The UK Consul General Angus McKee’s remarks at MERI: From Safe Haven to Shakespeare: the UK-KRI relations

At the end of his two year stint as Consul General to Northern Iraq and Kurdistan MERI hosted Angus McKee for a seminar entitled ‘From Safe Haven to Shakespeare: the UK-KRI relationship’.

In his opening statement McKee highlighted the importance of MERI as a safe space to engage with the issues and developments in the KRI; before going on to talk about the UK-KRI relationship and in particular the UK’s role in the fight against the Islamic State.

During the seminar, the Consul General also reflected on his time spent in Iraq fostering bilateral relations between the two countries.

Below is Angus McKee’s full remarks:

First let me say not only how delighted I am to be here, but how delighted I am that Erbil has Middle East Research Institute.  In my line of work – in all our lines of work, whether diplomacy, politics, media, business – we need to create space where we can think properly, learn from others, test theories, make mistakes even.  That is what good think tanks allow us to do.

But then let me say maybe it is not really a good idea for me to be here.  This is my last working day.  If I have anything of interest, anything of value to say about UK-Kurdistan Region relations, I will have said it already.  If not, I am not doing my job properly.

It is also not that good an idea for me to be here because I have had a relentless last few days.  I have said my goodbyes to Kurdish leaders – the President, Vice President, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, the leading parties, business leaders.  Not only in Erbil but also in Sulemani – I am the Consul General for all of Kurdistan Region.  I have seen diplomatic colleagues, friends old and new.  I went to see British soldiers, as part of the Coalition, training the Peshmerga in techniques for winning battles and saving lives.  And I have still being doing the day-job, getting our Consulate team together to discuss Mosul contingency planning, encouraging political dialogue, and so on.  So I am delighted to be here, but I feel I am on auto-pilot.  Kebab-fuelled auto-pilot maybe.  Plus I haven’t packed yet.

The British mission is not simply about Daesh, it needs a secure Iraq and a strong Kurdistan Region with regards to politics and economy.

Anyway, you are here, which suggests you think I might have something to say. And I did promise that I would talk about the relationship between my country, the United Kingdom, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. And I am happy to do so, because that relationship is the reason I have been here for two years.  And I believe it is a special relationship.

I think 1991 is as good a time as any to start.  It is within living memory for many of us in this room. But I’m not sure how many.  I am struck that probably over 50% of the population of Kurdistan Region might be under 25, and that is something we might want to talk more about later.  But I dwell on 1991 because I see that year as a turning point for Kurdistan Region’s relations with the wider world, and certainly with the UK.

1991 was a terrible time of course.  After the Iraqi army was forced out of Kuwait, the regime turned on its own people in the north and in the south, causing widespread death and displacement.  But the world did not stay silent, and Britain – led at the time by PM John Major – was at the forefront of international efforts, not only to pass the seminal UN Security Council resolution 688, which broke new ground in holding states to account for suffering within their own borders, but also for turning that piece of paper into a reality.  Military deterrence, humanitarian delivery.  We called our military effort Operation Haven although nowadays we remember it better by the American name Operation Provide Comfort.

I should emphasise of course that I am not trying to keep all credit for the British Government.  The KDP, PUK and Kurdish civil society were active then, as now.  In Britain, civil society – British and British-Kurdish – ensured the world did not turn a blind eye.  Many others in the world assisted too – Turkey and Iran were hosting refugees, and the US and French were among other key contributors.

Now I think all that matters because the events of 1991, and what followed, created the conditions which allowed Kurdistan Region to take root and, later, flourish, leading to what we have today.  You founded the Kurdistan Regional Government.  Britain had diplomatic contacts with your political leaders from that time – in country.  Of course times were tough in the 1990s and you fell back into conflict, but it did mean that when the regime was ousted in 2003 you were already in a better place than elsewhere in Iraq.

And indeed, since 2003 you have capitalised on your special status within Iraq, being recognised in the new Iraqi constitution, uniting your administrations, and prioritising your economic development.  In one decade, you achieved dramatic progress across a raft of economic and social indicators.

There are so many links between the UK and Kurdistan Region of Iraq with regards to business, culture, and academics. We have a great relationship.

Now we get to my arrival as the new Consul General – summer 2014.  Just as your world was shaken in fact.  I remember when I got the job that Erbil had been named one of National Geographic magazine’s Top New Destinations of 2014.  But by the time I was in place, Daesh had taken over Mosul, was advancing across the Ninewa plains, and just one month after I arrived was attacking the Peshmerga.  I remember that time well.

It is testament to the bravery and sacrifices of the Peshmerga, alongside that of the Iraqi Security Forces and the commitment of the international coalition, that two years on we are now in a very different place.  Daesh is losing territory.  Daesh is a failed state.  While the Coalition is united, Daesh is divided.

Now these few minutes are insufficient to talk about everything which has happened in the last two years, but let me say this – at a time of great difficulty for Kurdistan Region, and for Iraq, the United Kingdom has stepped up.  We have stepped up and strengthened your efforts in fighting Daesh, encouraging political unity, and strengthening your resilience at a difficult time.  And in doing so, the relationship between the United Kingdom and Kurdistan Region has strengthened further.  The relationship has widened and deepened.

Take our military support for example.  We have over 1,100 military personnel deployed across the Middle East as part of our Counter-Daesh effort.  In Iraq we have over 250 soldiers providing training – including to the Peshmerga.  Our most recent uplift in soldiers in Iraq was to provide vital training on bridging, hugely important given the destruction of bridges and the challenge of river crossing when advancing against the enemy.  The other day I saw some of the British soldiers here, training the Peshmerga as part of the coalition effort.  Across Iraq we are the coalition lead on counter-IED training, which has cut battlefield casualties dramatically.  And in addition to this, the air effort of the Royal Air Force in Iraq/Syria is second only to that of the USA, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in support of the Iraqi army and Peshmerga, as well as intelligence, surveillance and refuelling.

