Irish charm offensive to woo the UN


There are two versions - shorthand and longhand - of Richard Ryan, Ireland's Ambassador to the UN and a key figure in our campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. The shorthand version begins with the label he will never shake off, as The Man Who Dined for Ireland. This dates back to the period in the mid-1980s when he was dispatched to London with the brief of mixing and socialising with the Tory establishment to ensure that Mrs Thatcher could steer the Anglo-Irish Agreement successfully through the House of Commons.

It was a new departure in Irish diplomacy. In the old days, there was a big focus on the Irish community in Britain, our dispossessed emigrants and their demands. But few such people are found on the Tory backbenches and Ryan's Mission Impossible was to persuade these critical elements to see the reasonableness of the Irish case, which just happened to involve giving Dublin an oversight of the affairs of part of the United Kingdom.

In his memoirs, the Taoiseach of the day, Garret FitzGerald, describes Ryan as "a well-known poet and an excellent shot". Like many an Irish patriot before him, Richard Ryan was packing a gun, but without any warlike intent since he would use it only for hunting.

The mission was a stunning success, with only 21 Tory rightwingers voting against the agreement in the Commons. The old Etonians and Harrovians were smitten by the charm of the Christian Brothers boy who clearly demonstrated to them that he was a "good chap" advancing sound arguments. He was not the only diplomat working behind the scenes and key roles were played by the likes of Noel Dorr, Sean Donlon and Michael Lillis, but when it came to socialising with political intent, Ryan was without peer. The unionists never had a chance.

Mention Ryan to anyone in diplomatic, political or media circles and the "dining for Ireland" - a bad pun on "dying for Ireland" - catchphrase immediately surfaces. Sometimes it is said with a grudging air - he was quaffing fine wines while we were nursing pints of stout - but there is no denying that it worked.

However, the label is misleading in that it gives the impression of Ryan as an intellectual lightweight, a bon viveur pursuing game across the English moorlands and getting in a plug for government policy over drinks afterwards. There is a deeper side to the man, as seen in his poems, tightly-worded but pregnant with meaning.

Ryan's collections are hard to find. You would have looked in vain this week in the Irish poetry section of a certain leading Dublin bookshop: following alphabetical order, there was nothing between a slim volume by the similarly-named Patrick R. Ryan and the prison writings of Bobby Sands. But you will find him in such anthologies as the Penguin Book of Irish Verse and its Faber equivalent.

At University College Dublin in the late 1960s and early 1970s and in literary circles generally, Ryan was often spoken of as the Next Big Thing. If he had published more he would probably be ranked with the likes of Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, who are of similar vintage, but it appears the duties of diplomatic service

took precedence. Perhaps like Yeats he could claim to have been distracted by "the seeming needs of my fool-driven land".

Now Ryan faces an even more daunting task than his 1980s charm offensive among the British establishment. Along with a special unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin headed by Assistant Secretary Mary Whelan, he is heavily involved in the Security Council campaign. Three countries are chasing two temporary seats in the Western European and Other Group of States, and our two rivals are Norway and Italy.

Cutting to the chase, Norway is widely regarded as a shoo-in because of its role in the Middle East and strong reputation as a friend of the developing world. This leaves Ireland competing with Italy for second place. Although conducted away from the media spotlight, the lobbying has been intense. Ably assisted by his Korean wife, Heeun, the ambassador has been working his magic on the other member-states. The Taoiseach will be attending the UN Millennium Summit of world leaders next week and he will be followed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs who is due to address the General Assembly. Between them, Mr Ahern and Mr Cowen will hold bilateral meetings with the UN missions of 60 member-states as part of the Security Council campaign.

Old hands say it is like a Seanad election, with some member-states promising votes to more than one candidate. Only the result of the secret ballot will tell the tale and that is not likely to be held until the end of next month. Ireland has been an assiduous attender at international conferences in the last year as part of its lobbying effort and there has been much glad-handing and gentle persuasion from junior ministers Liz O'Donnell, Martin Cullen, Eoin Ryan and Danny Wallace.

Ask why Ireland is so keen to win the seat and sources lapse into vague generalities. It was a target set out in the White Paper on foreign policy published when Dick Spring was in charge of Iveagh House. There is also a feeling that, with a settlement in the North and the economy booming, Ireland's diplomatic energies need a fresh outlet.

The Italians entered the race comparatively late, which engendered some resentment in Irish circles where it was seen as bad form for one EU state to seek to do down another. Their campaign was led initially by the formidable Franceso Paolo Fulci, a diplomatic legend endowed with charm by the bucketful and considered invincible in elections. The choice of Ryan to spearhead our campaign on the ground becomes more explicable in that context.

"It is a serious prize in terms of our status in the world," a diplomatic insider said. Winning a seat will mean that Ireland will have to face hard questions about the use of force and on other difficult issues such as the sanctions against Iraq. A senior Government figure told me it would be good for us to have to deal with these issues rather than sitting on the fence. As Joe Louis said about being in the boxing ring, "You can run but you cannot hide."

If we are unsuccessful, nobody who knows the UN scene will blame Ryan but it may be a source of quiet satisfaction to some. He does not suffer fools gladly and has proven adept at climbing the greasy pole of diplomatic success. He started his career in Tokyo under the tutelage of Ambassador Robin Fogarty, dazzling both intellectually and socially, who died before his time in 1995. Ryan served in Brussels and was seconded to the cabinet of Richard Burke on the European Commission. He made his name with the London interlude and this was followed by ambassadorships in South Korea and Spain before he was appointed as Ireland's Permanent Representative (equivalent of ambassador) at the UN in August 1998.

Friends say that, in general, he prefers the company of writers, painters and poets to politicians. However, colleagues say he shares one characteristic with a master practitioner of the political art: like Clinton, he has the knack of "making you feel like the only person in the world". Friends say he is hosting two dinner parties a week, trying to drum up support. Who knows what modest impact an Irish victory might have on the forlorn corners of our troubled planet? Richard Ryan dined for Ireland - now he is dining for the world.