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Ireland aiming to be peacemaker on UN Security Council

State will try to be honest broker during its two-year term, Ambassador to UN says

The horseshoe-shaped table which seats the 15-member UN Security Council at UN headquarters in New York. File photograph: Stephane Lemouton/AFP

It has been a busy few months for Geraldine Byrne Nason ahead of Ireland beginning its two-year term on the 15-nation UN Security Council yesterday. Ireland’s Ambassador to the United Nations was at the centre of the State’s successful efforts to secure a seat .

A career diplomat, one of her first overseas postings was at the UN in New York in the 1980s. Decades later, things have now come full circle and Byrne Nason will represent Ireland at the famous horseshoe table, which seats the powerful 15-member body at UN headquarters for the next two years.

“It’s been hectic,” the Drogheda native says from her office in New York. “Almost from the day after we won the vote, all systems clicked in, preparations began in Dublin and here in New York.”

Ireland’s successful bid to win a non-permanent seat on the council was the culmination of years of work by Irish diplomats. After a nail-biting secret ballot on June 17th, Ireland, along with Norway, won the two seats up for grabs, beating Canada for a place on one of the world’s most influential bodies.

It followed months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy by Byrne Nason and her team. But in many ways the real work begins now.

As part of the transition process, Ireland has had observer status since October 1st when it was permitted to sit in on Security Council meetings.

“It’s at this point that you really look at the work of the Security Council in cold relief – whether it is the Middle East or Yemen, the recent developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. These are real live issues for us now,” she says.

As well as shadowing the work of the current members, Byrne Nason has been continuing to engage with ambassadors of the 193-strong UN membership, including those from many of the countries that voted for Ireland, to understand better the issues that concern them.

Agenda taking shape

While much of the focus of the council will be shaped by live events – Ireland’s last stint on the body, for example, coincided with the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001 – the agenda for the coming six months is already taking shape.

At the beginning of the year, the UN’s presence in Sudan will be transitioning to a more political mission, offering an opportunity for Ireland to ensure that humanitarian and civilian needs are met in the region.

Colombia is also on the agenda. Ireland has a particular connection with international efforts in the country, given former tánaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore’s role as special envoy for the country’s peace process.

The situation in Libya, where a UN-supported ceasefire was agreed in October, will also be a focus for the council in the early months of the year.

Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s Ambassador to the United Nations was at the centre of the State’s successful efforts to secure a seat on the UN Security Council.

Another aspect of Ireland’s term on the council will be its ability to shape some of the UN missions where Irish peacekeepers play a direct role.

“Ireland’s 60-year record of peacekeeping is such a marker for us at the UN. Now, we have a chance to shape the mandate these missions are given,” says Byrne Nason.

“This is an opportunity to make sure proper attention is given to missions where our young men and women are putting their lives at risk. We will be at the table, speaking up. ‘Can you save lives? And can you protect civilians on the ground?’ These are the kinds of questions we will be asking.”

One of the perennial challenges for each of the 10 temporary members of the Security Council is the dominance of the five permanent fixtures – France, Britain, the US, Russia and China. Tensions between the US and both Russia and China in recent years have constrained the council’s work.

Byrne Nason believes that Ireland can play a role as peacemaker and honest broker in approaching some of the more sensitive conflicts that have made consensus elusive.

Take the decade-old conflict in Syria, for example, where the US and Russia are effectively on opposite sides.

“We’re interested in the humanitarian dimension. What we want to do is save lives and ease the suffering,” Byrne Nason says of Ireland’s approach to some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Similarly with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated in 2015 during the Obama administration in conjunction with European powers. US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark agreement, which saw Iran agree to limit its nuclear production, will be one of the main foreign-policy legacies of his presidency.

The man due to succeed him, Joe Biden, has signalled his intention to revive the Iran deal in some form, though doing so will be a challenge, not least for domestic reasons where resistance to the agreement exists among Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.

Changing of the guard

Indeed, the outcome of the recent US presidential election is probably the issue that will most define the direction of the Security Council during Ireland’s two-year term. A Trump victory would have ensured another four years of antipathy from Washington towards the UN. Trump was unequivocal about his disdain for the institution. Biden, in contrast, is a committed internationalist who sees multilateralism as a cornerstone of US foreign policy.

Asked about the changing of the guard in Washington in late January, Byrne Nason is characteristically diplomatic, noting that she worked very well with Trump’s ambassadors, Nikki Haley and Kelly Craft. But she notes that the incoming Biden administration does represent a shift in approach.

“President Trump was very clear that he wasn’t a huge fan of multilateralism, and that’s what the UN is all about. America withdrew from the JCPOA, the UN Human Rights Council, the Paris climate agreement – they’re all big multilateral instruments that hold the system together,” she says.

“Will it become a different Security Council overnight? That’s premature to say, but I think there will be a different dynamic at the table.”

Though Ireland is likely to be seen as a potential ally for the US around the Security Council table, on some issues there will be stark differences between Washington and Dublin – not least on the Middle East, where Ireland’s strong support for the Palestinian cause diverges from the US position, not only among Republicans but also on the Democratic side.

In terms of the day-to-day working of the council, Biden has already named his nominee for UN ambassador. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat, has particular experience in Africa where she served for the state department for many years. Biden has also elevated the role to a cabinet position – a clear statement about the importance the new administration places on the role.

Byrne Nason also welcomes the fact that the nominee for US ambassador is a woman (the last four were also female).

“There will be five women on the Security Council. Out of 15, it’s a good showing,” she says, adding that it can lead to a different approach to the work.

“A little less testosterone and a little more dialogue, patient listening and a capacity to facilitate – they’re undervalued qualities, particularly when there’s a lot of tension between some of the big players at the table.”

Overall, however, she says her aim as Ireland prepares to assume its seat is to deliver for the country and the other UN members.

“We don’t have a big axe to grind; we’re going in to make this work for ourselves and on behalf of everyone who voted for us,” she says. “I hope we’ll be able to live up to our promises.”

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