On a December morning, with just three weeks remaining of Ireland’s term on the United Nations Security Council, Irish ambassador Fergal Mythen stood side-by-side with his US counterpart at a podium outside its chamber and announced a significant breakthrough.
The two ambassadors and their teams had just overseen the adoption of a resolution to allow humanitarian workers to continue to operate in areas of the world that are subject to UN sanctions.
At a time of toxic relations at the United Nations in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was a triumph for diplomacy. Fourteen out of the 15 members of the security council backed the Irish and US initiative.
Protecting “the humanitarian space” had been a key objective for Ireland on the security council and Irish diplomats were delighted. Aid agencies also saw it as a big deal.
The then minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney, in what turned out to be his last visit to the UN headquarters in the role, said “the legitimacy of sanctions in the eyes of the public” had been undermined by criticism that they were having an adverse effect on humanitarian work.
Coveney said Ireland wanted Russia to answer for its actions in Ukraine
The new UN resolution would “diminish the unintended consequences of sanctions, without diminishing UN sanctions themselves”, he said.
The chief executive of Trócaire, Caoimhe de Barra, said the resolution would “exempt humanitarian actions from the stranglehold of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council”.
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“This should remove a significant barrier to a faster more effective response to the needs of people impacted by crises.”
Earlier in its term Ireland had pressed the security council to act on another significant humanitarian issue – continued access for aid from Turkey into the Idlib region in Syria, one of the last remaining areas outside of the control of the government in Damascus.
Coveney had visited the Syria/Turkey border twice and travelled to New York last summer to try get a deal across the line in the face of a potential Russian veto. Irish diplomats warned that up to four million people depended on the humanitarian supplies. Eventually, a six-month extension was agreed.
Ireland’s bid to sit on the security council during 2021 and 2022 was dismissed as “a vanity project” by critics when it was first mooted in 2018, with opponents arguing that the money and effort could be better used elsewhere.
The Government consistently rejected that argument.
Early in December at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin Coveney said that Ireland had had a “sustained, positive impact” on the security council, which is dominated by the powers: the US, Russia, China and, to a lesser extent, the UK and France.
In September Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Russia was behaving like “a rogue state”
Undoubtedly there have been good days. Not every objective has been reached. And some stands taken have had consequences. “When you go on the security council, there is nowhere to hide,” said one retired diplomat bluntly.
The security council has the primary responsibility to maintain world peace, with the biggest issues ending up before it. Every position taken holds a message, even abstaining.
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Eyebrows were raised in some capitals when Ireland abstained on a February resolution regarding an arms embargo and other sanctions on the Houthis in Yemen. Ireland said its concern was not about the Houthi leadership but “the millions of innocent people living under their control”.
In November 2021 the Ethiopian government expelled four Irish diplomats because of Ireland’s outspoken stance at the security council about the conflict then under way there.
Donnacha Ó Beacháin, professor of politics at the school of law and government at Dublin City University, said it was “probably unprecedented” for so many Irish diplomats to be expelled by a country because of a diplomatic dispute with Dublin.
However, the Government decided that it could not remain silent given the scale of the deaths and the humanitarian crisis occurring in Tigray.
Ethiopia had been the largest recipient of Irish overseas aid in recent years. Irish officials have long worked in the country and knew what had been taking place.
Several weeks ago a peace agreement was signed, with some familiar with the process in Irish diplomatic circles arguing that Ireland played a key role in focusing attention on Ethiopia when it could easily have been totally overshadowed by Ukraine.
However, relations with Addis Ababa will have to be repaired now that Ireland’s time on the security council is drawing to a close. A senior Irish diplomat visited Ethiopia in December in what may herald the start of new dialogue with the government there.
Relations between Ireland and Russia are also at a low point.
Speaking at the United Nations in September Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Russia was behaving like “a rogue state”.
He went further in unscripted comments to The Irish Times and other journalists, arguing that Russia should lose its permanent seat on the security council.
He said there was “huge irreconcilability” between Russia being a permanent member and its behaviour in attacking Ukraine.
