It’s more than 30 years since I set off, still a teenager, to travel across Eastern Europe. It was 1981 and this was a journey through the ‘other’ part of my continent, a place that should have afforded me the familiarity of a developed First World landscape but an experience which was instead, at times, more strange and alien than travelling in Latin America or Asia. Why? Because of communism and totalitarianism.

Younger generations now find it hard to grasp such a system and society, where almost everyone was working for the State, there was no advertising, no private business, shortages everywhere, and strange hoardings and banners adorned with communist symbols.

Yet this was what I saw as I went across Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany that summer. It wasn’t all bad – people were friendly and left you alone, and there did seem to be good public housing and public transport. But it was unquestionably a different world.

Changes would eventually come in these countries, encouraged by the ‘glasnost’ reforms of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. And so, in the late 1980s, the protests and marches grew in intensity and, in the end, the final, irreversible change came with people climbing on top of a dividing wall – the Berlin Wall – and then destroying it. Twenty-five years ago next week.

I was a 26-year-old diplomat working on the East European desk in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin when the Wall fell and it was a very exciting time in which Ireland, and its then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, played a crucial role.

This may, indeed, be an under-reported fact for us, but it has certainly not been forgotten in Germany. In 2000, on the tenth anniversary of German re-unification, the then German Foreign Minister thanked Ireland for its immediate support for the project and said that they would ‘never forget it’.

Ireland is a small country, but because of fate and the European Union, we were central to the unfolding events of that time. In the months after the opening up of the Berlin Wall, Ireland held the rotating Presidency of the EU (then the EC, or European Community), a much bigger deal then than it is now, in what was also a less centralised EU, with only 12 members. So it was a major responsibility, and as events escalated we were kept very busy at the East European desk in Dublin, drafting EU statements and speeches.

For example, because of these events, the Irish, very unusually, had two separate EU summits in Dublin. The second one was ostensibly on the issue of German unification alone. Again, these were major affairs with big personalities involved – Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. But crucially, the Irish government supported German unification – or re-unification, as the Germans saw it.  This was in marked contrast to France and the UK, and other EU states, which wanted a major go-slow on such unity. But Haughey saw, presumably, the parallels with a divided Ireland, and was fully and demonstrably supportive of the German case for immediate unity.


Having fought two world wars with Germany, British and French resistance was understandable. They were worried about German expansionism and Mitterand even quoted the old but wise joke: ‘I like Germany so much I’d prefer to have two of them.’ And even at the Dublin summit, Kohl didn’t ease those fears by likening the momentum for German unity to a ‘river that cannot be stopped.’

Kohl was right, of course, the German people were literally pouring over the Wall, but it was not the sort of language which reassured outsiders. Other European states were also worried that a reunited Germany, having got their way, might abandon the European project. But actually, the opposite was the case, and here the quick-thinking Haughey provided reassurance. He saw that securing German unity within the EU was the way around these fears and those Dublin summits thus cleared the way for the territory of then East Germany to join the European Community as part of a unified Germany later that year. And with no conditions or treaty changes.

Haughey saw that the heartfelt desire of Germans to come together was irresistible and peaceful. Communism had collapsed, there was need for negotiations. Unlike the wary Eurocrats, he was moved by the German story. ‘We have to stop the German bully,’ Thatcher told him, but he ignored her. Haughey was also a leader who, for all his faults, had real imagination and can-do. He also understood symbolism, and the sense of a moment, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the coming together of the German peoples was one of those historic moments.  Haughey got it, in other words.


The Germans were grateful for his full support and, at the second EU summit in Dublin Castle, I watched, as an eager official, as the arriving and very happy Kohl (pictured above) practically bear-hugged Haughey on the Castle’s Battle Axe landing! Six years later, Kohl was back in Dublin, addressing the Dail, and he was still thanking Haughey (and Ireland) for the stout support on German unity.

Though it was economically costly to West Germany, the re-unification was completely peaceful, as was the transition from communism. But it might easily have been different. The East German leader Erich Honecker was fully prepared to use military force to secure his communist regime, until he was ousted by his own politburo. We could have had the bloodbath of the 1988 Tiananmen Square massacre re-enacted in Berlin. Or the violence we witnessed in Romania and the full-scale war in Yugoslavia. But we didn’t. Germany didn’t go that way, as Haughey anticipated.

A year later, I went to New York to work at the United Nations, and there I continued to witness the dramatic changes. In the famous UN General Assembly where I sat, new seats had to be created, for example, for the three Baltic republics that were breaking from the Soviet Union.

I attended the ‘Two + Four’ Conference, where the two Germanies and the four World War Two powers of the UK, US, France and the Soviet Union signed into existence a new Germany – and a new Europe. After the signing, the various Foreign Ministers (Shevardnadze, Hurd etc) clinked champagne glasses. I, meanwhile, went up and snatched some mini-flags from the table as souvenirs! I still have them, along with the ‘German Democratic Republic’ nameplate, from its last day of existence. The next day, at the UN, we all had to move down one seat, as the GDR was gone, subsumed by its larger neighbour.

Within a year, Haughey was gone from office in Ireland. Financial revelations have, of course, damaged his legacy, but his reputation in other respects is secure, not least his immediate and whole-hearted support for German unity at a time when substantial European interests were determined against it.


On the tenth anniversary of the decision to immediately bring the GDR directly into the EU, the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle (above), described it as an ‘immensely important step, largely promoted by our Irish friends. It was a real milestone in the unification process.’ Switching to English, he then added: ‘Thank you very much for what your country did for German unification. It was important in our history and we will never forget it’.

Last year I was back in Berlin and out walking one day along the old dividing line of this great city, once scarred by a concrete wall, barbed wire and armed sentries, all symbols of brutal division. Not only of a city, but of an entire continent and, indeed, of the whole world which, for almost 50 years, was split into two competing blocs, that of the West and capitalism and democracy and an East that was communist and authoritarian.

And this was its fault line, right where I was walking: a famous stretch of the old Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse. Nowadays it is landscaped and has very moving memorials and displays indicating where people waved at each other across the abyss, sometimes trying to run across No Man’s land, only to be shot – simply for seeking freedom.

As I walked there that day, I thought of all the changes in Europe since that time, but also in my own life. When I first came here in 1981, I was an intensely curious backpacker travelling Eastern Europe. Now I was back, with a family, my sons playing inside bits of the Wall. My wife had an artist’s residency and we were living in an art gallery/apartment right next to the old division of the city. It was utterly haunting. Berlin has that quality. It is full of ghosts.

But I was also thinking of that famous moment in November 1989 when the Wall finally came down.


It’s history now, but, 25 years on, we should remember that time and reflect on how far we have come, despite all the problems in present-day Europe. We forget too quickly how people in our divided continent once lived without individual freedom, free speech or democracy. We take these things for granted, but people went to prison for it in Eastern Europe, and died for it in Romania and in the Soviet Union.

After my walk that day amid the ruins of the old Berlin Wall, I went into a café to toast German unity. And the Irish Premier who had a small but crucial part in it all.

Haughey’s tastes may have leaned more towards champagne rather than the coffee I drank that day, but he would, I am sure, have appreciated the gesture.