UN Security Council role has earned Ireland international respect
Despite criticism of costs, body shows Irish ability to ‘solve problems beyond our shores’
Ireland’s 2001-2002 membership of the UN Security Council, dominated by the response to the 9/11 attacks, was the last time Ireland held one of its 10 non-permanent seats.
Richard Ryan, Ireland’s permanent representative at the United Nations, was preparing for the second week of the Irish month-long presidency of the UN Security Council on the afternoon of Sunday, October 7th, 2001, when an urgent call came through from the UN’s situation centre.
It was UN secretary-general Kofi Annan telling him US secretary of state Colin Powell had just called to say American and British military forces would precisely two hours from then strike targets in Afghanistan in response to terrorist attacks on the US a month earlier.
“And Richard, it’s over to you,” Annan told the veteran Irish diplomat in a slightly softer voice.
Here was the ambassador of a small state, through its temporary membership of a global body responsible for maintaining world peace, thrust into a key role: Ryan had to lead the UN’s response to a developing international conflict that, if handled incorrectly, could blow up into something much bigger.
Ireland’s 2001-2002 membership of the council, dominated by the response to the 9/11 attacks, was the last time Ireland held one of its 10 non-permanent seats. It will not be the last if the current Government has its way; Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Monday formally launches the Irish campaign for a seat for 2021-2022.
The challenge Ryan faced that Sunday afternoon in the residence of the Irish “perm rep” on Manhattan’s Upper East Side 17 years ago is typical of the tasks that come with membership.
Article 51 of the UN charter requires any member state that attacks another to report to the presidency of the council and yet Powell’s call was to Annan, not Ryan, as the council’s president.
He interpreted this as possibly President George W Bush but certainly vice president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and fellow hawkish “neocons” choosing not to become “entangled” with the council and particularly two permanent members, China and Russia, who were certain to object.
If you don’t take this suggestion seriously, you will be attacked for the famine and all the humanitarian disaster that will be happening
Fearful of the potential civilian casualties heading into the Afghan winter, Ryan wanted the US to engage with the council in order to set up a co-ordinated UN humanitarian response.
“We have a job here,” Ryan said he told Annan. “We have to bring them into the council but obviously we are going to have an uphill battle.”
Ryan later made his case to John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the UN.
“If you don’t take this suggestion seriously, you will be attacked for the famine and all the humanitarian disaster that will be happening and you will not be able to do anything about it because you will be in there on strictly military terms,” Ryan told Negroponte, according to the Irish man’s account.
A flurry of phone calls later, after missiles began flying in Afghanistan, Negroponte called Ryan to tell him: “I think Irish diplomacy is beginning to work.” At that, Ryan lined up a call by then minister for foreign affairs Brian Cowen to Powell.
The article 51 letters setting out the justification for the action subsequently landed on Ryan’s desk. The US was in. Ryan recognised US diplomats were “putting their heads into the lion’s den, totally against the advice of Cheney and Rumsfeld”.
In retrospect, he believes the episode created “a template for the future”. Ryan said Annan told him that he believed “no other country” could have persuaded the Bush administration to engage with the UN but Ireland.
Coming to the table saying Ireland had no agenda was key, said Ryan. “Everything was transparent, everything was clear,” he said. “We weren’t upsetting anybody but the system was already working before troops met each other in the field in Afghanistan.”
Ireland’s membership of the council – the third occasion since 1961 that the Irish have held a seat, each falling roughly at 20-year intervals – was dominated too by responses to the civil war in Angola and the creation of a new country, East Timor. It put Irish diplomats in the front line of international relations.
“We had been seen to a certain extent at the EU but we had never had such exposure in this event [the response to 9/11] and others during those two years,” said Ryan.
‘Wining and dining’
Critics question the cost and effort required from years of lobbying, including the endless meetings, wining and dining for Ireland in foreign countries, to win the temporary seat.
An Irish diplomat once joked there were “no crustaceans left on the sea bed” after the culinary hospitality showered on foreign envoys during the campaign to win a seat 20 years ago.
There is a value there that is not on the balance sheet but that is there in terms of the respect for the country and its ability to participate and work to solve problems
Wesley Boyd, the former Irish Times diplomatic correspondent, described the campaign to win a security council seat last year as “an expensive vanity trip”.
Brian Cowen, minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs the last time Ireland held the council, rejects the view it is a “bookkeeping exercise” carrying a cost for the Irish purse.
“What we derive from this and the standing it brings is not to be underestimated,” he said. “There is a value there that is not on the balance sheet but that is there in terms of the respect for the country and its ability to participate and work to solve problems well beyond our own shores.”
Frank Smyth, director of the UN policy unit at the Department of Foreign Affairs, worked at the UN the last time Ireland was on the council. He says membership not just allowed Ireland to develop a higher profile with all 192 other UN member states but helped strengthen bilateral relations with the five permanent council members – the UK, the US, France, China and Russia – at political and official levels.
“For many countries, the UN is the forum where they are most likely to see Ireland and form an impression of us,” he said. “By acting fairly throughout our term and by handling the heavy council agenda with competence, Ireland left a legacy which enhanced our national standing more broadly.”
Cowen says the experience of serving on the council over the past four decades has allowed successive generations of Irish diplomats to develop skills to operate at the highest level.
“It is not simply a question of prestige, although it is a prestigious thing,” he said. “The sort of training and experience it gives our diplomats on the front line of international politics is of huge benefit in the longer term to the department in how it serves the country and the network it builds up.”
Ryan says the Irish voice is “particularly listened to” at the UN, and Irish diplomats carved out a reputation of speaking carefully, in a considered way and of being effective, fast-moving and transparent.
“We are a small country with a big eye, small but broad-shouldered. We are not afraid to approach difficult delegations and countries.”
What is the United Nations Security Council?
The 15-member United Nations Security Council is one of the six main organs of the UN and is primarily responsible for maintaining international peace and security.
It is the most powerful body in the UN system. Unlike other UN organs, only the council has the power to make decisions that member states are obliged to implement.
Russia/Soviet Union has used its veto powers the most out of the five permanent members of the council. It has used its veto 12 times to shield the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a key ally of the Kremlin, since the country’s civil war began in 2011.
The US has begun using its veto again under Donald Trump’s presidency in support of Israel. The British and French have not used their veto powers for almost 30 years.
If elected to the council, Ireland would hold the monthly presidency of the council at least once during its term as it is rotated alphabetically among the membership.