Security Council role the challenge of lifetime
Ireland's election to the Security Council of the United Nations calls for celebration. It was a triumph for David Andrews, Mary Whelan and their colleagues, political and official, whose campaign won more votes than anyone expected.
It's the challenge of a lifetime for Brian Cowen and Richard Ryan, our representative in the General Assembly, who'll take his place on the Security Council in January. It's a post that has been held by two of our most distinguished diplomats: Frederick Boland in 1962 and Noel Dorr in 1982.
Ireland's election on this occasion calls for celebration because, now more than ever, the world needs small states like this, with a history like ours and the resources - human, technical and financial - to make ourselves heard above cries of conflict and desperation.
So how do we meet our obligations to the constituency of small, developing states which voted for us at the UN? Cowen anticipated the question in an address to the Irish Portuguese Friendship Society on October 6th.
"Although 70 per cent of our manufacturing output is exported and Ireland ranks second only to Luxembourg in the OECD in terms of openness to trade," he said, "our foreign policy is about much more than self-interest. It is a statement of the kind of people we are . . ."
And that means not only asking how we behave in international forums and contribute to overseas aid but, as Mary Robinson reminded us during the week, examining how we receive those who, for one reason or another, seek refuge here. At a conference in Strasbourg in advance of the UN's world conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, she said that manifestations of racism and intolerance were now commonplace in Europe. And, noting the emergence of racist attitudes in societies where they had not been so evident before, she offered three examples: Ireland, Finland and Spain.
Later, suggesting that governments should make full use of the international human rights instruments, and in particular the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, she pointed to two members of the Council of Europe which had so far failed to ratify the convention: Ireland and Turkey.
Western Europe's very high level of prosperity made it inevitable that it would continue to attract asylum-seekers and refugees in large numbers. The movement of population from poorer to richer areas was a worldwide trend and was not about to go away.
But, said Mrs Robinson, in a passage which might have been written for Ireland: "The term `asylum-seeker' has even become in some countries a term of abuse. Asylum-seekers find themselves doubly stigmatised as `aliens' and as `cheaters', if not criminals, for no other sin than having entered Fortress Europe."
Yesterday she was due to meet one of the sentries of Fortress Europe, John O'Donoghue, to discuss another area in which this State has been dragging its heels: the funding of the human rights body being set up in the Republic under the Belfast Agreement.
Observers and the Opposition, meanwhile, have begun to look again at the intriguing difference which seems to be emerging between Brian Cowen's views and the direction taken by Sile de Valera and her fellow cultural defenders - Charlie McCreevy, Mary Harney and Bertie Ahern. (The political scientist and historian Tom Garvin, you may need to be reminded, used the term "cultural defenders" to describe those who detected or imagined a threat to "our culture" on such constitutional issues as divorce and abortion.)
Sile de Valera's complaint of a threat to "our culture, identity and traditions" posed by unspecified directives of the European Union has never been fully explained. But, given the alacrity with which Mary Harney stepped in to back her up, it can safely be assumed that the culture in question had more to do with the market than the language. Or the cupla focail, which is about all the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands can muster.
Indeed, Proinsias De Rossa has asked more than once why she hasn't attended five of the most recent meetings of the Cultural Council. Five sessions without as much as a single "anseo". Cowen's October 6th speech contradicts the cultural defenders, though he chooses to call them commentators rather than colleagues. "Perhaps the most exciting development for the European Union in the years immediately ahead is the enlargement process. What we are undertaking is truly historic.
"Sometimes commentators suggest that the enlargement we are now undertaking is a project so bogged down in difficulties that it will have long-term negative effects. I do not agree with this assertion . . .
"I know some say that Portugal and Ireland on the most westerly border of the EU may suffer the effect of a pull to the East. This is a very simplistic and short-sighted approach. In my view, the broader geographical spread of the Union will counterbalance centralising forces and lead to a new dynamic at the periphery."
In the meantime, he may turn his attention to the EU measures - especially those in the areas of environment and workers' rights - which Ireland has blocked or failed to implement.
And as he looks to the UN and the reforming role that Ahern has promised, he may point to the need for a better balance in the Security Council itself. Ruairi Quinn has proposed that the EU replace Britain and France and questions the omission of India and Japan.
If he were to take up these suggestions Cowen wouldn't be breaking new ground for an Irish Foreign Minister. Frank Aiken once defied the United States - and some eminent churchmen - by insisting that the admission of China should at least be discussed. It was only when Sean Lemass took a hand in the 1960s - and gave ground to secure investment - that Aiken toed the American line.