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Irish diplomats at ease in harsh glare of UN spotlight

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Washburn

Ireland today is one of the most dynamic players in international diplomacy. This fact came across in an illuminating talk Joseph Skelly gave recently at the American Irish Historical Society. After hearing Skelly’s talk, no one could think that Ireland’s small size keeps it on the margins of world affairs, or that Ireland’s clout is a new phenomenon. Skelly traced the impact of independent Irish diplomacy at the United Nations, a tradition extending from the 1950s to the present day.

A professor at Iona College and the author of "Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations, 1945-65," Skelly spoke before an audience that included three members of Ireland’s UN Mission: Anne Barrington, John Deady and Col. Donie O’Regan. His talk was a tribute to their achievements — and to the Irish leaders whose heirs they are.

When the Soviet Union lifted its veto on Ireland’s entry to the UN in 1955, opportunities opened up for a generation of gifted diplomats represented by the likes of Freddy Boland, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Sheila Murphy, and Frank Aiken. Skelly said that scholars long overlooked the work of these men and women, but now that has changed thanks to the National Archives in Dublin, which offers access to letters, dispatches, confidential reports, and other documents not available in the past. Today the public can fully appreciate Irish efforts on behalf of political freedom and global stability.

With the help of slides showing the diplomats in action in the rooms and hallways of the UN in the 1950s and ’60s, Skelly analyzed the aims of Irish diplomacy. To these men and women, the UN was a forum for advancing not only Ireland’s interests but also those of other nations and peoples. For a time, they applied their energies to winning the Cold War, sharply condemning the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

But with the threat of nuclear conflict looming large, Irish diplomats grew concerned with the need to reduce international tension. Skelly saw 1957 as a turning point. With the ascension of Eamon de Valera and the Fianna Fáil party, Ireland could no longer be counted on to vote with the U.S. all the time, as seen in the controversy over whether the mainland Chinese government or Taiwan should get a seat at the UN. In the past, the Irish delegation had consistently sided with the U.S. in backing Taiwan. In an abrupt shift, Frank Aiken told the delegation to vote in favor of allowing discussion of the question — to the dismay of Henry Cabot Lodge and other American diplomats for whom there was simply nothing to discuss. But Aiken made peace with Lodge, and the two went on to enjoy excellent relations. Skelly ventured to guess that Britain and other NATO members even quietly approved of the Irish decision.

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Ireland also seized the spotlight as a mediator "between North and South" — between Europe and the Asians and Africans who sought freedom and independence. This role derived, Skelly said, from Ireland’s "historical memory" as a small nation which has had to fight for its freedom. The treatment of subjects in Europe’s colonies drew the concern of the Irish at the UN. In particular, some of South Africa’s Apartheid laws reminded the Irish of the penal code under which they had had to live in a past era. Arguing that the Irish should be guided by their history — and that blacks in South Africa were facing the same kind of treatment Cromwell had meted out to the Irish — Freddy Boland advised the Irish delegation to co-sponsor the first proposal aimed at denouncing the apartheid system.

Complicating the Irish campaign against Apartheid were the special economic ties between Ireland and South Africa. In 1960, the year Boland served as president of the General Assembly, the idea of sanctions against South Africa had many supporters. Faced with a proposal for restrictions on South African imports into their country, the Irish diplomats decided that Ireland would simply suffer too much from such a ban, and shot the proposal down. To Skelly, the pattern that emerges from the Irish diplomatic history of this period is a refusal to follow any pattern at all — a desire for total diplomatic independence. Ireland was so serious about this that it did not even join the "nonaligned" movement of countries like India, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia. Yet Ireland still continued to play an important part in the Cold War, searching a Czech plane for weapons after it landed in Shannon en route to Cuba. According to Skelly, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of the late 1960s arose out of Irish efforts.

Although he admitted that Ireland’s influence during the Cold War was modest at times, Skelly stressed that Ireland was "not found wanting" when it came to showing support for political independence and self-government, the reduction of tensions, and nuclear non-proliferation. In the period since the end of the Cold War, Ireland has not been found wanting, either — particularly on nuclear non-proliferation, human rights, decolonization, and refugee relief. More than 25 years after Ireland joined the European Union, the iconoclastic spirit is still going strong. Ireland is behind a bold new nuclear weapons initiative involving South Africa, New Zealand, and other nations. In her capacity as the UN’s leading human rights official, former Irish President Mary Robinson faces what Skelly calls a "difficult task," since many view human rights as a nuisance rather than a priority. Ireland is taking the lead on "decolonization" issues like freedom for East Timor. At a time when many Western countries are increasingly wary of accepting Third World immigrants and refugees, Ireland plans to do even more to accommodate families who flee from foreign disasters.

Skelly began his talk by quoting the British magazine The Economist, which recently lauded Ireland as "the Celtic Tiger" and as "Europe’s shining light," descriptions that apparently refer to Ireland’s current prosperity and the clout that goes with it. As his talk made clear, Ireland’s influence is not just an offshoot of the economic upswing, but also stems from a tradition of fiercely independent Irish diplomacy from the 1950s up to the present day.

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