Tánaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dick Spring, speaking on "Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations"
Comments by the Tánaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dick Spring,
launching "Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations 1945-1965"
18 June 1997
This is the first opportunity I have had to address a public gathering since the recent general election. I am reminded of John F Kennedy's remarks to a group of businessmen in 1961:
" it would be premature to ask your support in the next election and inaccurate to thank you for it in the past!" President Kennedy was nothing if not a shrewd and honest observer of his own administration. He once commented that the worse it got, the more popular he seemed to become. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to hold true in Irish politics!
The past five years have been eventful in Foreign Policy terms: the Downing Street Declaration,
the Joint Framework Document and the IRA ceasefire; the White Paper on Foreign Policy; the
Irish Presidency and, hot off the presses, the Treaty of Amsterdam. Yet as one who participated closely in all of these, I can say without hesitation that one of the truly great moments for me as Minister for Foreign Affairs was my first address to the United Nations General Assembly on
1 October 1993. It is an extraordinary privilege to address the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of one's country. To do so four times is a rare privilege and one accorded only to three of my predecessors in Iveagh House: Frank Aiken, Peter Barry and Brian Lenihan.
For nine of the ten years under review in Dr Skelly's book, Frank Aiken was Minister for External Affairs and this book is really about him and about a remarkable group of officials who worked with him in New York during this period. It was interesting for me to examine just how the practice of diplomacy has changed in thirty years. During the period in question, the Minister for External Affairs decamped to New York for two months or more, travelling there and back by boat. I can only compare this ruefully with my own schedule, last year for example, when I arrived in New York by air on a Monday morning, and left for Kerry on Thursday afternoon following meetings with the UN Secretary General, Japan, Poland, China, Russia, the
Rio Group, Belarus, Iran, Australia, Canada, India, the USA, Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Ukraine, Myanmar and Mercosur. I addressed the General Assembly and the Council on Foreign Relations and had meetings with the Irish media, the Irish Community, the Irish Immigration Committee, Bruce Morrison and the Garda Jerry McCabe Foundation. The morning of my arrival home, I held a constituency clinic in Tralee. A former US Vice President once memorably remarked that diplomacy is easy on the brain but hard on the feet. That week, I have to say, it was hard on both!
The way in which we practice diplomacy may have changed but our international concerns have
not. Disarmament, human rights and peacekeeping are recurrent themes in Dr Skelly's study,
as they were in my own work as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Somebody once defined diplomacy as the art of jumping into troubled waters without making
a splash. The Irish delegations to the UN General Assembly showed little fear of getting wet.
We sought to defuse cold war tensions, condemned apartheid and mediated disputes as far afield
as Kashmir, Somaliland and South Tyrol. We promoted decolonisation and defended human
rights throughout what is now known as the developing world. Dr Skelly chronicles the disproportionate role which we played in the negotiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
(I fixed a punctuation point to this tale two years ago when I travelled to New York for the
NPT Review and Extension Conference and again last year when I signed the new Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on behalf of Ireland.)
By any standards, the period was remarkably active - and remarkably influential for our subsequent foreign policy positions. Our membership of the United Nations afforded us an international stage after years of relative isolation. We might have been daunted by the task; we might have kept our heads down for a few years. Lloyd George once said of Neville Chamberlain that he saw foreign policy through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe. We took a bolder view of our place in the world and I like to think that we continue to do so today.
When I first addressed the General Assembly, human rights was one of my central concerns.
I referred to the recently concluded Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and to the massive systematic abuse of human rights by authoritarian regimes. I said then that a UN
Commissioner for Human Rights should be appointed and that the resources devoted to human rights activities in the UN system should be increased. That was almost five years ago. I could not have anticipated then that that post would be filled by President Robinson. Dr Skelly is rightly wary of the bland assertion that Ireland's influence has been out of all proportion to its size. Nonetheless we have deployed much of our finest talent in the framework of the UN. Its institutions are richer for the service provided by our diplomats, peacekeepers and public representatives. President Robinson will continue and develop this fine tradition.
This is the third detailed study of Irish Foreign Policy to be published in recent years which draws largely on the on Archives of the Department of Foreign Affairs. In recent years I have had the pleasure of launching Dermot Keogh's study of "Ireland and the Vatican" and Michael Kennedy's study of "Ireland and the League of Nations". Taken together these studies provide a perspective which is invaluable to today's policy makers. Great credit is due to Dr Skelly and to the Irish Academic Press for bringing this project to fruition. I look forward to attending a function comparable to this, some thirty years hence, and can only hope that I find myself recognisable in the pages distilled from today's files in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Dr Skelly is a scrupulous historian who avoids speculation on questions such as what might have passed had a different group of Irish Ministers and officials found themselves together in New York through successive autumns between 1955 and 1965. Yet this kind of speculation can be fatally attractive. Gore Vidal was once asked what might have happened had Kruschev and not Kennedy been assassinated in 1963. "With history one can never be certain" he replied "but I think I can safely say that Aristotle Onasis would not have married Mrs Kruschev!"