City desk

When Should the City Accept Gifts from Foreign Governments?

Back in February, council officials floated the idea of a memorial in the Peace Park near Christ Church Cathedral.

The government of Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, had offered the monument to remember the 50,000 Irish soldiers who died on Flanders Fields during the First World War.

At the time, independent Councillor Mannix Flynn objected. Dublin City Council’s Parks Department “accepted this gift without it going through any proper process”, he says.

Gifts from foreign governments can be problematic, Flynn says. In his view, the memorial in question had a political bent.

The debate around it shows that the city government needs a clear policy on what gifts it accepts, which it rejects – and who decides, says Flynn.

At the moment, who gets the final say on whether or not a present is given back depends on the nature of the gift, and can fall between different departments.

No Thanks

In September 2015, the ambassador of Georgia offered the city a kveri, a large clay pot. It fell to Public Art Manager Ruairí Ó Cuiv to accept it or not.

One of Ó Cuiv’s jobs is to decide on issues around public artworks and sculpture.

Georgia’s ambassador suggested that the large jar – which is used in traditional Georgian winemaking with a method that has been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List – be displayed in one of Dublin’s parks.

Ó Cuiv had to recommend whether to accept or reject Georgia’s offer. “While this beautiful and valuable cultural object might be robust in many ways, it is probably too fragile to place in a public park,” he wrote in a council report at the time.

It could be vandalised or stolen, wrote Ó Cuiv. So, in the absence of a civic museum, Georgia’s offer was rejected.

Soon after, a giant egg landed on Ó Cuiv’s desk.

Croatia’s ambassador offered Dublin a decorative Easter egg for display indoors or outdoors. Again, there was “no obvious location for the permanent display of such a gift” in Dublin, wrote Ó Cuiv.

So Croatia’s offer was rejected too.

Pens, Bottles, Plates

Former lord mayors of Dublin, too, have been offered an array of diplomatic trinkets.

Bottles of wine, pens and ornaments. And the odd Chinese vase, says Labour Councillor Andrew Montague, who occupied Mansion House in 2011.

“You’d get a range of gifts,” he says. “You do get a huge amount of presents.”

But, generally, independent Councillor Christy Burke, who was lord mayor in 2014, says “They’d be very small gifts.”

A set of delft plates, for example. “They’re nothing to write home about,” says Burke. “Put it this way, I never brought any of them home.”

To avoid any misunderstanding, says Burke, the way it works that if a gift if given to a person, say “to Christy Burke” then they get to keep it.

If a gift is offered “to the house” it remains within the Mansion House.

Labour’s Montague says he left most the gifts he received during his mayoral term at the Mansion House where he assumes “there’s a vault full of them”.

Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t get back to queries about the policy around gifts, or to a request for a list of gifts offered to the council.

Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, who was lord mayor in 2002, said he remembers problems cropping up when Mexican sculptor Sebastían offered his geometric piece An Cailín Bán to Dublin – issues with where to put the work.

“That offer came from the Mexican government,” Lacey says. “In the end it was unveiled on Sandymount Strand.” It’s now known locally as The Mexican Wave.

A Policy

Still today, disputes around gifts to the city continue.

Lacey says a “Chinese garden” that was part of the 2016 Bloom festival is likely to be installed in Herbert Park in Ballsbridge later this year.

It’s a gift from the Chinese embassy. Dublin is a twin city of Beijing, says Lacey.

Flynn, however, says he isn’t convinced the city should accept this gift, either. “Basically what we’ve got is a piece of garden furniture from Bloom, from the Chinese embassy, masquerading as a gift,” he says.

Councillors may debate the issue of diplomatic gift-giving soon and draw up a policy, says Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney, who heads up the council’s protocol committee.

“It’s an issue, especially in relation to the Flanders memorial,” says Heney. “That one kept on resurfacing and going around in circles.”

Lacey says he isn’t sure that’s needed, though. “I’m not convinced. These matters require a degree of flexibility.”

Cónal Thomas portrait
Cónal Thomas

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at cthomas@dubinq.com

 

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