University of Paris IV – Sorbonne | Published: 15 March, 2007
ISSUE 2 | Pages: 68-77 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2007-2603
2007 by Christophe Gillissen | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Since joining the United Nations in 1955, Ireland has enjoyed a good reputation within the organization because of its commitment to multilateral diplomacy and its progressive position on human rights, self-determination and disarmament. However, when voting on resolutions in the General Assembly, the Irish delegation must take into account its effectiveness and impact on the UN, as well as the position of other countries. The USA has exerted particular pressure from the beginning, and since 1973 Ireland has also had to comply with the requirements of European solidarity. Nonetheless, various studies of Irish votes at the General Assembly show that on the whole Ireland has maintained a distinctive profile, faithful to its traditional values. Despite some changes over time, continuity seems to be the hallmark of Ireland’s UN policy, which is characterised by a moderate, constructive approach within the framework of a progressive grouping of states
Desde su adhesión a las Naciones Unidas en 1955, Irlanda ha alcanzado una reputación considerable dentro de la organización debido a su compromiso con la diplomacia multilateral y su posición con respecto a los derechos humanos, la autodeterminación y el desarme. Sin embargo, a la hora de votar las resoluciones de la Asamblea General, la delegación irlandesa debe tener en cuenta la efectividad de las mismas y su impacto en Naciones Unidas, así como el posicionamiento de otros países. Las presiones estadounidenses han sido de importancia desde el principio y desde 1973 Irlanda se las ha tenido que ver con su compromiso con la solidaridad europea. Aún así, varios estudios sobre las votaciones en la Asamblea General demuestran que en general Irlanda ha mantenido un perfil característico, fiel a sus valores tradicionales. A pesar de algunos cambios en el transcurso de los años, la continuidad parece ser el sello distintivo de la política de Irlanda en Naciones Unidas; la cual se caracteriza por un enfoque moderado y constructivo dentro del marco del grupo de estados progresistas.
Política exterior irlandesa; Naciones Unidas; Asamblea General; Unión Europea; Cooperación Política Europea (EPC); Política Exterior y de Seguridad Común (CFSP); Estados Unidos; Derechos Humanos; Descolonización; Desarme; Frank Aiken
Ireland’s record at the United Nations is that of a distinctive contribution, notably in the fields of peacekeeping and of disarmament, which is recognised both abroad and at home. In 2004, Kofi Annan praised the country’s UN record, a record which helped Ireland to be elected to the Security Council in 2001-2002 (Gillissen 2006: 31-32). In 2005, on the fiftieth anniversary of Ireland’s UN membership, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, emphasised that the United Nations Organization was the «cornerstone of Irish foreign policy», an expression used in the 1996 White Paper on Irish foreign policy (Department of Foreign Affairs 1996: 150).
The organization also enjoys considerable support among Irish voters, one opinion poll conducted in 1989 showing that the Irish came second among the then twelve European member states in their approval rate of the UN (United Nations 1990: 3). This can be partly explained by the widespread perception that Ireland was able to play an important role in the UN in the late 1950s –the «golden age» of Irish foreign policy– by facilitating agreements between East and West, and North and South. Its role as model international citizen was seen as a vindication of the struggle for national independence, since Ireland demonstrated that a small independent state could make a significant contribution to the international order.
However, from the early 1960s onwards, Ireland’s high profile at the UN faded somewhat, and since then there has been some debate as to the independence of the Irish delegation, in particular in relation to the United States and to the European Union. If one studies the fifty years of Irish voting at the General Assembly, one can indeed note some shifts over time, in particular after 1960 –at the time of Ireland’s first application to the EEC– and after 1992, when the Maastricht Treaty established a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) for the European Union. Yet there is a good case for arguing that continuity is as much a characteristic of Irish foreign policy at the UN as change is.
