How pub sing-songs and Bono brought Ireland to a seat at the highest table

U2 singer: ‘To climb out from under the heel of colonialism to take a seat ... It’s a big deal’

Bono said the band has “always been there to be used to promote all things Irish.” Photograph:  Emmanuel Dunand / AFP

Bono said the band has “always been there to be used to promote all things Irish.” Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP


It is hard to fathom that a singsong with overseas guests in a Co Cork seaside village could have helped Ireland’s election to a United Nations Security Council seat this week, but it did.

The night out in a pub in Crosshaven came during a visit by political leaders from small island developing states around the world to a conference on oceans and the climate.

The Department of Foreign Affairs wanted to build an emotional connection between the islands of the world by inviting them to the SeaFest maritime festival in Cork in June 2019.

The gathering was intended to show that Ireland could best represent their interests at the United Nations in the country’s efforts to be elected to one of the temporary seats in the global body’s most powerful table, the UN Security Council, for the fourth time in the State’s history.

A highlight of the night in Crosshaven was when the former foreign minister for Kiribati, a country of 33 low-lying islands in the central Pacific Ocean, and now its ambassador at the UN, stood up to sing his “Millennium song” about a future of survival for the islands against rising sea levels. An Irish official responded in kind with a song of her own. It was an emotional evening.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney looks back at that informal summit of island nations as a “pivotal moment” en route to winning enough votes for Ireland to see off a “giant of the UN” in Canada and taking a two-year seat on the influential UN body.

“They are moments that solidify relationships and build loyalty that then lasts through the intensity of lobbying that we have seen over the last six weeks because there has been an incredibly aggressive and intensive campaign over that time,” Mr Coveney said in an interview.

Island nations

Identifying who voted for Ireland is tricky because the security council election is a secret ballot, but the Tánaiste suspects that our fellow island nations came good when votes were cast.

“We probably got as much support across the Pacific Islands as we got across Europe, which is incredible. It’s a testament to Irish diplomacy and our capacity to be able to build connections and friendships, and relationships with big and small countries,” he said.

On Wednesday Ireland and Norway secured two seats available to countries “Western Europe and Others Groups”. Ireland will be one of 10 non-permanent members on the 15-nation council, dealing with superpowers in the permanent members that are China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States when it takes its seat at the table on January 1st, 2021.

During the campaign to win the seat, Mr Coveney said the globe was divided up between him, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and President Michael D Higgins and calls were made to leaders of countries around the world. All 192 countries at the UN were contacted, in some cases on multiple occasions, to lobby for votes.

The Tánaiste believes Ireland’s long record on sustainable development, peacekeeping, education and missionary work in Africa and stand on nutrition and climate change helped win votes there.

In the Arab world, support for Middle East peace and a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians “probably won the support of every Arab state with the exception of one,” he says.

Strong historical Irish connections with independence movements in South America and the recent expansion of Ireland’s embassy network to Colombia and Chile meant Ireland “did better than I thought we might across Latin America and into South America,” he says.

Wednesday’s election marked the end of a campaign that began way back in 2005 when Ireland declared its interest in a council seat. The campaign was formally launched by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Coveney in July 2018 outside the UN’s headquarters in New York with a little star power from Bono and former Irish president Mary Robinson.

Secret weapon

After speeches from the stage in the shadow of the Le Corbusier UN building in Manhattan, Bono and Ireland’s ambassador at the UN Geraldine Byrne-Nason - described by the U2 singer as “Ireland’s secret weapon in New York” - were mobbed by country ambassadors. They were later treated to a U2 gig at Madison Square Garden a few blocks away. The Canadians, as part of their campaign, invited ambassadors to a Celine Dion concert in March.

“All I can say is we got 128 votes and they got 108 so Bono should feel very proud of his popularity,” said Mr Coveney, joking, when asked about what this says about the two singers.

The Tánaiste paid tribute to Bono for the effort he put into the campaign “for no personal gain or recognition”. The singer and activist was asked to get involved in the campaign in January 2018.

Bono said the band has “always been there to be used to promote all things Irish.”

“We’ll sing for our supper, but we’ll also arm-wrestle backstage. I did everything I was told - a speech here and a speech there - and a few things I was told not to,” he said.

The Tánaiste believes Bono’s involvement really helped.

“That has been very influential in parts of the world where he is the best known Irish voice and face and he has allowed us to use that recognition and reputation and influence in a way that’s been very effective,” said Mr Coveney.

U2 were asked if they would invite guests to concerts on their world tours to help push Ireland’s case. They agreed. Leaders from small Pacific island states were invited to the Joshua Tree concert in New Zealand in November to strengthen ties made five months earlier in Crosshaven.

“I knew there was a lot of affection for the Irish around the world,” Bono said, “but meeting with all of these ambassadors, making our case from New Zealand to New York, reminded me just how much hard-earned respect there is for our land - for the peace, the economy, dealing with the noisy neighbour - and yes, for Ireland’s climb out from under the heel of colonialism to now take a seat at the highest table of international leadership. It’s a big deal.”

He believes that Ireland is “very relatable” to other countries and that many ambassadors who plumped for Ireland in this week’s vote “saw in Ireland’s story a version of their own”.

Warning at the campaign launch in 2018 that institutions such as the UN were under threat with the rise of nationalism in the age of Trump and Putin, Bono’s speech captured headlines in the US and internationally. Ireland was pitched not just as a champion of small countries but of global partnerships like the UN.

Ireland’s ambassador at the UN Geraldine Byrne-Nason - described by the U2 singer as “Ireland’s secret weapon in New York.
Ireland’s ambassador at the UN Geraldine Byrne-Nason - described by the U2 singer as “Ireland’s secret weapon in New York.

“Some of the assembled ambassadors winced when I allowed myself to wonder out loud if their UN HQ would still be there in 10 years the way things are going - [IT WAS]a bit Debbie Downer, but it got their attention because let’s be real: the whole construct of international cooperation is under threat,” he told The Irish Times.

The fact that Ireland secured the exact required two-thirds majority to win a seat means each of those small countries can, during the two years on the council, can remind the Irish that they only won that seat with their support when they need a specific issue pushed at the UN’s top table.

Mr Coveney believes last year’s get-together in a Co Cork seaside village helped win the seat in the final stretch of the campaign but it will be brought up again as a reminder of promises made.

“When you ring people to make sure they’re still onside, and they remind you of a sing-song in Crosshaven, you know you are are winning,” he said.

“But those people will be back to us on the security council, if they have an issue. They will be reminding us of Crosshaven too, saying: ‘You said you would help us; now we’re asking for help.’”

Ireland’s in-tray

Among the items in Ireland’s in-tray when it joins the UN Security Council in January are peace-keeping and -building, conflict resolution and women’s rights, says Tanaiste Simon Coveney.

He hopes Ireland can find consensus among the superpowers on the UN’s most powerful body to find political solutions in conflict zones that will tackle the effects of the mass movement of people with global displacement reaching a record of 79 million people. This extends from the Middle East - where Mr Coveney fears a “renewed cycle of violence” - to Venezuela.

He believes Ireland can be a “non-threatening and trusted voice” on the council.

“I hope we can see Irish influence on debate and resolutions, and ultimately decisions which is what the security council needs to make more of, as opposed to simply making statements,” he said.

Changing the make-up of the council during Ireland’s two-year membership to make it more representative of the world is a “very heavy lift”, says Coveney.

He believes there is greater potential for the Irish to challenge the use of the veto on resolutions by the big countries, the permanent members, that has frustrated the council on so many occasions.

“It is a massively heavy lift but you have got to be ambitious and set out your stall,” he said.