An Accidental Diplomat by Eamon DelaneyThursday 12 Jul 2001
New Island Books, £9.99
The entry for diplomacy in Ambrose Bierce's masterpiece of Victorian cynicism, the 'Devil's Dictionary', is typically succinct: "Diplomacy (n.) - The patriotic art of lying for one's country." Bierce should really have added "and biting one's tongue", given how devastating a misplaced phrase or casual aside can be in the hypersensitive world of international relations.
This strain between the limitations of diplomatic language and the natural impulses of the writer is palpable in Eamon Delaney's candid and garrulous account of eight years spent as a Third Secretary in Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs.
Delaney has produced a memoir crammed with fascinating detail and memorable characters, while painting a picture of himself as a somewhat reluctant and incredulous bit-player on the broad stage of world affairs.
First-person accounts of the machinations of the state are normally burdened with a barely hidden agenda. Often they are marred by the settling of old scores and an inflated sense of self-importance. By contrast, Eamon Delaney was always conscious of his relatively lowly status in the Civil Service, and the view from below, though possibly less informative, is certainly more entertaining and convivial.
Delaney joined the service in 1987 and picked up a lucky posting to the Consulate in New York. His description of the tension that precedes the allocation of foreign positions is especially memorable - it is difficult not to empathise with someone faced with the prospect of three years in Beijing in the immediate aftermath of Tianemen Square.
It was altogether different for Delaney, whose account of life in New York is tinged with nostalgia. Back then it was a city crammed with the brightest minds of an Irish generation, and the privileges afforded to those living the Manhattan life at the taxpayer's expense are not to be discounted; apartment-hunting, for example. It was explained to the author that he needed a place that would be suitable for the Ambassador in case of emergency, so he got to choose the best the West Village had to offer – well beyond the reach of the average civil servant.
His time in the United Nations was eventful, the alphabetical seating plan in the General Assembly meant he was situated in the "hot corner" between Iran, Iraq and Israel. But it wasn't all about tension and denunciation - early on he was handed a diagram of the General Assembly with biro-rings around the seats of attractive female delegates.
Delaney may make a few stinging comments about the culture of the UN (the smaller the country, the bigger the limo apparently), but generally he is a passionate supporter of the institution, bemoaning the ill-treatment it has received at the hands of the major powers.
Lobbying at the United Nations was a sharp contrast to the homespun Irish-American functions he was obliged to attend as part of his other duties. He paints a subtly hostile picture of the Fourth Green Field simplicity of Republican sympathisers in the Irish community in the States.
The account of whispers and manoeuvring in the Irish peace process is compelling stuff, although far from authoritative, as he would undoubtedly admit himself. In the end, one senses that he was increasingly distracted, and his resignation was inevitable.
Delaney has used his novelist's sense of pace and plotting well and resists the temptation to over-embellish his tales with unlikely inventions. I never dreamt I would read a book about diplomacy and protocol that made me laugh out loud. 'An Accidental Diplomat' is so engaging that, momentarily, I wanted to join the Civil Service...