And as I said, Daesh is on the back foot.  It has lost territory, financial resource, and leadership.  We saw Fallujah liberated at the end of June.  Progress near Qayarah in recent weeks.  Coalition aircraft have destroyed an estimated $800m of Daesh cash stockpiles, as well as hitting oilfields.  The flow of foreign fighters has fallen by up to 90%, and desertions are increasing.

I could say more here but I will move on.  Because the UK effort in Iraq goes beyond a military contribution.  Many millions of Iraqis are displaced, including in Kurdistan Region.  Not only have we contributed some £79.5m of aid but we have worked to strengthen the response of the Iraqi Government and KRG.  Last week I visited the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Centre, established in 2015 to improve internal and external coordination.  The UK has supported the JCC from the outset with expertise, training and funding.  Most recently we seconded an expert to assist with the contingency plans needed, given that progress against Daesh is likely to lead to new, short-term displacement.  We are helping to stabilise areas liberated from Daesh, providing a safe environment for displaced people to remain home.

But our work here in Iraq is not simply about Daesh, because the UK’s national security is dependent on Iraq being secure, Kurdistan Region being secure.  And the strength of Iraq’s economy, and Kurdistan Region’s economy, matters to our economy too.  That is why the UK supports efforts to strengthen political unity in Iraq, including repairing the undeniably strained relationship between the central government and the KRG.  And encouraging the Kurdish parties to overcome their differences.  That is why we support the governments in both Baghdad and Erbil in embarking on difficult but necessary economic reforms, difficult because they require a shift from past models, but necessary because we are in an era of lower oil prices, and structural shortcomings in the economies here can no longer be ignored.

When talking about relations between the United Kingdom and Kurdistan Region, I don’t want to fall into a trap of focusing solely on links between our governments.  Because so much, so much of the UK-Kurdistan Region relationship is on other levels:  business links, parliamentarians, university academics, schools, musicians.  And much more.  And while it is not for us as a government, as diplomatic representatives to be running these, controlling these links, it is part of our job to encourage them, support them, and celebrate them.

And the Consulate General does that every week.  Just three days ago, I was in Sulemani unveiling the new Jaguar F-Pace, manufactured in Solihull (actually it was a sneak preview).  I see in the room an academic visiting from the UK, a political activist.  Yesterday I was emailing a British Museum archaeologist.

But beyond all those government-to-government, business-to-business and people-to-people links, I think there is something even more special.  It actually relates to a particular tribe.  I know tribal influence still has a bearing in this part of the world.  And this tribe is the Brit-Kurds.

Because back home in Britain there are Brit-Kurds active in public life.  In Parliament – the MP for Stratford-on-Avon of all places.  The arts.  Industry.  The NHS.  And it is the same here in Kurdistan Region:  in the Cabinet, ministries, universities, businesses… in the most unlikely of places.  From Zakho to Halabja, and everywhere in between.   British university graduates, British passport holders.  As I reflect on my time in Kurdistan Region, on the work of the Consulate, I sometimes wish we were able to do more to connect with this tribe.

But let me conclude the talk by getting on to Shakespeare.  The title I gave at the start was “From Safe Havens to Shakespeare”.  And I put it in because this year, 2016, is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.   Already in Kurdistan Region we have seen plays – two exemplary productions, of Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream – as well as film screenings and a conference.

The British Council works to improve education, provides scholarships and helps improve the exam system in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

But when I mention Shakespeare, I am not talking about the past, but about the future.  Because when the British Council launched Shakespeare Lives in Iraq, it was not to lay flowers on Shakespeare’s grave, figuratively.  Not even simply to celebrate the beauty of the English language, beautiful though it is.  But also to put a spotlight on the economic value of the English language, the importance of education – both for the resident population and also the displaced, to inspire kids and university students (as well as older generations).

Because UK support to Kurdistan Region is not backward looking, but rather forward looking.  We know that the kids coming out of high school now are the first generation to enjoy an education free from the shadow of dictatorship and uninterrupted by war.  We know that you have some way to go in raising education standards, teaching standards even.  In ensuring graduates have the skills companies want.  We know your old economic model is no longer sustainable.  The large public sector is not affordable, and in any case it was unproductive.  The private sector must be given more space.  International investors need to be encouraged to return, not by a new investment law, but by rule of law.

And that is why the UK is active in many areas that might not grab the headlines, but do help your government and society work for a more stable, prosperous future.  The British Council works to raise the quality of English teaching,  exam standards, and vocational training.  We offer more UK Government Chevening scholarships than ever before – and next month launch the scheme for 2017.  The Westminster Foundation is supporting your Integrity Commission, and is keen to resume support to your Parliament as soon as it can – for it is essential the political parties reach a new consensus, restore political civility, and rehabilitate the institution of parliament.

When I say all that, I start to think no wonder I am tired.  No wonder I am being wheeled off, batteries depleted, after two years here.  But rest assured, my successor, the team in the British Consulate General, the military training mission, the British Council, the British business community, that formidable tribe the Brit-Kurds, and many more.  Their efforts will continue.  The relationship will endure.  The Ambassador and I made that very clear when we called on His Excellency President Barzani yesterday – we are with Kurdistan Region, and wider Iraq, in the fight against Daesh, and after that fight; in the good times and the not-so-good times;  Brexit will not diminish that – quite the opposite.

And I in turn, back in London, will remain forever a friend of, and a friend to, Kurdistan Region.

Thank you.

The video recording of this seminar will be available soon.

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