The ‘Golden Age‘
In 1957, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frank Aiken, decided to vote for a debate on the representation of China at the United Nations. At the time the question was given great importance by the United States who made it a touchstone of Cold War alignment: to support Beijing’s claim to a Security Council seat was to support the Soviet Union, while supporting Taiwan’s claim was a proof of loyalty to the Western bloc. Washington exerted strong pressure on the Irish delegation to reverse its decision, but to no avail (Cruise O’Brien 1962: 21-25).
Aiken’s determination thus established Ireland’s «activist, independent stance» and the country acquired a prominence well beyond its size and objective power (Skelly 1996: 121). This allowed it to exercise considerable influence, notably in the sponsoring of a resolution which eventually led to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968.
The Irish delegation was careful to maintain, and to be seen to maintain, its independence in relation to colonial powers, for reasons linked both to Irish history and to policy objectives. Ireland’s stance was similar to that of several moderate, progressive Western European states such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which were keen to ease international tensions linked to the Cold War and to promote international dialogue and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. They were also sympathetic to the plight of Third World countries and supported their struggle for independence. The Irish delegation had in fact explicitly modelled itself on the Swedish delegation that Conor Cruise O’Brien, then in charge of the UN section at the Department of Foreign Affairs, perceived as a reference in terms of «good international behaviour» (1962: 15).
This Scandinavian group of countries, which emerged in the early 1950s, was able to play an important role because its good faith and independent judgement were widely recognised. They could act as «honest brokers» between the Eastern and Western blocs, although they were closer to the United States than to the Soviet Union. A study of votes on Cold War issues during the second half of the 1950s confirms that Ireland was part of a group of Western states that distanced themselves from unconditional supporters of the United States (see table 1).
Table 1: Votes at the UN General Assembly on Cold War issues, 1955-59
Source: adapted from Driscoll (1982: 58).
This was consistent with the three principles of Ireland’s UN policy as defined in 1955 by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Liam Cosgrave: (1) Ireland would uphold the UN Charter; (2) it would «maintain a position of independence, judging questions… strictly on their merits»; but (3) it was nonetheless part of the «Christian civilization» and thus should support the «powers responsible for the defence of the free world» (Cruise O’Brien, 1969: 128). There were obvious tensions between the second and third principles, however, which were not always easy to reconcile and which could lead to policy shifts depending on how they were interpreted and applied.
Thus after 1960, Ireland moved towards the Western bloc, for several reasons. On the one hand, there was the changing nature of the United Nations: the entry of many newly-independent states profoundly affected the proceedings in the General Assembly, to the point where the Irish delegation could no longer hope to play the same role as in the late 1950s (Lemass 1971: 118-119). Ireland had taken a strong stance against various forms of imperialism in the late 1950s, but was dismayed by the radicalism of many Third World delegations in the early 1960s, a radicalism which threatened to compromise the effectiveness of the UN.
An airgram sent by the American UN mission to the US Department of State on 19 April 1962 relates a meeting in which Frederick Boland, then head of the Irish delegation, explained the reasons for its new approach:
Both Boland (Ireland) and Algard (Norway) have asked us if we noted change in voting and attitude of «moderate» Europeans. They added this was deliberate policy on their part to help keep UN actions moderate and to combat «take it or leave it» tendency among some Afro-Asians when they have agreed on text of resolution among themselves. Boland told us he had himself witnessed decline of League due to disenchantment of major powers. Substantial European disenchantment with UN had already set in; radical Afro-Asians likely to produce even more of this; role of «moderates» in circumstances was to restrain radicals more than to press colonial powers (which was their main concern in last few years). Both Boland and Algard also said advance in US policy on colonial matters was key factor that made such attitude on their part possible. (Claussen, Duncan and Soukup 2001: doc. 201)
This new context within the UN constituted a major challenge for the Scandinavian group, which had to reposition itself to take into account the Afro-Asian group. An analysis of UN voting patterns shows that after 1960 Ireland, Denmark and Norway were no longer part of the Scandinavian group, and that this group –composed then of Finland and Sweden– had itself moved within the orbit of an enlarged Western and Latin American bloc of countries (Newcombe, Ross and Newcombe, 1970: 118).