Coveney, meanwhile, made no secret of his view that Ireland wanted Russia to answer for its actions in Ukraine. He said these included “mass murder” and “probable war crimes”.
According to some informed sources US secretary of state Anthony Blinken personally praised Coveney over an address on Ukraine to the security council in September.
Even before the Ukraine invasion the Irish had been frustrated by Russia’s use of the veto as a security council permanent member. In December 2021 Russia blocked an initiative led by Ireland and Niger to have the security council for the first time reflect the reality that climate change was increasingly driving threats to international peace and security.
At the UN in September Martin was damning in his assessment.
“We challenged the council to take on its responsibilities to address the impact of climate change on international peace and security.”
“One hundred and thirteen countries supported us in our efforts. One country – Russia – vetoed these efforts.”
“It frankly beggars belief that, in 2022, the UN body charged with the maintenance of peace and security has still not taken on its responsibilities in this area. It is a singular failure of political will and political responsibility.”
The climate change resolution failed this time, but the legacy left by the debate means that the security council will ultimately have to take the issue seriously, Irish figures believe.
Ireland is not taking a seat on the UN Security Council just for Ireland. In many respects it represents small states— Donnacha Ó Beacháin
Trócaire described the resolution linking climate and peace and security as “commendable and far-sighted”. It said it was “the second highest supported draft in the history of the UN Security Council”.
While Ireland achieved its aim of keeping aid moving across the Syria/Turkey border, another key objective – facilitating the return to the full implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – was not as successful.
The Trump Administration withdrew from the accord in 2018, claiming it had failed to curtail Iran’s missile programme and regional influence. A year later Iran began to resume some of its nuclear activities.
It is understood that while efforts to get the Iran nuclear deal back on the rails have not been abandoned, this will not happen before Dublin hands up its security council place.
Ó Beacháin says it was not a vanity project for Ireland to seek a place on the security council and that it is now becoming almost practice for Ireland to do so every 20 years. Ireland’s success in winning the place against bigger, more powerful countries illustrates the international regard for the country, he says.
“Ireland is not taking a seat on the UN Security Council just for Ireland. In many respects it represents small states.”
The five permanent members of the council – the US, the UK, France, China and Russia – inherit their seats by right and Ireland, by having to be elected by their peers, has more democratic legitimacy.
He says if there was a vote tomorrow for a security council seat, Russia would be unlikely to be elected.
Sinn Féin TD John Brady says that if it had been in office during Ireland’s UN term, Ireland “would have pursued a strategy congruent with the international rules-based order, pursuing outcomes based on respect for human rights, international law and conflict resolution. We believe Ireland must continue to play a major role at the UN. There are huge challenges ahead that Ireland must play a role in addressing- climate change, food shortages, political instability/regional conflict.”
Brady says Ireland has enormous respect among smaller non-aligned nations,
“We continue to have a responsibility to advocate for these states. We wield significant ‘soft power’ comparative to our size. Linked to our neutral status. Maintenance of our neutral status is important to the extent of the influence we can continue to exert. Arguably this is more important to international security than any minor military role we might play as part of the Government ambitions to take us down a road to military alignment, be that with Nato or part of an EU army.”
Ó Beacháin says, however, that what is often perceived as traditional neutrality is not traditional at all.
He says in the 1950s Ireland turned down an invitation to join Nato on the basis of the British presence in Northern Ireland but offered the US a bilateral defence agreement.
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“Seán Lemass in the 1960s said in the Dáil that Ireland was in full agreement with values and objectives of Nato”
“What neutrality means, if it means anything, is non-membership of a military alliance and that has evolved over time.”
“It has never ever been conceded by any Irish Government as a political neutrality and not taking a side on political issues.”
“Going back to even [former minister] Frank Aiken in the 1950s and 1960s – in what is considered the golden era of Irish involvement at the United Nations –, we always valued the point of view of looking at each issue on its merits and making a judgment call.”
“That has been the persistent policy of Ireland’s involvement at the United Nations.”