Irish envoy to Turkey during crucial period

 

Seán Whelan, who died suddenly in Ankara aged 60 while serving as Ireland's Ambassador to Turkey, was greatly valued in the Department of Foreign Affairs for his knowledge and experience of the Middle East. His expertise in this area, and also in European Union affairs, allowed him to play an important role in relations between the EU and Turkey in the first half of this year during Ireland's EU Presidency.

This was a period when important discussions were taking place concerning Turkey's application for full membership of the EU and Cyprus's impending membership. As Irish Ambassador, Seán Whelan was the main diplomatic channel in Ankara between the EU and the Turkish government, which has highly praised his conduct in this area. The President of Turkey ordered that an official aircraft be used to fly Mr Whelan's remains back to Dublin earlier this week.

He was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, on January 21st, 1944. His father, John, ran a popular music centre in the town. This may have contributed to Sea's great love and knowledge of modern music.

He was educated at the local Christian Brothers school and went to Rockwell College for his secondary studies.

He seemed destined for a legal career and studied law at University College Dublin. He was awarded a BCL in 1965 and an LLB at Kings Inns in 1966.

He pursued postgraduate studies at Oxford University and was called to the Irish Bar but then decided to enter the Department of Foreign Affairs for a career in diplomacy in 1969.

In that year he also married Liz Tillett, from Norwich. They had three sons before separating.

After four years at Iveagh House, he was posted to Paris as first secretary. From there he went to the new Irish embassy at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, which he once humorously described as "the land of the leaking armpit". In 1978 he was promoted to counsellor and appointed chargé d'affaires to Lebanon.

He was posted to Beirut at a time when the civil war was winding down but it was still a very dangerous city. His two-year stay in the war-torn city made a deep impression on him and he would often refer to it in later life.

His liaison work with the Unifil contingent in the south of the country was much appreciated by the Irish soldiers serving there at that time.

In the bar of the renowned Commodore Hotel, he made valuable contacts with the international media covering the conflict in Lebanon. On his return to Dublin he took over the running of the press and information service in the Department.

For four years he was a key figure in relations with both the Irish and international media when the Northern Ireland situation was at times like Beirut.

He served at Ireland's mission to the United Nations in New York during 1985-1990 where his Middle East experience was again most useful. He returned to headquarters in 1990 and was a senior adviser in the political division.

From 1994 to 1998 he was posted to the Permanent Representation in Brussels - Ireland's largest mission abroad. One of his special duties was liaison with the European Parliament.

In October 2001 he was appointed Ambassador to Turkey, where he would have been expected to serve a four or five-year term.

Over his long career, Seán Whelan made many friends who greatly enjoyed his wit and hospitality. Media friends were amazed at his encyclopaedic knowledge of League of Ireland soccer teams. He was a regular follower of Shamrock Rovers while they played at Milltown. A prized possession was a 1957 autographed programme from boyhood days. Even in Ankara he kept up his enthusiasm and was a season ticket holder for a local club.

He had an extensive knowledge of blues and rock and roll musicians and went to concerts whenever he got a chance. In New York he was able to enjoy the top jazz performers and would bring visitors along.

He is survived by his mother, Sadie; brother, Donal; sons, Robert, Andrew, Nicholas and Richard, and partner, Alison.

Seán Whelan: born January 21st, 1944; died October 10th, 2004.