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Above: Frank Aiken, George Colley and Con Cremin at the UN in 1967

Book review

Frank Aiken- Nationalist and Internationalist

Edited by Bryce Evans and Stephen Kelly (Irish Academic Press) 340 pp,

With all the focus on the big personalities in our State’s creation, like Michael Collins and De Valera, there is a tendency to overlook other very influential figures. One such is Frank Aiken, a man particularly interesting given his conversion from militant Irish Republican, and Chief of Staff of the IRA to a progressive Foreign Minister dedicated to promoting peace and international co-operation as well as Ireland’s pioneering role at the United Nations.

It is a fascinating story, and one well told in this excellent series of essays which essentially tells Aiken’s life story through its various chapters and policy initiatives. Now that Ireland is once again consumed by self-absorption and our economic situation, it is especially heartening to read how a small independent republic broke out of its isolation and took stands on international issues, consistent with its post-colonial reputation, talking up for other small nations and weaving a way between the power blocs of the Cold War.

This independent role predates Ireland’s current situation as an integrated EU member, but it remains the core principle of our foreign policy, and much of it is the personal legacy of this very tall, often dour and stubborn Armagh man, who incidentally remained a life-long Irish Republican bitterly opposed to partition. But he was not violently opposed. Indeed, it was Aiken’s early involvement in violence – he was controversially involvement in a brutal reprisal killing of Protestants in – Altnaveigh in County Armagh in 1922, for example – that seems to have forswore him way from such often counterproductive methods and when the North erupted again later in 1969, he was among those Fianna Fail veterans who urged the party and Government to totally oppose the Provisional IRA and the sack the Arms Trial conspirators.

Having said that, Aiken spent decades banging on unsuccessfully about partition while failing to actually engage with the Ulster Unionists, but he would not be alone in that. But although he accompanied De Valera on a futile worldwide ‘anti-partition campaign’ in 1948, he avoided bringing up the matter at the UN where such bilateral issues usually bored the UN members, especially when Irish neutrality in World War 2 was also held against us.

Instead, Aiken became a UN team player and supported the organisation in its laudable policy that, as Churchill put it, ‘jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.’ There is thus a nice consistency that the man who ordered the anti-Treaty IRA to ‘dump arms’ and end the Irish Civil War was the also man who urged the world community in the 1950s to do the same with their plans for nuclear weapons.

Ireland’s lead initiative on this was specifically honoured when in 1968, when Aiken was invited to Moscow by Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to be the first Minister to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) even though it was a mostly bilateral treaty between the Soviets and Americans. It was a proud moment, and one which put Ireland on the world stage. It was also consistent with De Valera’s work with the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, and a legacy of Dev’s too often overlooked.

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Above: Chinese UN peacekeepers

But it was an independent policy not without controversy. The Americans, and the Catholic church, were furious when Aiken supported the right of ‘Red China’ to seek their proper admittance to the UN General Assembly, although he later annoyed the Chinese too by speaking up for occupied Tibet. Aiken supported situations that he felt had a parallel with Ireland. There is a fascinating essay about how a desire to publicly condemn the proposed British partition of Cyprus in 1957 (sound familiar?) and the use of harsh military measures there, might actually backfire given that Ireland was also being challenged internationally about its own introduction of internment at that time against Republicans.

The other big cause for Aiken, and a mainstay of Irish foreign policy since, was criticism of Israel and support for the rights of Palestinian refugees. However, his commitment of Irish public money to the UN aid programme for such refugees- dwarfing that of all other aid– is a sign of a Minister perhaps gone too native in his role. Indeed, his obsession with certain foreign issues often brought criticism from fellow FF ministers and the Opposition.

For example, he was almost unique among foreign Ministers in spending virtually all of the 3 month General Assembly session in New York. However, there is something refreshing about an Irish politician who prepared to skip the intrigues and become so focused on international issues. By contrast, one of the reasons for his final retirement was anger at the party’s inability to stop the rise of one Charles J Haughey – so had serious foresight.