Shattering glass in DC: Anne Anderson on a life of diplomatic firsts

Anne Anderson, Ireland’s first female ambassador to the European Union, France and the UN, has broken yet more new diplomatic ground with her latest role as Ireland’s representative tothe United States

Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the US. Photograph: Marty Katz/

Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the US. Photograph: Marty Katz/


Anne Anderson has had a career of firsts. As one of the most senior women in the Irish foreign service and a male-dominated diplomatic world, she wasn’t just Ire land’s first female ambassador to the European Union on her appointment in 2001 but, remarkably, the first woman ambassador to the EU from any member state.

She became Ireland’s first female ambassador to France in 2005, to the United Nations in New York in 2009 and to the United States when she took over the role in August in a reshuffle of ambassadorial roles.

After replacing Michael Collins (who has moved to Berlin) as ambassador, Anderson presented her credentials to the US president Barack Obama at an official ceremony at the White House last month.

“As soon as I walked into the office, the first thing he said was, ‘That’s the perfect dress.’ I laughed because he was conscious of it being a green dress,” says Anderson. “He obviously had been briefed that I was the first woman ambassador. He said it was past time but that he was very glad to see me.”

Obama has promoted women to the highest positions in his administration. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state until earlier this year. Irish-born human rights campaigner Samantha Power, one of his advisers, was appointed US ambassador to the UN. Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Federal Reserve, is tipped to become the first female chairman of the US central bank, replacing Ben Bernanke.

Anderson – who is in Dublin today to attend the Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin – says women may be taking more prominent roles in public life but they are still in a small minority. Fewer than 15 per cent of ambassadors to the UN were female during her time in New York. For her, being at the forefront of a long-overdue correction in the gender imbalance has been exciting and challenging.

She speaks proudly of breaking through the glass ceiling and of the older Irish women she has met in Irish-American communities since moving to the US. These are women who emigrated decades ago to work as domestic servants. Anderson is struck by how the appointment of a woman to such a senior role resonates with other Irish women and “how much it affirms women”, she says.

“Most professional women enjoy the sound of glass shattering. At the same time, one is conscious of the historical background against which this is happening,” she says.

“I am very aware of that, that we had a marriage ban in the Irish diplomatic service until we joined the European Union so there were generations of women whose talent and potential could not be fully utilised, so that inculcates an appropriate modesty when you recognise that background.”

The gender inequality is being corrected slowly. Eamon Gilmore, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, has made a personal commitment to ensure more women are appointed to represent Ireland abroad and there are now 15 female ambassadors in Irish embassies, or about one in every four Irish ambassadors.

Anderson says the life and work of a diplomat is challenging for “a two-career couple”, where one spouse inevitably must make career sacrifices because of the travel involved in the foreign service.

“Society being what it is, when there is that challenge, the burden falls more heavily on women because in this career if you are married, you have to have a spouse who is ready to accompany you, to uproot and to make career sacrifices. In societal terms that is still difficult for a male spouse to do,” she says.

Women were well outnumbered when Anderson joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in November 1972, fresh out of UCD at just 19 years of age with a degree in history and politics. She believes that her gender played against her on occasions when she sought to move up the career ladder.

In the early years of her career, she felt that some roles, such as high-profile positions dealing with Irish America and Northern Ireland, were regarded as more “macho jobs” and that these positions were perceived in the department to be “more readily and easily done by men”.

“It took a while for the message to be understood that women were equally able to do those jobs. “It made no sense in any terms for women not to play their full role in those jobs,” she says.

“Yes, there were attitudinal issues. I don’t want to exaggerate it. I have had a wonderful career, in the most interesting jobs, but if I am honest I would acknowledge that in those early decades there were still residual attitudes that had to be confronted.”

While wary of generalising, Anderson believes that women have skills that allow them to excel in diplomatic situations where conflicting parties must collaborate and create “win-win outcomes”. At a time when diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran and the conflict in Syria have come to the fore, such skills are required now more than ever.

“Certainly at the highest levels in the United Nations, when you are drafting – and in any sector – listening, understanding and allowing everyone to take away a victory, is very often the key to success. I think in general terms women are very good at that,” she says.

Anderson believes that the recent US diplomatic breakthroughs to try to resolve long-standing stalemates over Iran and Syria might encourage US lawmakers on the domestic front to end the partisan gridlock in Congress that led to the first government shutdown in 17 years this week.

“One hopes that lessons will be learned on Capitol Hill because of the need to hold on to rational, logical arguments to define common space, common territory, while allowing and accepting that there are essential principles that have to be safeguarded.”

She has taken up the job at the embassy on Massachusetts Avenue with the objective of projecting “a modern, 21st-century Ireland”. The appointment of the first female ambassador to the US undoubtedly sends its own symbolic message about the modern Ireland she represents.

She wants to present a “multi-faceted Ireland that is the Ireland of today” and intends to use the country’s “cultural calling card” in Washington.

Anderson also intends to “reach out” to the new wave of articulate, sophisticated and confident young Irish emigrants, many of whom have left to advance their career as well as for economic reasons at home. She made a point of attending an event hosted by the “young leaders” of the American Ireland Fund, the Irish-American philanthropic organisation, soon after she was appointed.

Representing a modern Ireland may lead to conflict with some long-standing Irish-American groups who have traditionally excluded women from St Patrick’s Day dinners and other events.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore ruled out a visit to Savannah, Georgia on his St Patrick’s Day tour in March on the basis that he would not attend a men-only Hibernian Society dinner.

