NATO expansion a huge factor in why Russia is in Ukraine - claims former ambassador Jim Sharkey
“The war in Ukraine is not justifiable. It is a disaster, for Europe, for Russia and, above all, for Ukraine.”
These were the words of former Ireland Ambassador to Russia, Derry man Jim Sharkey who was speaking to Derry Now as the conflict entered its third week.
A former pupil of St Columb's College, Mr Sharkey, who was appointed the first official representative of the Irish people in Moscow in 1974 and re-appointed in 2001, said the main priority was to find a way to bring peace, stop the conflict and find a solution which would stabilise the whole situation in central Europe.
He added: “NATO expansion is a huge factor in why Russia is currently in Ukraine.
“The war in Ukraine is not justifiable. No war is justifiable. It is a disaster for Europe, for Russia and for Ukraine above all.
“We are into a period when, God forgive us, there is always the danger of somebody miscalculating. NATO has been very careful to emphasis that, despite the demands of the Ukrainians, it is not going into Ukraine because it is not going to war with Russia.
“I am somewhat relieved NATO spokespeople and the Americans keep saying they are not going to war but you still feel nervous because there is always some risk of miscalculation.
“Sanctions work in a punitive but not a preventative sense. The solution will come from the Germans and the French creating space to negotiate with Russia, the United States and Ukraine. In a recent article, journalist Fintan O'Toole wrote there could be a divided Ukraine in NATO or a united, neutral Ukraine.
“I hope the sides are not too far apart because I believe in diplomacy and I believe in human creativity and the ability of long term thinking to find short term solutions.”
The former Ambassador said as an Irish person, he had to fully recognise Ukraine's right to exist.
He elaborated: “However, that is not the same as saying there are no intimacies between Russia and Ukraine.
“In terms of Irish foreign policy, for example, we would never think of joining any alliances opposed to England.
“While we may not fully understand it, the idea of Ukraine joining NATO would be like Canada joining an alliance hostile to the United States of America.
Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
“I hope that peace can be found and a ceasefire will come into play and negotiations can continue for a formal solution. European diplomacy and the citizens of Ukraine demand this,” he said.
When he is not commenting on international affairs, Jim Sharkey, is steeped the the heritage of his maternal homeplace, Urris, the last Gaeltacht in Inishowen.
“My maternal line comes from Urris,” said Jim Sharkey. “They were Boyle's and Doherty's. You know the Derry saying, 'My granny was Doherty,' well both my grannies were Doherty.
“I have been going to Urris since I was born. My mother, Mary-Anne (née Boyle) like many Clonmany people left to work in Derry in the shirt factories.
“She met my father at that time. He was Willie Sharkey from Rossville Street. They had a wee shop in Rossville Street, run by my aunt Bridie, which was burnt down during The Battle of the Bogside (1969).
“Although she left Urris physically, I don't think, like most Urris people, she ever left it spiritually. Even when I was a kid, I vaguely remember it, she would fill a lorry with furniture and head down to Urris for the summer months. I have the old family cottage in Urris now, which I modernised a bit. The McGonigle's are my cousins in Urris.
“I have a big interest in the folklore of Urris. It is a very interesting area. It was the last Gaeltacht area in Inishowen. Roger Casement learned his Irish in Urris and there was an Irish school there up until the 1920s. Brian Friel's father learned his Irish there, as well as Bishop Neil Farren.
“It was very good Irish too. It was praised by John O'Donovan, the Irish scholar of the Nineteenth Century who was part of the ordnance survey system, a bit like what is portrayed in Brian Friel's play Translations, which was set in Urris.”
According to Jim, Irish survived in Urris until the turn of the Twentieth Century.
Jim's great grandmother was actually mentioned in the folklore of Urris.
He said: “Nelis Ann Friel was one of the last seanchaithe in Urris. He gave interviews and told stories to people like Professor Heinrich Wagner, professor of Celtic at Queen’s University, Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s and Professor O'Toole of Trinity, who collected Irish dialects in Tyrone and Urris.
“A series of Urris folktales was also recorded in Irish and translated into English by a Church of Ireland minister, Cosslett Ó Cuinn, Scian a caitheadh le toinn: Scéalta agus amhráin as Inis Eoghain agus cuimhne ar Ghaeltacht Iorrais.
“Charles McGlinchey, who wrote The Last of the Name, spoke about the Irish going, disappearing as fast as snow off the ditches. His mother was from Urris.
“I am very interested in all of this heritage. I opened the Lands of Eoghain Festival before Covid hit us and inaugurated the Cholmcille Walk in August 2021 with Rosemary Moulden, my former next door neighbour in Urris.”
Jim believed, from Dublin, Inishowen seems marginal or peripheral. However, he argued, in terms of the great sweep of Irish history, Inishowen, right up to the late middle ages and maybe as far as the Ulster Plantation and beyond, was very central to Irish and Irish Scottish history.
Recalling his diplomatic service in Russia he said, the first time he was there it was the Soviet Union.
“It was a great muscular power, with armaments capability to threaten the world, a superpower along with the United States,” he said.
“I was the John the Baptist of the Irish Embassy. I was the first official representative of the Irish people in Moscow, a great honour. However, I also saw the failings of the system because I was dealing with the nuts and bolts.
“The second time I went back it was after the fall of the Soviet Union and after Yeltsin had given control to his protégé, Vladimir Putin. Putin's job was to rescue Russia because it was in very bad shape. There were food shortages, bank collapses, pensioners not getting paid, teachers not getting paid.
“Putin came in to rescue the system around 2000. I saw a lot of the regeneration and recovery programme, which made him the darling of the Russians. He saved Russia. But this also made him the darling of the West.”
“Between 2000 to 2006, everybody was queuing up to meet with Putin. George Bush had looked into his soul and seen God. He was an admired figure,” said Mr Sharkey, who witnessed the progressive alienation between Russia and the West, which he said was caused by growing distrust on both sides.
Mr Sharkey will be the keynote speaker at an event being hosted tonight by St Columb's College marking the 1500th anniversary of Derrys patron saint, St Columba (Colmcille).
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