An Irish barrister is in the running for a post described as one of the most prominent and influential roles for an individual in the international community.

Fergal Gaynor, 49, has been nominated by Ireland for the position of prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

Elections take place in New York today. The post has previously been filled by arriving at a consensus among the 123 states who are parties to the court. This is the first time an election by secret ballot has been held for the role.

Mr Gaynor is one of four candidates for prosecutor. English barrister, Karim Khan is believed to be the favourite. The other candidates are Spanish lawyer Carlos Castresana and Italian prosecutor, Francesco Lo Voi.

The court was established in 2002 as the world's only permanent criminal court and has a wide remit to prosecute alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

However, it has faced criticism over the small number of convictions it has achieved and a perception that it has focused too much on African countries.

Mr Gaynor's parents are from Mullingar in Co Westmeath but he was born in Malawi and brought up there and in eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland). His father, Frank, taught in a government-run school in Malawi while his mother, Monica worked at the country’s tea research foundation and later at a family planning clinic in Swaziland.

He became a boarder at Clongowes Wood school in Co Kildare and went on to study law at Trinity College Dublin.

Mr Gaynor spent time as a commercial solicitor in London and Tokyo but has now spent almost 20 years working in the field of international criminal law. He says living in Africa as a child "100%" inspired his choice of career.

But it took "enormous amounts of resilience" and "lots of job applications" before he finally got a place on the prosecution team at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

He says he counts being involved in the prosecution of the former Serbian warlord, Radovan Karadzic as the "high watermark" of his contribution to criminal justice.

He has also been involved in the prosecution of the Khmer Rouge leadership in Cambodia and of senior officials in the Interim Government of Rwanda.

However, the role of Prosecutor at the ICC would be his most high profile position to date. He describes it as "incredibly consequential."

"The prosecutor essentially sets the direction for the entire court," he says, "he or she decides which investigations the court is going to get involved in."

He says the credibility of the entire court rests to a huge extent on decisions taken by the prosecutor.

That credibility currently hangs in the balance. Shane Darcy, senior lecturer at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway, says the court’s record is "mixed."

It has only recently achieved its fifth ever conviction, in the case of Dominic Ongwen, a former member of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, accused of 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Dr Darcy says trials at the court are perceived as being "slow and costly" and it’s an "unfortunate reality" that the court’s success is assessed mainly on the basis of the number of convictions it achieves.

Acquittals after a fair trial process are also a mark of the court’s success he says, while also acknowledging that it has taken some "poor cases" with no realistic prospects of success.

Dr Donna Lyons, of Trinity College Dublin, agrees. She says it is seen as a very expensive organisation with an annual budget of around €150 million.

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Some major states such as the US, Russia and China are not parties to the court. While she says she would not say there is no confidence in the institution, there are "loud criticisms", creating the risk that more states may pull out.

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Mr Gaynor acknowledges that when you have a court with far more collapsed cases than convictions "the average ordinary observer would consider that the court doesn’t have much credibility".

He believes his experience at the Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Cambodia tribunals will stand to him and enable him to help to achieve convictions and restore credibility.

If he were to become prosecutor he would also have to withstand political pressures and deal with some serious issues in the office itself - a lack of gender balance, allegations of harassment and bullying as well as the fact that many countries who are parties to the court are under-represented or not represented at all in its staff.

Dr Darcy says the next prosecutor will have to be part lawyer, part politician and will have to be "fearless and astute" as well as pragmatic and principled. He describes it as "quite a unique and powerful position in the international community".

The current prosecutor, Gambian lawyer, Fatou Bensouda has tried to widen the court’s focus to look beyond Africa. Her decision to investigate whether American troops committed war crimes in Afghanistan, led to sanctions being imposed against her by the Trump administration.

Mr Gaynor believes it is time for a "mutually beneficial reset" of the relationship between the US and the ICC to try to put it back on an even keel.

Mr Gaynor says he would be humbled and enormously honoured if he were to be chosen as prosecutor. He says the many Irish people working in the field of international law would all have a degree of pride if the prosecutor at the ICC was Irish.

It would also, he believes, be a vote of confidence in Ireland’s commitment to the rule of law.

But the process of selecting a new prosecutor has not been straightforward. The previous two prosecutors have been chosen by a consensus between the states that has not been possible this time.

Mr Gaynor has been a candidate since the middle of last year but the list of candidates was widened and then chopped again until finally a decision was taken five days ago to hold an election.

To become prosecutor, the winning candidate must receive a majority of the votes available – meaning 62 votes or more, cast in a secret ballot.

The first ballot will take place in New York at 3pm Irish time and the result could be known after 9pm tonight.