Russian assault on Ukraine puts Ireland in high-level diplomatic arena at UN

UN Security Council role gives Ireland key place in ‘court of global public opinion’

Ireland's membership of the United Nations Security Council, now in the second year of its two-year tenure, has put the Government's foreign representatives on an elevated stage at a moment when Russia has launched a full-scale military attack on Ukraine.

As a small nation with temporary membership of the UN's 15-nation inner sanctum, Ireland has contributed to council debates as the crisis has escalated, supporting Ukraine's sovereignty and territory integrity and calling Russia's actions a "flagrant violation of international law".

Ireland's ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, spoke at an emergency session on Monday night which was called after Russian leader Vladimir Putin recognised Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine as independent entities and ordered Russian troops into the two regions.

Even the calling of the meeting at short notice was in line with the Government’s view that the council must remain relevant, engaged and open to meet as crises dictates. The fact that Russia holds the council’s rotating presidency makes statements at these meetings even more important.

Russian veto

Russia’s veto power as one of the five permanent members of the council - with ally China as another ‘P5’ member - limits resolutions being passed against the Kremlin or any unanimous declaration of condemnation against Putin, but the council is seen as playing an important role in the public-relations war.

"The view within the Biden administration is that this is a global crisis and the UN Security Council is an appropriate forum and has an important role to play," said Tom Wright, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the US-based foreign policy think tank.

“Even if it is not going to be possible to get action, this is where the case can be made in the court of global public opinion.”

The council can be used as a forum to sway countries that might up til now have had good relations with Russian or to raise concern about the humanitarian consequences of Russia’s actions.

“It is not just about condemnation but trying to mobilise like-minded countries to mitigate some of the worst consequences of the invasion,” said Wright.

The powerful speech delivered by Kenya's ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani at Monday's emergency session, which generated headlines around the world, shows the capacity of small nations to be the pebble in the shoe of large nations.

"This situation echoes our history," Kimani said. "Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the end of an empire. Our borders are not of our own drawings. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart."

The Kenyan statement showed how even small countries could use the highest level of a country’s representation globally to put a strong statement on the historical record.

Global perspective

“It wasn’t just a condemnation but it was setting it in the context of colonialism and giving the global perspective of what this represented,” said Wright.

Nason has also evoked Ireland’s own past in voicing support for Ukraine, telling the council last week that its sovereign right to defend itself was “a right that Ireland struggled to obtain”.

As one of only two EU states on the council, there will be a lot of pressure on Irish officials to reflect the EU position on Ukraine. "We will stick quite close to France, " said one diplomat.

Another international forum the Government will have an eye on is the Council of Europe, where Ireland takes over as chair in May.

Russia is a member of the 47-nation council and Irish diplomats could find themselves in another central role when Russia’s suspension from the council could be considered, should the situation deteriorate further in Ukraine.

“If you put yourself forward for positions, you have to be prepared to take on the difficult stuff,” said one Irish official.