Can Eamon Gilmore, and Ireland, rediscover the mojo for the UN’s diplomatic excitement?Image

Eamon Gilmore has not been about much in the last week. That’s because as Foreign Minister he has been attending the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York.  For a Foreign Minister or for an official involved or even for just an observer this is about as exciting as it gets: the world’s foreign ministers, and many Prime Ministers and even Presidents converge in the famous UN building in Manhattan for the opening of a new session of the UN’s ‘parliament’ hoping for a better year in the international arena.

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t really know it in Ireland. Such is the recent philistinism in Ireland about international affairs, enhanced by the understandable self-absorption of our economic crisis, that there is little interest in what the Irish Foreign Minister is saying on our behalf. And it’s a feeling that is almost shared by the Tanaiste himself. Though he fulfils his brief job commendably, Gilmore is preoccupied with the country’s financial woes and is said to be nervous about how his foreign travels will play with a hard-pressed public. As he says himself about the bailout, he’ll do what has to be done – and not a penny more.

It’s a pity. The opening of the UN General Assembly, which last just a few days, is an extraordinary event. In the famous name-plated chamber, with its and green marble podium, Foreign Minister and other VIPs give statements on behalf of their countries and their blocs – EU, Latin America, Asia- while in the margins, notably in the famous Chinese Lounge, at the back of the chamber, the foreign dignitaries hubbub with all the bustle of a diplomatic horse fair.  Twenty minute bilateral meetings are held – the countries that Ireland wants to meet, the countries who want to meet us. As a young official, I had to secure the sofa space for these ‘speed-dating’ meetings, and watch the parade of famous faces.


Meanwhile, inside in the chamber some even more famous faces would be speaking. Each country sends at least its Foreign Minister, but also every few years, it’s Prime Minister or President to greet and speak on its behalf. I was there, sitting beside the ‘Ireland’ nameplate to see Nelson Mandela speak, and George Bush Senior and our own President Mary Robinson when she spoke out about Somali famine. And momentous things do happen here, because it is, quite literally the one room where everybody in the world gets together, with consequent chance – or not so chance – encounters which break the ice in long festering conflicts.

And so it was this week, when President Obama followed up on an extraordinarily good run of diplomacy by talking to the new Iranian President, the first such encounter since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Both men addressed the UN General Assemebly and their sideline telephone chat brought a new and hopeful thaw in Iran’s frozen relations with the West. US officials even presented the Iranian with the gift of an ancient Persian drinking vessel – a Middle Eastern version of Haughey’s teapot for Maggie, perhaps! Diplomacy does work, you see. It follows on from Obama’s successful securing from the Syrians a commitment to destroy their stock pile of chemical weapons. And now the Iranians have agreed to enter into negotiations reducing their nuclear weapons technology – and everyone else’s of course.

So it’s proof that Obama’s ultra-cautious approach can work and does pay dividends. Granted, the Syrian concession came after the Russians threw it into his lap, as a way of getting their client-state Syria off the hook. But it’s still a diplomatic success. And this from the US President who ‘took out’ Osama Bin Laden and Ghaddafi, so he can do things ‘the other way’, as well.

But the Iranian move is an example of the success of the UN’s atmosphere, especially at the General Assembly. Despite having to listen to many hours of long speeches, especially after the VIPs had left, I was always conscious of Churchill’s maxim ‘better jaw-jaw than war-war’ and that this great room was the place where such crucial life-saving encounters take place. It’s just a pity that we not so seem so interested about it. But we will do so again, when this economic crisis passes. The UN, after all, is where Ireland came of age as a state, long before we joined the EU. It was at the UN, that Ireland defied the US, and the Vatican, by supporting the admission of ‘red China’, and where we joined peacekeeping missions in the Congo in which our soldiers died. It is the place where the world comes together.