"Ireland may be a small country in global terms, but in our almost 100 years of statehood we have worked hard at making every contribution we can in terms of the wider world."
Getting a seat on the UN Security Council is a big deal. Yes, I appreciate that as an organisation, and 75 years after its inception, the UN is facing challenges. But as the saying goes, it is what there is. And as the other saying goes, if it did not exist, we would have to invent it.
The United Nations, for all its complexities, remains a powerful symbol and reality of a world that can only survive – and certainly only thrive – on the basis of inter-dependence between its nations. If that principle was true in the summer and autumn of 1945 when it was being negotiated and designed, it is even more true today. I only have to say “coronavirus” to highlight how little borders mean when the “big stuff” comes calling.
So count me out of the ranks of the sceptics when it comes to evaluating the achievement by Ireland in winning a seat on the UN Security Council for a two-year term, 2021-2022. The Security Council, comprising 15 Member States of the 193-strong General Assembly, is essentially the highest forum of the UN, the closest thing there is to a World Government.
Five of the seats rest permanently with the “Big Five” (US, China, Russia, France and the UK), with the other ten rotating every two years among the remaining 188 Member States. Those seats are decided by an election held among all the Member States, and securing a place at the top table is highly prized and fought for. Ireland was competing this time for one of two seats from what is called the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) against Norway and Canada, two hugely formidable global players. In an incredibly tightly fought election, Ireland and Norway won through and so now on January 1st next they both take their places on the Security Council for a two-year term.
Full disclosure here – I am a former official of the Department of Foreign Affairs, having served 28 fulfilling years in its ranks from 1979 to 2007. Many of the key players involved in the UN campaign are old friends. So yes, I am biased. But just because I am biased doesn’t mean I cannot call out what a tremendous achievement this was, and what outstanding leadership for the country was delivered by people like Niall Burgess, Brendan Rogers, Ambassador Geraldine Byrne-Nason, John Concannon, Frank Smyth and countless others in the Department, both at HQ in Dublin and in our Diplomatic Missions all around the world.
And congratulations also to the contribution of the Government, in particular Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney, together with President Higgins, former President Mary Robinson, former Taoisigh Enda Kenny and Bertie Ahern, many retired diplomats pressed back into service, and our brilliant arts community who play such a powerful role in keeping the name of Ireland up in lights around the world.
One of the great exemplars of that community, Oscar Wilde, once said, “there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it!” So now, having pulled off such a major coup, Ireland faces the challenge of delivering the best outcomes it can during its two years at the global top table. The list of issues is long and complex. Much will be dictated by the crises that will inevitably arise on a month by month basis. But I know that Ireland also has its eyes firmly fixed on making its contribution to some key priorities where it has particular expertise, experience and reach.
High on that list will be peacekeeping, where Ireland has such a proud record of service and achievement over so many years. But not just peacekeeping, but also peacemaking – working with Regional Organisations, communities, Civil Society and in particular women and youth to build and sustain peace. Women frequently are the glue that hold communities in conflict together, and the best bulwark against violence and war. We saw that vividly in our own conflict in Northern Ireland – while the Good Friday Agreement was ultimately the (very fine) work of political leaders and officials, a huge contribution was made over the years at the coalface by community groups, many led by women, in the unsung and unglamorous task of preventing things from getting worse and spiraling into all-out civil war.
In the same vein, I know that the Irish Delegation will also be putting a big focus on tackling the drivers of conflict – the underlying systemic issues that provide the basis and context for conflict to flare and flourish – hunger, famine, food insecurity, climate change.
This is where an organisation I am honoured to serve with today comes in – GOAL. For over 40 years, GOAL has been carrying out its founding mission, and a very noble Irish one, of working with and supporting fragile communities around the world, communities suffering from conflict, displacement, extreme poverty, hunger and natural disasters.
Today we work in 13 countries, many of them experiencing the most challenging conditions faced anywhere in the world. We are very proud to undertake this work as an Irish NGO and therefore a key partner for us is Irish Aid, the Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for Ireland’s Development Assistance Programme, and who are major donors to our work. We know that Director General Ruairi de Burca and his colleagues played a key role also in the Security Council campaign, because of the respect internationally for Irish Aid’s work in the developing world over many decades. Now we look forward to working with them in supporting Ireland’s tenure on the Council in every way we can.
Ireland may be a small country in global terms, but in our almost 100 years of statehood we have worked hard at making every contribution we can in terms of the wider world. Our fellow countries have recognised that contribution now in a very tangible way and for the next two years we will have a new leadership voice and vote at the top table. We wish our colleagues in DFA well as they move into that hot seat and we look forward to supporting them in making that voice and vote count in the most powerful possible way.
*Tim O’Connor is a former Irish diplomat. He was part of the Irish Government Delegation in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998; inaugural Joint Secretary of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh from 1999-2005; Consul General of Ireland in New York from 2005-2007 and Secretary General to the President from 2007-2010. He has been a member of the Board of GOAL since April 2018.