A new documentary series on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta talks to eight former ambassadors to explore the challenges Ireland has faced on the international stage over the last century. It's sometimes been a delicate balancing act, as producer and presenter Dónall Ó Maolfabhail explains
Just over 100 years ago, the Irish Free State was declared. But if the struggle for independence had been a long and difficult one, the fledgling independent state now faced an equally arduous one, not just to survive and develop, but to do so in a manner that would earn the respect of the other nations of the world.
While Ireland as a nation may have an ancient history, the Irish state is a very young concept. For an island that had been ruled for 800 years by an English king or queen to suddenly, on the 6th of December 1922, try to persuade the rest of the world that part of it was now an independent state, was always going to be difficult.
At the time, there were many at home and abroad, who did not believe it would survive, but survive and thrive it did. In 1923 it asserted its sovereignty through membership of the League of Nations. Yet despite this, even the United States Government, with its strong Irish links, continued to view the British Government as the legitimate authority that represented Ireland on international matters. It was only in October 1924 that the US Government recognised an official Irish ambassador.
A man by the name of Joseph P Walshe and another man called Sean Murphy are credited with building the Irish Free State's Department of External Affairs. Thanks to the state’s political leaders, and the skilled work of men such as Walshe, who would head External Affairs from 1922 to 1946, the Irish state, by the time it declared itself a republic in 1948, was recognised and respected internationally as an independent state in its own right.
If earning the respect of the other nations of the world was difficult for the fledgling state, maintaining it over the next 50 years would be equally so, with the potential that one wrong step or move could see many years of good work undone. In the ten-part series An Stát Úr Nua which begins on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta on Sunday the 15th of January at 7 pm, eight former ambassadors provide an insight into some of the various challenges they had to overcome, and a panel of experts, made up of academics and commentators, analyse what the state did well and what can be learned from past mistakes.
While Taoiseach Eamon De Valera's neutral stance during World War two – at least officially if not in practice - had saved Ireland from the destruction suffered by much of Europe, it is widely believed that this same stance may also explain why Ireland was not permitted to join the United Nations until ten years after the founding of the organization. Despite this, on joining the UN in 1955, Irish diplomats, under the skilled leadership of the then minister for Foreign Affairs Frank Aiken, continued with the same policy.
While Taoiseach Eamon De Valera's official neutral position – if not in practice - had saved Ireland from the destruction suffered by much of Europe, it is widely believed that this same stance may also have contributed to Ireland not being admitted into the United Nations until 1955, ten years after it had been founded. Despite this, on joining the UN, Irish diplomats, under the skilled leadership of the then minister for Foreign Affairs Frank Aiken, continued with the same policy.
In the first programme in the series An Stát Úr Nua, Noel Dorr, who worked in the UN alongside Aiken, says that this policy allowed Ireland to play a delicate, if crucial, role on the question of whether the government in Taiwan or Beijing should represent China at the UN and that this earned the state great plaudits at the time. However, many years later, as Ireland's ambassador to the UN, Ireland’s policy of neutrality during the Falklands War would pose a difficulty for Mr Dorr.
Long before the Irish state was founded or had a diplomatic team, there were people in other parts of the world promoting Irish interests. Few states can boast of a diaspora that is ten times greater than the size of its own population. It is even arguable whether the Irish state would ever have come about, were it not for the support of the diaspora.
Yet the diaspora, as much as being an advantage to the state, can be problematic. According to the former ambassador to Argentina Paula Ní Shlataire, when the diaspora and Irish state policy are not at one it can be very challenging, as she herself found out when she made the Irish embassy in Buenos Aires available for the launch of a book about a member of the Argentinian Irish diaspora. She recalls this experience in the second programme in the new series.
Keeping the peace
The longer one is a member of any club such as the UN, the more becomes expected of them. In 1958 Ireland was asked by the UN would it provide Irish soldiers for a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East, a role it maintains to this day. These operations were not without a cost. In total 324 Irish soldiers have given their lives on UN duty. As former ambassador to the Lebanon, where most Irish soldiers lost their lives, Gearóid Ó Cléirigh, recalls in the third programme, how trying to hold anyone to account in the case of such tragic incidents, was very difficult.
As former ambassador Antóin Mac Unfraidh, who spent considerable time trying to bring about peace in the Balkans, also points out, Ireland's peace-keeping role has over the years dramatically expanded.
