News Analysis

Thursday 2 October 2014

The excellent honour of ambassador suits you, sir

Charles Lysaght

Published 16/07/2006 | 00:11

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THE British Ambassador, Stewart Eldon, is to leave Dublin shortly for another posting. Almost uniquely for British ambassadors here, he is leaving after a full term without being knighted. Mr Eldon has been given another important post as ambassador to NATO. So it is clearly no reflectionon his performance here that he has not yet been made Sir Stewart.

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But it may have a broader significance in British-Irish relations as an indication of the priority accorded to Ireland by the British Foreign Office and their role in British-Irish relations.

There was a time when every British ambassador was at least a knight the world over. Nothing less was good enough for the man who represented His or Her Britannic Majesty and took precedence over every other British subject in the country where he was accredited. The envy of civil servants in other government departments towards the diplomatic service (not a uniquely British phenomenon) led to these knighthoods being rationed.

But it remains the case that the heavy hitters in the British diplomatic service are all knighted. If a country gets a British ambassador who is not knighted it means the posting is not sought by the stars and not rated as of the firstimportance by the Foreign Office itself.

If the ambassador leaves without being knighted it is evidence that its place in the pecking order is lower still.

The history of diplomatic relations between this country and Britain has some interesting twists.

Although the newly independent Irish state had from its foundation an ambassador (called a high commissioner) in London, no British diplomat was posted here for almost 20 years. This was, perhaps, symptomatic of a reluctance on the part of the British officialdom to come to terms with Irish independence.

Only at the outbreak of the Second World War was a British diplomatic presence in Dublin deemed necessary.

Sir John Maffey, a retired colonial civil servant, was sent. He was described as His Majesty's Representative. By his understanding and skill he smoothed British-Irish relations at a very difficult period. He was such a success that he was elevated to the peerage as Lord Rugby.

After Lord Rugby left in 1948, it was decided that Britain would be represented here by a Commonwealth Office man. An old India hand called Sir Gilbert Laithwaite (who happened to be a Clongownian and a first cousin of the IRA gunman Ernie O'Malley) was sent as high commissioner. He was renamed ambassador after John Costello's government declared the Republic. For several decades thereafter, although this country had then left the Commonwealth, the British ambassadors continued to be recruited from the Commonwealth Office.

It was only with the arrival of John Peck that the Foreign Office took over responsibility for British-Irish relations. He arrived unknighted but that was quickly rectified wheninfluential members of the Anglo-Irish community, for whom the embassy was then a sort of viceregal court, dropped the word in London that the Irish (it is not clear which Irish) were insulted that HM Ambassador at Dublin was a plain mister.

Peck's arrival coincided with the beginning of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Televised reports about what had been happening there embarrassed Britain before the world. Improving relations with the Republic, soon to be a valued partner inEurope, were thrown into a tailspin.

It is clear from government papers that have since been released that when the Foreign Office assessed the emerging situation, it concluded that the continuing partition of Ireland was a diplomatic liability and served no British interest.

The foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home is recorded as having argued in cabinet that Northern Ireland should be nudged into joining the Republic.

John Peck made himself popular in Dublin voicing this view of the situation. I recall several of his successors doing the same and was surprised by how open they were about their distaste for the Ulster unionists and their willingness to dump Northern Ireland. I have often wondered if this was not picked up by the IRA as an indication that, if they made the going hot enough, the British would abandon the North as they had abandoned the southern unionists in 1921. If so, the Foreign Office bears a heavy responsibility for what occurred. They were poorly rewarded by the IRA who, in 1976, assassinated Ambassador Christopher Ewart-Biggs.

Subsequently, as Northern Ireland worked its way up the British political agenda, other interests within government focused on it and decided that the diplomatic priorities of the Foreign Office could not dictate the policy of HM government. Even if the bigotry of the Ulster unionists was embarrassing and their intransigence infuriating, it had to be remembered that they had been loyal in two world wars and it was not right, even if it were possible, to bully them into a united Ireland.

From this assessment there emerged a firm commitment to see off the IRA and the refusal even to countenance proposals coming from the Irish government that the British government should declare publicly its preference for a united Ireland.

At the end of the day British firmness brought Sinn Fein to the negotiating table and in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 their leaders signedup to the right to self-determination of the majority in Northern Ireland.

One effect of the whole process was that the Foreign Office lost credibility in relation to Northern Ireland and responsibility passed to the prime minister with an input from the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. A high-level group of chosen civil servants reporting to the prime minister and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland has called the shots on the British side for many years.

Since Sir Alan Goodison, sadly recently deceased, who had an important role in negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, I believe that no British ambassador has had a role larger than that of a listening post and occasional mouthpiece in relation to Northern Ireland. The standing (although not necessarily the ability) of the ambassadors sent here has reflected their subsidiary role on the most important issue of British-Irish relations.

The unfriendly fortress-like chancery erected on the Merrion Road and the penny-pinching move to cash in on the building boom by selling Glencairn, their stately residence in Sandyford (since rented back, temporarily) have given the impression that the Foreign Office is not all that pushed about the image it presents in Dublin.

Even more disquieting has been the impression created that the ambassador has not an important role. He should be a major player on Northern Ireland as well as on all other aspects of British-Irish relations, as is our ambassador in London.

But the credibility of the Foreign Office on Northern Ireland and its conviction that Ireland is an important foreign country whose goodwill is valued need to be established if this is to happen.

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