Eight ways to win a UN election: Vote-trading, bananas and ‘lying bastards’

A guide to how Ireland can secure a Security Council seat, and what we need to avoid

Ireland has just launched its campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council, the most powerful body in the UN system, in 2021-22. Three states – Ireland, Norway and Canada – are competing for two of the rotating seats. The vote is due to take place in June 2020, but already an intensive lobbying campaign is under way. Here are eight tips for a winning campaign:

1. Focus on New York. Longtime observers of the UN estimate that up to a third of the votes in security council elections are cast solely by New York-based diplomats, who either will not have received instructions from their capitals or will ignore them, according to David Malone, a Canadian former diplomat. That means Irish officials in New York will be wining-and-dining for the next two years. It was the same 20 years ago, when Ireland last ran for – and won – a seat. On that occasion, one diplomat told The Irish Times last week, there were "no crustaceans left on the seabed" after all the hospitality extended to foreign envoys.

2. Don’t ask despots for votes. Ministers visiting New York should resist the temptation to sidle up to the North Korean representative, Ja Song Nam, in the canteen and ask him to keep us in mind on polling day. In UN elections, votes are often traded. If it ever became public that Ireland sought the vote of a tyrant, the inevitable follow-up question would be: what did we offer in return?

3. Shore up the core vote. As in any election, Ireland has to bring out its base. As the only EU state in the contest, that means Europe. Ireland will also campaign heavily in the Middle East, where it is relatively well-regarded (and Canada is much less popular). The most difficult regions for Ireland will be those where it has little diplomatic presence, such as francophone Africa and Latin America.


4. Pick a theme and hammer it home. A problem this time is that Ireland’s selling points – a commitment to human rights, democracy and multilateralism – do not exactly distinguish it from Norway and Canada, who also like these things and often have more money to spend on them. Expect Ireland to argue at every opportunity that it will bring the perspective of a small country to the council. Given that a majority of voting states are also small, it’s a message with wide appeal. After all, Tuvalu’s vote is as important as China’s. On a related point:

5. Hope a large country barges into the contest at the last minute in an attempt to target Ireland's votes. This is what Italy did in the 2001-02 contest. Paradoxically, Italy's clumsy intervention helped Ireland, in that Dublin was able to argue that these seats shouldn't be for large countries that seek membership of the council on an almost semipermanent basis. Italy's attempt to target Ireland's votes went down badly. On the day of the vote, Ireland finished first with 130 votes, followed by Norway on 114. Italy won just 94 votes and lost out on a seat.

10 per cent of written commitments and 20 per cent of oral ones must be discounted

6. Spend some time in the Caribbean. Assuming the delegation goes easy on the expense account, a trip to the Caribbean can be an efficient way of hoovering up some votes. That's because the 14 states of the Caricom group (a) try to coordinate their voting (b) are small and (c) are close together. Mary Whelan, a former Irish ambassador, recalls that in January 1999, during the last campaign, a delegation led by then minister for foreign affairs David Andrews toured the Caribbean looking for votes, and picked up important declarations of support.

7. Listen. In any election, voters look for a candidate who understands their problems. A UN election is no different. Security council votes are virtually the only leverage some states possess at the UN, as Malone points out, so they milk them for all they are worth. Everywhere he went in the Caribbean in 1999, Andrews was told how an EU-US dispute over bananas was affecting local producers. Many states couldn’t care less what Ireland thinks about multilateralism, but they’ll be very keen to know that Dublin is sound on whatever regional issue is of most concern to them.

8. Don't take Yes for an answer. Voting is by secret ballot. That means it's easy for states to lie about their votes without fear of being found out. One master of UN politics, Italy's Paolo Fulci, came up with a formula: 10 per cent of written commitments and 20 per cent of oral ones must be discounted. Australia fell victim to this problem in 1996. Just after his country lost out in a security council election that year, Australia's UN permanent representative, Richard Butler, was asked to explain the loss. "Rotten lying bastards," he replied.