LAST week, and with little fanfare, Ireland won a seat for the fourth time on the prestigious Security Council of the United Nations.
Our successful campaign, constructed on a theme of Empathy, Partnership and Independence, was clearly recognition of our long and proud commitment to UN peacekeeping missions.
Facing tough opposition from Norway and Canada for one of the two places to be filled, our Irish diplomatic corps are to be congratulated on the effectiveness of their efforts.
There is no doubt that the role of our Defence Forces was also a significant contributory factor in our diplomatic victory; Ireland having one of the highest per capita troop contributions to UN peacekeeping operations in the world, and a footprint on every continent, with 70,000 peacekeeping trips completed over 62 years of unbroken UN peacekeeping. I can proudly say during my military career I wore the Blue Beret and contributed to that number.
Likewise, our long, distinguished diplomatic contribution to the UN since we joined in 1955 will not have done us any harm.
Having edged out Canada to win the seat, the big question is: to what extent can we use this position of influence to effect meaningful change in relation to issues such as human rights, global development and peacekeeping; and to what extent, if any, can we help implement change and reform of the structures of the UN itself?
Historically speaking, smaller countries like Ireland have been able, through clarity and determination, to influence the decisions of the UN Security Council. Disarmament and non-proliferation have been signature foreign policy priorities for Ireland since the very earliest days of our UN membership.
Led by Frank Aiken and helped by Conor Cruise O’Brien, our early efforts at the UN in the 1950s led to the creation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968; Aiken having introduced a non-proliferation resolution to the UN each year from 1958 to 1961.
Of all the international institutions created in the aftermath of World War II, none matches the UN Security Council in power and global influence. It is regarded by many as the most powerful international institution in the history of the nation-state system. A seat is viewed as the pinnacle of diplomatic achievement, as it gives countries a strong voice in matters concerning international peace and security.
The Security Council’s rotating members are drawn from different blocs. Ireland sits in the ‘Western European and Other States’ sector. For a resolution to be passed, nine of the 15 Council members must vote for it, but the permanent members, USA, Russia, China, UK and France, have a veto which essentially means many decisions are ambiguous or compromised to the extent they are often meaningless.
Security Council membership offers very clear opportunities, especially for small countries, to take a leadership role in guiding the future direction of the organisation. The presidency of the Council is held by each of the members in turn for one month, following the English alphabetical order of the Member States’ names.
During Ireland’s last term we held the Presidency in October, 2001, when U.S and UK military forces attacked targets in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks a month earlier. Suddenly, as result of our temporary membership of a global body responsible for maintaining world peace, the Ambassador of a small country found himself leading the UN response to a major international conflict
Winning a seat puts Ireland at the heart of UN decision-making on international peacekeeping and allows us to initiate a discussion on the crucial structural reforms, explicit political strategies, or the clarity on mandates, that UN peacekeeping forces will require in the face of immense, unpredictable future challenges.
Spearheading a campaign for reform of the organisation, to make it a more democratic and effective tool for international peace, could also be a key plank in our strategy to be a force to reckon with on the newly constituted body.
Reform has been a question challenging policymakers, diplomats and academics for decades. There is widespread agreement that reform of the oligarchic body is needed but little consensus on the best way to do it. Part, if not all the problem, lies with the right of veto granted to the big five, which generally results in stalemate whenever these countries disagree. Another problem is the composition of the Council still reflects the politics of the 1940s, despite significant geopolitical developments since. In 1945, the Council consisted of 11 members out of a total UN membership of 51 countries; in other words, 22% of the member states were on the Security Council. Today, there are 192 members of the UN, and only 15 members of the Council, fewer than 8%!
Membership will give Ireland an opportunity to influence the Council’s response to the conflicts and injustices that now disfigure our planet. As a long-time contributor to peacekeeping missions, we should champion the concept that future UN missions will not be hampered by flawed, diluted mandates resulting from the realpolitik compromises of the major players. Ultimately, we need to champion the reconciliation of the politics of the Security Council with the requirements of Peacekeepers and NGOs on the ground.
The diaspora policy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad. Irish-born Samantha Power, a former US Ambassador to the UN , with Cork connections, could have a contribution to make to our team on this international body. We should not be afraid to reach out given that since 2017, U.S foreign policy has become more unpredictable, with greater emphasis on sovereignty and reduced focus on international alliances. Her vast experience in U.S politics could prove advantageous; depending of course on who wins the upcoming presidential election.
As we attempt to bring about change, we will no doubt encounter far more resistance on the issue of structural reform than issues such as global development and the furtherance of human rights. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In the past, Aiken and O’Brien were pivotal campaigners and trailblazers in the pursuit of justice. As Fergal Quinn said, the impossible is often the untried, so let’s try to be a force for meaningful change again during our new term at the top table