A comparison between Swedish and Irish UN policies is instructive. For instance, Sweden voted in favour of the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China at the UN, while Ireland voted against.1 Rowe, who studied US support at the UN during that period, shows that Ireland and Sweden, which had similar stances in the late 1950s, evolved in different ways with Ireland shifting «in a strongly pro-US direction after 1960» (1971: 72 n. 25). Despite an overall trend among small Western European countries towards greater support for the US, Ireland and Norway became «strongly supportive» while Sweden was more moderate (see table 2).
Table 2: Attitude towards the US at the UN, 1955-64
SS: «strongly supportive» (81-100% voting coincidence)
MS: «moderately supportive» (61-80%)
M: «mixed support and opposition» (40-60%)
MO: «moderately opposed» (20-39%)
SO: «strongly opposed» (0-19%)
Source: adapted from Rowe (1971: 73).
In other words, confronted with a lurch towards the left within the General Assembly, there was a deliberate decision on the part of Ireland to uphold a moderate line, even if this seemed to contradict the identification between Ireland and struggling colonies that Frank Aiken had made explicit in his earlier speeches at the UN (Bhreatnach 2005: 182). There was no longer any possible ambiguity: Ireland was not a member of the neutral and non-aligned movement, but a small progressive Western state (Keatinge 1984: 34-35). Those states were characterised in particular by their «emphasis on the conciliatory function
- It must be said however that while Frank Aiken had insisted on the importance of a debate on the issue of Chinese representation at the UN, he had indicated at the same time that his country would probably not support the admission of the PRC. His point was to establish the freedom of the UN to discuss any issue affecting international relations, and thus to increase the competence of the organization. But it does not seem that he ever intended to support Beijing’s claim to a Security Council seat. So one cannot draw the conclusion that there was any fundamental policy shift on this point, even if Ireland’s voting pattern mathematically moved closer to that of the US once the principle of a debate was accepted. [↩]
- The reports do not take into account votes in which a country abstained while the US voted Yes or No, despite the fact that an abstention may often be a diplomatic way of expressing disagreement. Nor do they take into account positive or negative votes when the US abstained. Yet the reports may be considered as an valuable indicator concerning the independence of countries in relation to American foreign policy, especially as the reports stress divergent positions on «important votes», that is to say «votes on issues which directly affected important United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively» (State Department 1997: 39). [↩]
- It must be said that in studies of EU votes at the UN, Greece constitutes something of a problem. From a statistical point of view, Greek representatives rarely voted in 1996, being absent most of the time, which makes it difficult to establish a European and a Greek average for that year or for a period including it. More generally, the idiosyncrasies of Greek foreign policy make any comparative approach risky. Its geographical location in the Balkans, closer to the Middle East than its European partners, helps to explain its considerable divergence in the 1980s, while the internal dynamics of its domestic politics have led to major foreign policy fluctuations over time. Thus in the book edited by Christopher Hill in 1996, which aims among other things at comparing EU voting patterns at the UN, the chapter devoted to Greece claims «neither to be exhaustive, nor strictly ‘scientific’ as some of the questions raised… are of such complexity that they defy scientific scrutiny» in order to explain why «some aspects concerning Greece’s record in EPC, like her voting pattern at the UN… will be left out of the discussion» (Tsakaloyannis 1996: 186-187). [↩]
- The limits to this dissociation –and to Irish neutrality– were partly revealed during the build-up to the Irak war when Ireland decided to maintain landing and refuelling facilities at Shannon airport for US military flights. While insisting in New York on the need for UN approval before any military intervention in Irak, the Irish Government was very much aware of the economic benefits for the Shannon region deriving from such stopovers. The ambivalence of its position was further exposed with the issue of CIA ‘rendition flights’. [↩]
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