Forging Bonds: Ambassador Gary Gray delves into Ireland-Australia Sports Diplomacy

Ambassador Gary Gray (DFAT Images)

Talking Foreign Affairs recently conducted a sports diplomacy exchange focusing on Australia-Ireland relations. It featured The Corrs, a renowned Irish Band as well as The West Coast Eagles, a team in the Australian Football League (AFL). In the lead up to the initiative, TFA also collaborated with the Australian Embassy in Ireland.

During his visit to Perth in January 2024, TFA had the opportunity to interview Ambassador Gary Gray, Australia’s Ambassador to Ireland. We sat down with Ambassador Gray to discuss the relationship between Ireland and Australia, as well as the role of sports diplomacy.

Ambassador Gary Gray has been serving as Australia’s ambassador to Ireland since August 2020, when he presented his credentials to President Michael Higgins. Prior to this role, he served as a Member of the Australia Parliament for 9 years and held Ministerial portfolios in Tourism and Resources. He has also been a senior executive at Woodside Energy.

The Role of Sports in the Bilateral Relationship

One notable similarity between Irish and Australian culture is their strong emphasis on community. Ambassador Gray pointed out that sports, particularly GAA and AFL, play a significant role in both countries. The similarities between AFL and Irish sports, such as Gaelic football (GAA), allow Irish players to bring a unique contribution to the game. This has been evident in the recruitment of 33 Irish players for the 2023 AFLW season, which has, in Ambassador Gray’s opinion, enhanced understanding between the two countries.

“The Irish players have renovated how the game has been played, bringing unique ball skills and physicality to the game” he remarked. He also highlighted how this has increased excitement among fans. Similarly, in rugby, Ambassador Gray reflected on how both Ireland and Australia have benefited from a close bilateral relationship. Throughout the years, Irish athletes and coaches have joined Australian clubs, and vice versa.

As Ambassador Gray noted, “Sports helps build mutual respect through shared passions.” He observed that rugby and cricket have acted as catalysts for cooperation between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Likewise, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has provided a sense of community for the Irish diaspora scattered across the globe. Supported by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, the GAA serves as the first point of contact for newly arrived Irish emigrants. The Ambassador emphasising that Ireland have been able to utilise the potential of sports diplomacy.

The Ambassador also mentioned the presence of Australian scouts in Ireland who attend local competitions to discover potential talent for the AFL. This talent pipeline shows great promise for collaboration between the two countries in the realm of sports. “There have been numerous diplomatic opportunities because of sport” Ambassador Grey notes.

Media coverage is further evidence of the interest Australian sport holds in Ireland. Ambassador Gray noted that state broadcasterTG4, a prominent Irish television channel, regularly broadcasts AFL and AFLW games, providing free-to-air coverage to a wide audience.

General Reflections

Speaking on the broader-relationship, Ambassador Gray highlights the deep historical roots which trace back to Irish migration into Australia. “There are around 2.6 million Australians that claim Irish Descent, that’s around 10% of the Australian population”.  This is evident with the influence it has had on the politics and law of Australia, he notes.

The economic partnership between both countries remains a strong pillar. The Ambassador underscored the significant trade links that benefit both countries. For instance, Ireland stands as an essential market for Australian agricultural products such as beef and wine. In return, Australia serves as a key destination for Irish exports, including pharmaceuticals and technology. This bilateral trade has not only strengthened economic cooperation but also paved the way for collaboration in the innovation and technology sectors, enhancing both nations’ competitive advantages on the global stage.

The interview provided insight into diplomatic collaboration between Australia Ireland as they tackle global challenges together. These two nations consistently work together in international forums, advocating for important issues such as cyber security, climate change and peacekeeping. Both countries showing a strong engagement to the multilateral system.

The Ambassador stressed the significance of ongoing dialogue and cooperation between Australia and Ireland, emphasising the mutual advantages derived from their enduring friendship and shared values.