Despite being an independent state, the Irish economy was intertwined for many years with that of its nearest neighbour. In 1972 this all began to change when Ireland voted to join one of the most powerful clubs in the world, the European Economic Community.
While this membership helped to greatly transform Ireland, it also presented our diplomats with many challenges. During his time as ambassador in Spain, Gearóid Ó Cléirigh had to defuse a near international incident that erupted over a fishing row. In this fourth programme also, Seán Ó Huiginn explains how, many years later, as ambassador in Germany, he had the difficult task of explaining to the German government why the Irish people had rejected the Nice Treaty.
Long before the Irish state was founded, Irish priests and nuns had earned Ireland a reputation as a nation that helped poorer parts of the world, but becoming a member of the EEC saw a greater expectation on Ireland to do so in an official capacity.
In 1974, the then minister for foreign affairs Garret Fitzgerald set up a particular division in the Department of Foreign Affairs called Irish Aid to coordinate this work. But as Ireland's overseas aid role grew, so did the challenges. According to Máirtín Ó Fainín who was ambassador to Uganda, the difficulty always was ensuring that the money the Irish Government gave was used for the right purposes. His memories of administering Irish Aid projects in Africa are to be heard in the fifth programme.
Because of Ireland's own experience of being colonised, the Irish state in its early years adopted a strong stance in support of African colonies trying to assert their independence. According to Noel Dorr, after Ireland joined the EEC this became far more difficult, as many of the countries the African Colonies were trying to gain independence from were now our European partners. Yet, as we hear in the sixth programme, as Ireland’s ambassador to the UN Mr Dorr made a valiant attempt during the eighties to try and dismantle the apartheid system that existed in what was called at the time South West Africa, known today as Namibia.
If Ireland's work overseas was enhancing the state’s international standing, one problem closer to home was bringing it unwanted attention. Contrary to the aims of the first Dáil, the independent state that was declared to the world in 1922 only consisted of 26 counties, with a border separating it from the other six. In 1969 this came back to haunt the Irish state when the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland. Dealing with a conflict that involved one’s nearest neighbour was always going to be an immense diplomatic challenge. Though both governments wanted to bring the violence to an end, according to the former ambassador Seán Ó hUiginn there was not always agreement on how this could best be achieved and he recalls in the seventh programme how great diplomatic skill was required when, during the Peace Process, a disagreement arose over how best to achieve IRA decommissioning.
While EU membership and global inward investment saw the Irish economy become less dependent on agriculture, Noel Fahey recalls in the eight programme how, as ambassador to Germany, the outbreak of mad cow disease presented him with an immense problem. Of course by the year 2000 the Irish economy was the envy of the world. The Celtic Tiger according to Donal Hamill saw Irish businesses flourish in new places such as the Czech Republic where he himself was ambassador at the time. However if the Celtic Tiger brought with it opportunities, the subsequent economic crash that followed would be very challenging.
Irish culture in a globalised world
In an increasingly globalized world, a state's unique individual culture takes on additional importance. As a predominantly English-speaking nation adjacent to another English speaking nation, having a distinct identity was always going to be a challenge. While there is a worldwide interest in Irish culture, promoting it outside this jurisdiction could at times be problematic for our diplomats, as Máirtín Ó Fainín found out when trying to include provisions in relation to the Irish language in the Good Friday Agreement, an experience he talks about in the penultimate programme.
The Security Council
Perhaps the greatest indication of the Irish state's standing in the world is the fact that it has been voted onto the UN Security Council four times. While sitting alongside the most powerful nations in the world, has enhanced Ireland’s standing, it has also posed Irish diplomats many challenges over the years. As Noel Dorr recalls in the final programme of the series, the Irish Government was initially reluctant to take a position on the Security Council when first requested to do so for this very reason. In 2001 Ireland learnt exactly just how tricky sitting on the Security Council was when, during its chairmanship, two planes flew into the twin towers in New York, killing thousands of people in the process.
There is much credit due to the Irish men and women who with great diplomatic skill negotiated many obstacles in order to maintain and enhance this state’s standing in the world. But could they have done it better?
An Stát Úr Nua begins 15th of January 2023 on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. You can listen to it here. An Stát Úr Nua is produced by Scun Scan Productions, with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the BAI. Dónall Ó Maolfabhail is series presenter and producer.