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Review: Ireland at the UN: Memories of the Early Years by Noel Dorr

AS a Second World War neutral Ireland was denied membership of the UN until 1955. Frank Aiken, the Fianna Fail minister for external affairs from 1957 to 1969, was determined to make up for lost time.

He made the UN the major priority of his department. The best and the brightest talents were included in the delegation. One was a self-effacing young Mayoman Noel Dorr, author of this book, who subsequently became the most universally admired Irish diplomat of his generation.

Aiken was determined Ireland should not tie itself to any power bloc. Advised by Conor Cruise O'Brien, then a rising official in his department, Aiken quickly asserted his independence by voting against the US in favour of the discussion of the admission of China to the UN.

That and an uncompromising anti-colonial stance antipathetic to European imperial interests gave Ireland a profile in the UN akin to Sweden and other non-aligned countries. The charismatic Swedish Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was impressed and got Ireland to provide troops for peacekeeping in the Congo.

In 1960, Freddie Boland, head of the Irish representation at the UN, was elected president of the General Assembly. The next year Ireland was elected to serve on the Security Council. Aiken piloted through the General Assembly a resolution that opened the way to a Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty. The Economist magazine commented that "Ireland bestrides the UN like a colossus".

The author explains with detached clarity the stances taken by Ireland in the years up to 1969, drawing on his memories and contemporary documents. The initial bold independence was watered down somewhat in later years so as not to alienate the Americans or members of the European Economic Community we then aspired to join.

Under Aiken it was settled policy not to raise the issue of Northern Ireland, largely for fear of suffering a rebuff. In 1969, Aiken's successor Patrick Hillery was sent to New York to request a UN force to keep the peace in Northern Ireland. It was a non-runner involving, as it did, interference in the domestic affairs of a major power. But the initiative answered the immediate need of the Lynch government to be seen to do something to protect the beleaguered Northern Catholics. The process by which a humiliating rebuff was averted was a showpiece in face-saving diplomacy.

Dorr's admirable loyalty to his old department and his diplomat's discretion are evident throughout the book. The portrayal of Aiken and department officials (with one exception) is totally positive. While excellent in its way, it is very much an official history.

The only person to receive negative treatment is Conor Cruise O'Brien. Having resigned controversially from the department in 1961, he has the pariah status accorded in the old days to clerics who left the seminary. He had effectively been repudiated by the UN secretariat, to whose service he had been seconded, when he moved to expel foreign mercenaries and head off the threatened secession of Katanga from the Congo. He then went public (a mortal sin for a civil servant), publishing a sensational book in which he berated quite a few people, including Boland and another colleague in the Irish delegation whom he accused of having conspired with the British to undermine him.

While being effusive in expressions of admiration for O'Brien, Dorr expresses horror at O'Brien's allegation, repeated in his 1998 memoirs, that Boland took a pro-American line in order to further his career prospects within the UN. In doing so Dorr is guilty, I believe, of misrepresenting O'Brien. O'Brien did assert that Boland knew his pro-US line would help him to become president of the General Assembly, but expressly disavowed any allegation that Boland was motivated by personal advantage in adopting this line which, in truth, accorded with his genuine convictions.

To undermine O'Brien's reliability a list of errors in his memoirs, most of them fairly inconsequential, are catalogued by the author in lengthy footnotes. The author censures O'Brien for subjecting to "caustic criticism" a dead man no longer able to respond. Yet Dorr has done just this himself. He is lucky that O'Brien is not still around to give him a stab of that sharp pen its victims dreaded.

Buy 'Ireland at the UN' from Eason

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