Carroll is still getting his feet under the table since becoming Ireland’s ambassador to Sweden last February.
A veteran of the Department of Foreign Affairs since 1975, it’s no surprise that Carroll has a penchant for travelling as he is a native of Dun Laoghaire in Dublin Bay which once played host to the Vikings.
Contributor Patrick Reilly caught up with a recent visit by the ambassador to Lund in southern Sweden to find out more about Carroll’s impressions of Sweden so far and how his current posting compares to his previous post in the West Bank.
The Local: You were Ireland’s Representative to the Palestinian National Authority before coming to Sweden. How did you end up here?
James Joseph Carroll: In my last job I was in Palestine for three and a half years and Sweden had the European Union Presidency in the second half of 2009 which was a very important period. Nobody did more on [Middle East] issues so I was working very closely with my Swedish colleagues and it struck me that on my next assignment I would ask to come here.
TL: From Ramallah to Stockholm is a radical departure. Are there any similarities between here and your previous post?
JJC: I think there is a lot of respect for rights. One thing I learned from the Palestinians is that they have an innate acceptance that there are God given rights and they feel that history has denied them these. They feel that in the fullness of time, and when justice is done, their rights will be vindicated. I think that strikes a chord in Sweden.
When Sweden had the EU chairmanship in 2009, the best document that the European community had on the issues was written, so that is a tribute to their solidarity with rights.
TL: Have you seen much of Sweden since taking up the role last February?
JJC: I’m trying to, as I promised my office that I would make three or four significant visits in my first year. I’ve been sort of attracted by universities so I went to Uppsala, Gothenburg and Lund.
I also went to Dalarna to get the heart of [Swedish consumer goods retailer] Clas Ohlsson and that kind of stuff.
TL: In Gothenburg you gave a lecture about the parallels between Ireland’s recent economic crisis and Sweden’s crisis in the 1990s.
JJC: We are learning from the Swedes. The Swedish economy overheated in the early 1990s where you had a property bubble that hurt a lot of people when it collapsed.
We allowed something quite similar to happen in Ireland but later. Greed gets out of hand and we let these bank owners really ride the horses to hell.
As Ireland is a part of the eurozone and subject to the rules of the European Central Bank, we don’t have quite the latitude that the Riksbank had to tackle the issues. The Irish Central Bank hired two leading economists from the Riksbank, Stefan Gerlach and Lars Frisell, who’ve come through that and learned the lessons. They are both extremely helpful to us.
Ireland now has export growth. We have a surplus in the national earnings so we have a positive national income. The real challenge is employment and debt.
TL: How strong are the relations between Ireland and Sweden?
JJC: Both nations are akin and have a close rapport. If you look at the European family – the ones who signed the treaty – Ireland is the most open economy and Sweden is the second. We’re both highly dependent on free trade, trade rules, and having the opportunity to do business unfettered from obstructionism.
Ireland and Sweden share the same values as we’ve come from Christendom and also from Greco-Roman law. We are both earning our keep by the sweat of our brow so we do things very similarly.
TL: Ireland changed the rules on the size of retail buildings to allow Ikea to build a giant superstore in Dublin in 2007. How are commercial links between the two countries?
JJC: We have Ericsson, which has a very important plant in Ireland that employs hundreds of people writing creative software. There is also Oriflame cosmetics, which has a presence.
Aer Lingus has restored its route to Stockholm after pulling out around 2001. They are also flying to again to Copenhagen, which is handy for southern Sweden. When the Stockholm route returned last March we had a Riverdance party at the gate!
You can also go from Skavsta with Ryanair, which is packed every day.
There are around 2,000 Irish citizens in Sweden and I suppose now with the downturn in Ireland there are some professionals coming over here.
TL: What impression do Swedes have of Ireland based on your time in the job so far?
JJC: It seems to be a warm and positive assessment. They sense that, in Ireland, the living is reasonably good, people value cultural and personal development, sport, and they get to enjoy life a bit.
But I think in Ireland we are a little bit less formal.
TL: Have you been surprised in the rise of Gaelic football in Sweden?
JC: I know the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) very well, which is the largest Irish cultural association in the world. It has a huge reach even though the game is only played in Ireland. One of my colleagues plays as a goalkeeper with the Stockholm Gaels. It’s terrific as it has all the attributes of exercise and comradeship but is also a marvellous network throughout Sweden.
TL: What do you think Ireland could learn from Sweden?
JJC: One thing I admire about the Swedes is their self-reliance and resilience. They have a very strong ability to get things done when it comes to discipline and time.
I met the man who was the chief executive of Ericsson when the dotcom bubble burst. He told me that he had to cut Ericsson in half overnight in order to survive. It’s now an €18 billion ($23.5 billion) corporation while previous competitors Motorola and Nortel are gone. That resilience and self-belief is something I admire.
TL: The Irish government closed a number of embassies including one in the Vatican recently to cut costs. Is there any threat to the office in Stockholm?
JJC: I don’t think so. When money is tight, it’s tough to take difficult decisions and some weren’t ideal.
There isn’t a Swedish embassy in Dublin – it closed in 2010 – but we do have a very active Swedish ambassador to Ireland, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, who is in Ireland a great deal of the time.
Sweden has also put a full-time minister-counsellor to run Swedish affairs in Dublin as of the start of November, and there is every possibility that the Swedish embassy in Ireland will reopen.
TL: How do you see the relationship between Ireland and Sweden going forward?
JJC: Ireland has to chair the European Union Presidency for six months from January 1st and it will be my role to lead that. I believe in leading from common ground and not from issues that are of excessive interest to Ireland, but something that interests everybody such as employment.
We share many political positions and anytime I have the honour of meeting [Swedish Foreign Minister] Carl Bildt we have a high degree of assimilation on policy as we face the same issues. Sweden wants the European family to work, as does Ireland.
There is also the small matter of a World Cup qualifier when Ireland comes to Sweden on March 22nd, so may the best team win!