Meet the Limerick man who’s the head of security at UN HQ New York
Limerick-native Michael Browne is the Chief of Safety and Security Services at the UN headquarters in New York
Michael Brown: ‘You never switch off in this job but I love it’
The “Big Fella” peeps over Mick Browne’s shoulder – he has his back. Standing tall, the statuette of Michael Collins rests on a table behind the desk of Limerick man Michael “Mick” Browne at the heart of United Nations HQ in Manhattan.
Collins once said “Ireland could be a light unto the world” – here he’s acting as torch bearer.
For company there’s another sculpture of an Irish infantry soldier and on Browne’s desk the pièce de résistance – a statuette of Limerick’s famous Treaty stone.
As Chief of the Security and Safety Service at the United Nations Browne must ensure all staff, diplomats, heads of state and visitors are safe once they pass the threshold onto UN buildings. In total that’s 1.5 million people a year.
He leads an armed security force of 320 personnel and provides 24/7 close protection support to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other senior UN leaders.
“I prefer to stand back and just watch what’s happening. To make sure everything and everybody is where they need to be,” he tells me in his office which overlooks the East River towards the borough of Queens.
Invariably though he must interact with diplomats on a daily basis. He must understand cultural nuances, adapt different approaches to suit different missions, be firm but fair and ultimately achieve his objective without causing too many ripples. His role, in essence, is as much about diplomacy as it is security.
“ Kaifa haluk,” he calls out – an Arabic greeting – to a diplomat as we make our way to the Security Council Chamber. Everywhere he goes there are nods and smiles. This is his domain.
He takes me to the doorway of the Security Council consultation room. Few journalists get within these four walls where the 15-member states negotiate and debate out of the public eye. “This is where the nitty-gritty takes place,” explains Browne.
It’s in this small room Ireland wants to be in 2021. The Irish Ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, is leading Ireland’s bid to be re-elected to the Security Council for the first time in two decades in 2020. Ireland will have to fight off the challenge from either Canada or Norway to get here.
From there we make our way to the Security Council Chamber itself. Beside the seat where US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Hayley speaks, Browne explains the role his staff play in here.
“Obviously this is the nerve centre and so we make sure we have security here all the time whether the Council is meeting or not. When it sits there’s a buzz in the room,” he explains.
“What’s Nikki Hayley like?” I ask – “She’s charming,” he replies, adding “She has a job to do like everyone else.”
Off we meander up escalators and down stairs. “Hey Chief,” is the common refrain from Browne’s colleagues. Incredibly there are 54 different nationalities represented across his force.
In his green-striped tie, he confidently strides. The Limerick man’s charm and humility is combined with an intense dedication to his high pressure and challenging role.
He work closely with the NYPD, US Secret Service, FBI and a range of other US and other National Security Agencies, always conscious of new and emerging intelligence.
Browne left Ard Scoil Rís in 1976 and headed for the Curragh for a successful career in the Irish Army. Along the way he studied in University College Galway. “Yes, I think I majored and minored in Skeff Studies,” he jokes referring to happy hours spent in the Skeffington Arms Hotel on Eyre Square.
Always looking for a new challenge, he took part in a number of tours to Lebanon with UNIFIL and looks back at his career in the Army as the making of him.
“You know, the training we got in cadet school was life-changing. It took us from being pimply-faced young fellas in the barrack square in the Curragh, with the turf smoke swirling all around us, in November ’76 to knowledgeable, skilled and confident men within two years. Leaders who wanted to improve all the time. That stands to me now and so many of my former military colleagues who have gone on to do amazing things.”
In 1998 Browne left the army to work with Risk Management International – a security services firm offering “executive protection”.
From there he moved to Freight Watch which provided logistic security services to Dell and other major companies transporting goods. In June 2000 he came to America to help set up their US operations from a base in Austin, Texas.
“I guess I had an itch I wanted to scratch, to try my hand in the corporate sector and it was enjoyable, to a degree, but I always had a hankering to return to the UN.”
And so he did in 2004 – with a bang.
“I ended up in Baghdad as a Field Security Co-Operation Officer, putting together security arrangements ahead of the elections. It was high octane stuff. In my first two months there we travelled across the country, meeting with local tribes, leaders and politicians. It was a dangerous time but not one of the UN electoral advisors I was responsible for broke as much as a fingernail,” he says.
From 2007 Mick found himself based on these corridors. In 2010 he became Deputy Chief and three years ago moved into his East River office as Chief.
“You never switch off in this job but I love it. And it definitely helps being Irish. People meet us and they don’t have pre-conceived notions. We’re non-threatening and there’s no unconscious bias towards us. We generally have a very good touch with people. I think sometimes we underestimate that ability and how useful it can be in communicating with the rest of the world.”
Recently, sports-mad Chief Michael Browne returned to watch Ireland take on Scotland en route to the Grand Slam and he frequently visits his parents in Limerick. Their picture takes pride of place in his office.
He may be at the centre of the world but he’s still the boy from Ennis Road, Limerick in the shadow of the Gaelic Grounds.