to do anything differently or have you been asked to support the home country in any way due to Hong Kong’s largely safe position?

In many ways, Dublin has looked to Asia for guidance considering that we are ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of the spread of the coronavirus. Lessons learned in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo and elsewhere in the region are all being sent back to Dublin and adapted to the Irish context. This is being done out of multiple levels. We have a north Asian consular meeting on a weekly or fortnightly basis, we also speak directly to individual colleagues at headquarters, in addition to responding to the needs of businesses and non-governmental bodies inIreland.

One specific example is connecting the ‘Temple Bar’ region in Dublin where there are lots of bars and pubs, to Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong. Things such as facemask culture, hand-sanitizers, temperature checking, social distancing between tables – all of those experiences are very relevant for the trade back in Dublin. There’s currently a lot of work being done in Ireland on how to make pubs and restaurants safe again for visiting, so we’ve been facilitating direct businesses-to-business communication. Naturally, Irish businesses will be getting instructions from our health department, but we hope that our tangible experience in Hong Kong can help them be psychologically prepared for what’s to come.

In addition, we’ve been supporting the headquarter’s repatriation programme.  Ireland is not a very big country but we have a huge diaspora (not all passport holders), 70 million in fact, around the world and in that a large young travelling population.  So we have thousands of people that found themselves stranded in places like Australia, New Zealand and the Americas.  The Hong Kong government was very helpful and agreeable to us if we needed to use the airport for transit purposes. 

With the virus situation largely in control in Hong Kong, has the office been able to smoothly transition back to normal functioning?

By-and-large we’ve transitioned back to normal, though as mentioned we are still appointments only. It’s not a case of having to ‘open back up’ because we never really shut down.

There are still issues with our very active public diplomacy programme. For example, the first Friday of every month we open up the consulate here for a ‘Business Breakfast’. Any member of the community, friends of the community or even the general public – you don’t have to be Irish – are welcome to come in (we provide the coffee and pastries!). Anywhere from 20 to 80 people will come to our conference room to meet and network. We haven’t been able to do that recently due to social distancing regulations and we want to be fully respectful of the government guidelines.

However, we were aware that the restaurant sector has been allowed to have gatherings of larger than eight and so we’ve partnered with Irish food businesses which have been struggling to provide a workaround. For the Tuesdays in June, we have been hosting an “Irish Breakfast Club” with Delaney’s Irish Pub in Wanchai. These events are free of charge but you have to register with us in advance, the link is on our newsletter and also on the consulate’s LinkedIn and other social media – @IrelandinHK is the link to our Twitter feed.  We don’t take walk-ins because of social distancing regulations.

Have the UK visitor quarantine measures affected the Irish consulate at all? Considering that Ireland and Northern Ireland will, under the current plan, not have quarantine measures.

There’s no real issue, as there is a Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland. A key element of the Brexit debate was about ensuring there would not be a physical border infrastructure on the island of Ireland, and those principles apply in a time of COVID also. It’d be like trying to establish a border between Chai Wan and Admiralty – not going to happen.

COVID has impacted international travel and, in particular, the direct flight from Dublin to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Cathay was the first airline to connect Ireland to Asia in 2018. However, with no international travel, we have not seen direct flights in 2020. With no direct travel between Dublin to Hong Kong, London Heathrow is the natural stopover. Indeed, many people may not realise that Dublin-London is one of the busiest travel routes in the world, so anything that compromises the interconnectivity between Ireland and the UK just doesn’t make sense.

Do you find that more of your nationals are registering with your office than previously with regards to coronavirus, the protests and current national security legislation?

We don’t have a mandatory registration for our nationals. We have around 5,000 in our Hong Kong diaspora, and a mailing list of around 4,000 people though not all of them are Irish.  We do have a voluntary citizen’s register but there are only a couple of hundred people registered on it. I think we have quite good penetration amongst the community in terms of our engagement, so I don’t think many people feel the need to register officially with us. 

Does the consulate have any post-coronavirus plans for engagement in Hong Kong?

There’s a palpable appetite amongst Hong Kongers to start travelling again and I think when that happens, Ireland is well-positioned with its wide, open green spaces – the Wild Atlantic Way, the Cliffs of Moher, the Giant’s Causeway (made famous by Game of Thrones) – and low-density urban environments, which will fit the sort of holiday that Hong Kongers are attracted to. And, of course, Ireland is the home of Whiskey with the oldest distillery in the world in Bushmills, almost next door to the Giant’s Causeway.

I hosted a webinar a couple of weeks ago with the Trade and Tourism sector in Hong Kong hosted by Tourism Ireland and there has definitely been a lot of interest from Hong Kongers wanting to visit Ireland. As soon as international travel starts back up and people feel safe going on holidays again, we should see Ireland benefiting a lot from that.

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