The room depicted in the scene is the chamber where the United Nations Security Council was meeting to consider the potential global disaster that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the camera pans, it rests for a second on one diplomat, the plaque in front of him reading “Ireland.”
The near world war of October 1962, 40 years ago almost to the day, was Ireland’s baptism of fire on the Security Council, a gathering then locked into the bitter fixed positions of the Cold War at its very chilliest.
Ireland has been a rotating member of the UN’s inner wheel on three occasions. And each time there has been a war, a threat of war, or a crisis signaling the possibility of both.
The Irish membership in 1962 was a year-long affair. These days, the 10 rotating members on the 15-seat council are allowed a two-year term.
Ireland’s second membership of the council came 20 years ago and the crisis then was the Falklands War and that all too hardy annual, the Middle East.
Irish membership of the council at that time coincided with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the advance on Beirut.
Another 20 years on and the flashpoints have shifted to Afghanistan, Iraq and, indeed, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Security Council’s home base of New York City.
Irish membership, war or the prospect of it, would appear to be intertwined to the point of near certainty. But even as some factors remain constant, others change.
Back in 1962, the Irish delegation had little hesitation in deciding on which side of the burning issue it should plant the Irish flag.
“Ireland backed the United States to the hilt when the Cuban missile crisis erupted in the autumn of 1962,” wrote Joseph Morrison Skelly in his 1997 definitive study of Ireland’s record at the UN, “Irish Diplomacy At The United Nations, 1945-1965.”
As it turned out, the Security Council never actually passed any resolutions on the missile crisis. It worked itself out before a vote became necessary. But after the air had cleared, then Taoiseach Sean Lemass made it abundantly clear the Irish delegation would have voted for any U.S. resolution set before the council.
To underscore this proximity to the U.S. view of things, Lemass, a few days after the crisis had passed, agreed to a U.S. request for searches of Czechoslovakian Cuba-bound planes refueling at Shannon. Washington suspected that the planes were carrying munitions. Searches were conducted but nothing was found.
The Irish position on the council during the Falklands conflict did not have such a direct bearing on immediate U.S. interests, but it certainly had an effect on British interests and, hence, indirectly, the special relationship between London and Washington.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was fit to be tied on more than one occasion as the Irish delegation took a leading role in attempting to subject the war to the Security Council’s mediating influence.
After the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, the Irish delegation called for an immediate meeting of the Security Council, one that would likely have resulted in strongly worded criticism of British actions and a certain veto of any resulting resolution by the British, one of the permanent five Security Council members who enjoy such power.
The Irish delegation was persuaded to relent on its request for a meeting but the Irish later managed to introduce a resolution before the council aimed at securing a cessation of hostilities following landings on the islands by British forces.
Thatcher later described the Irish resolution as “totally unacceptable.” Suffice it to say, it went through considerable amendment as a result of input from council members more absolutely sympathetic to the British position.
Twenty years on again and Ireland’s current membership of the Security Council has a more 1962 flavor to it as a result of the U.S. gearing up for a possible conflict, not with Cuba and the Soviet Union, but with Iraq.
The Irish position this time around might not be quite as unequivocal as it was 40 years ago.
Ireland held a one-month presidency of the Security Council at the point a year ago when the war against terrorism took flight, literally, in Afghanistan.
The Irish backed the U.S. and allied action in Afghanistan, endorsed as it was by a Security Council resolution, to the extent that eastbound U.S. military planes were allowed fly over Irish air space and use Shannon Airport as a refueling facility.
“We have a responsibility as a member of the Security Council to demonstrate that within the limited means available to us that we are prepared to facilitate that resolution being complied with and implemented,” Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen said during a visit to New York just a few days before Ireland took over the Security Council presidency.
Bombing of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces started a week into the Irish presidency. It was, of course, a war aimed at terrorism and Ireland has little problem with that concept.
A few weeks ago, Ireland’s point man at the Security Council table, Ambassador Gerard Corr, spoke at a council debate on “Threats to International Peace and Security Caused by Terrorist Acts.”
“Those who perpetrate acts of international terrorism are the enemies of all states, and they must be the friends of none,” said Corr, who is one of two senior Irish diplomats presently serving at the UN with ambassadorial rank, the other being Ireland’s ambassador to the UN as a whole, Richard Ryan.
However, there was a caveat at the end of Corr’s speech.
“The fight against international terrorism can never be at the expense of human rights,” he said. “This is not a point of narrow emphasis: if we go down that road in the international community, and it is a slippery road, then we are lost and so are core values that the UN stands for.”
And yes, even Saddam Hussein has his rights.
The Security Council is this week embroiled in the thorny issue of what to do with Saddam’s Iraq.
But unlike 1962, the chances of Ireland backing the U.S. “to the hilt” on the Security Council with regard to Iraq would appear to be only so-so.
Ireland has no problem at all with the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq and supports total and unfettered access for any and all inspection teams.
But, as John Deady, counselor at the Permanent Irish Mission to the United Nations and the mission’s expert on Iraq and the Middle East, pointed out, the issue of inspections is entirely separate from the currently oft-heard refrain from Washington: “regime change.”
Ireland places paramount importance on the rule of international law and forcefully changing a UN member state’s ruling regime, no matter how odious, is not something that Ireland will easily countenance.
Deady is concerned that the United States will become impatient at the pace of resumed weapons inspections to the point that a military conflict night overtake diplomatic efforts to resolve the issues surrounding Iraq.
The process of fully resuming full scale inspections throughout Iraq could take months, he said.
And by the tenor of comments currently emerging from the White House, months might be months too many.
The exact wording of a now anticipated Security Council resolution dealing with the matter of suspected Iraqi weapons of mass destruction will be especially crucial in this context.
Corr explained that a resolution, possibly the first of several, would first be first worked over by the permanent five members of the Security Council, the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China.
“It will be important to keep a close eye on the Russians and the French will likely come up with wording of their own,” Corr said.
Once the resolution is hammered out, or indeed if one actually is, it will be voted on by all 15 members of the council. Ireland has until Dec. 31 before its present stint on the council expires, so it is certain that the Irish view of the Iraq situation will become plainly evident.
As John Deady explained, the Security Council is a bit like a boxing ring. “There’s nowhere to hide,” he said.
Not that Ireland is historically shy in the councils of the United Nations. The world body has been a frequent stage for a very public explanation as to where Ireland sits in the world and sees it.
The term “flurry of diplomatic activity” is a careworn clich