Officially less than a month in the job, Anderson has wasted no time in taking on this challenge. Addressing a potentially thorny issue, she has opened a discussion with the Friendly Sons of St Patrick and made it clear to them that she would “love” to see the Irish-American organisation, which dates back to the 18th century, evolve towards the title of Friendly Sons and Daughters of St Patrick.

“It will take time, but we have begun the conversation,” she says. “It has been a very open dialogue between us. I am obviously a courteous person, but I am also a fairly direct person.”

The organisation has been non-partisan and non-discriminatory since its foundation, she says. “That is something to be embraced but we should discuss how that might be applicable in the 21st century.”

Anderson, who is now 61, was well prepared for a career on the move. Born in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, her family relocated several times through her father’s work as a psychiatric nurse in the mental health service. She moved to Kilkenny when she was eight and to Portrane in north Co Dublin when she was 11.

Her first overseas posting was in 1976, four years after she joined the foreign service; she was sent to Ireland’s mission to the UN in Geneva. She returned to Dublin in 1980 before being sent to the Irish Embassy in Washington in 1983 for four years, where one of her main roles was explaining the Anglo-Irish Agreement on Northern Ireland in the US capital.

She returned to Dublin in 1987 to work as a political and economic adviser in the Anglo-Irish division before being appointed head of administration at the department, taking charge of managing personnel and budgets, in 1991. Four years later, she was on the road again becoming Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN. She has spent 14 years at the UN in total, of which 10 were as ambassador.

Anderson says that chairing the UN Human Rights Commission in 1999-2000 was among the toughest of her assignments, “bearing witness to truly unspeakable things”. As the fourth woman to chair the commission – Eleanor Roosevelt was the first – it was also one of her proudest achievements.

Chairing a committee of EU ambassadors for six months during Ireland’s presidency of the union in 2004 was also particularly intense for Anderson, as member states tussled with EU enlargement and the genesis of the Lisbon Treaty.

Divorced, but with a “significant other”, New York surgeon Frank Lowe, Anderson has returned to the city where her daughter Claire was born during her posting in the mid-1980s. This posting marks the first time Claire, who is a literary agent, has returned to Washington since leaving in 1987 at the age of two.

Anderson’s work has changed significantly since she last worked in Washington. The Peace Process has meant that Northern Ireland is no longer the hot political topic that it was in the 1980s, though she acknowledges that she has to remind people that there is still “unfinished business” that needs to be worked on. Northern Ireland occupied well over half of the Irish Embassy’s time back then. Now the focus is on economic recovery and a push for foreign investment from the US to create jobs at home.

She has no intention of rushing to change the series of St Patrick’s Day events in Washington, a time when Ireland has unprecedented access, for a country of its size, to US political leaders.

“As I get nearer and I get more settled here I will be going through the arrangements in a very detailed way to see if there are aspects that might be fine-tuned,” she says. “But I am conscious that I inherited a very successful model and marketing opportunity for St Patrick’s Day, so I will be careful to conserve what’s working in that model.”

The British may have a special relationship with the Americans, but Anderson has spoken about the “unique relationship” the Irish have in Washington, a relationship that other ambassadors envy. She has hit the ground running in her new job and has met high-ranking politicians on Capitol Hill in the short time she has been here, appointments that would take other ambassadors far longer to set up.

Anderson says that the personality of the Irish and their sense of openness, humour and engagement with life resonates with the American personality and opens doors for the Irish in the US.

Washington’s harsh winters and oppressive summers are said to have made the city a hardship for British diplomats, meriting a little extra in their pay packets. For Anderson, there is no such discomfort.

“This is a wonderful posting. I genuinely cannot think of any greater privilege than being Irish ambassador to the United States. The idea of it being a hardship post is so far from the truth,” she says.

Given the timing of her posting, Anderson might hear more glass shattering during her tenure in Washington, with the election of America’s first female president if Hillary Clinton, a hot favourite, runs for the White House in 2016.

The Irish ambassador, unsurprisingly, refuses to be drawn on this. “I am a diplomat,” she says, “I will keep channels open to all prospective presidential candidates.”

Selling Ireland’s economic prospects in the US and pushing Irish interests in the overhaul of US immigration laws is an uphill task given the bitter divisions in Congress over budgetary matters and President Obama’s landmark healthcare law that led to the government shutdown on Tuesday.

The Democrat-led US Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration bill that would help an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish find a pathway to citizenship and tens of thousands more Irish to find work in the United States legally through a new ‘E3’ visa specifically designed for Irish emigrants.

The Republican-led House of Representatives has stalled the bill over concerns that they would be rewarding 11 million illegal workers for flouting US immigration laws by offering them citizenship.

Anderson has been working with Irish-American groups to prevent the momentum from stalling by meeting Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill to lobby for the interests of Irish and Irish-Americans. “Our message is becoming clear and very sharp – that there would be a sense of betrayal if the momentum were now to stall, that things have come very far and that there is a window of opportunity that we have to seize,” she says.

Anderson acknowledges that there are “calendar difficulties” around immigration reform given the amount of time and energy the budgetary disputes and the crisis in Syria have taken up in Congress, along with “issues of substances” among those who do not want to reform US immigration laws.

“There are some people on the Hill who are not happy with the bill that came from the Senate and are very determined to radically reshape it, and there are some people who are in no hurry at all in the immigration legislation,” she says.

“Time is being squeezed and there is also the problem of those who may not want to move in any event ,who can point to the calendar difficulties as a rationale for inaction.”

The chances of new immigration laws being passed are in the “50:50” range. “It’s there to be played for, but it is difficult, obviously,” she says.