Sunday 24 September 2017

Review: Politics: A Small State At The Top Table: Memories Of Ireland On The Security Council, 1981-82 by Noel Dorr

Institute of Public Administration, €25

Noel Dorr was the Irish Ambassador to the United Nations in New York when Ireland held a seat on the UN Security Council. He found himself involved in negotiations on major world events, especially when he presided briefly over the council under the rotating system which forms part of the UN's Byzantine procedures.

We literally could not have sent a better man to represent us. Dorr in his long career was not only one of our best diplomats but one of the most impressive people in the list of great Irish public servants.

His subtle intellect and painstaking methods were matched by a deep humanity and morality.

His talents were stretched to the utmost when Ireland became gratuitously caught up in a dangerous and profitless dispute. On May 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the British-owned Falkland Islands. It was an act of astonishing stupidity. Had the military junta then ruling in Buenos Aires held its hand, Britain would have negotiated a settlement ceding sovereignty over the territory to Argentina while protecting the rights of the handful of islanders.

The only plausible explanation is that the junta hoped to gain some popularity. So it did, but only until it lost the ensuing war. Then the furious Argentines revolted and overthrew General Leopoldo Galtieri and the rest of his rotten crew.

In London, Margaret Thatcher reacted predictably to the invasion. She asked for, and got, a UN resolution condemning Argentina and demanding the withdrawal of troops.

She obtained the agreement of the then European Economic Community to impose economic sanctions. Italy was exempted because of its special relationship with Argentina.

More to the point, she assembled a "task force" to sail to the South Atlantic and retake the islands. It was a perilous undertaking, which probably could not have succeeded without help, mostly covert, from the United States and Chile.

Her premiership was at stake. In New York, Dorr and like-minded people tried to prevent war and, when that became impossible, to limit the loss of life in the conflict. They also supported American mediation up to the point where it visibly failed.

But Dorr, in addition, came up against an unexpected obstacle. Then Taoiseach Charles J Haughey had no relish for taking the British side. Neither did the cod-republican elements of the Fianna Fáil party. He broke away from the consensus, changed the Irish line on sanctions, and instructed the Irish UN delegation to propose an immediate ceasefire, not an Argentine withdrawal.

With a combination of fortitude and ingenuity, Dorr ploughed his way through the rest of the crisis in such a manner as to prevent the destruction of Ireland's international reputation.

But the damage to Anglo-Irish relations was enormous and lasted for many years. In this book, Dorr describes these events scrupulously and fairly (in my opinion, with excessive fairness). He goes so far as to try to explain Haughey's actions in rational terms.

This is to attempt the impossible. The leader of a small country decided at one and the same time to defy international law, to offend the neighbour which matters most to us, to alienate Europe and the United States, and all for what? To please the losing side, which was indubitably in the wrong in the first place?

Three messages are delivered here. One, the UN for all its faults is worth having. Two, there are always good and sound people who will strive endlessly for peace and reason. The third comes in the form of a question. How on earth did we ever permit a man like Charles J Haughey to rule this country?

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