We need to know more of the role we play in the Security Council

FOR the past two years Ireland has been a member of the Security Council of the United Nations. It has been a momentous couple of years and in time people may question the role we played in what could well be the build-up to many years of strife.

During the week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen addressed the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. The Americans are still hypersensitive about the attacks following last year's airline hijackings and any criticism would undoubtedly be resented. This could, in turn, impact on American investment and tourism in this country.

"Money talks," they say, but there is a word for those who allow their principles to be dictated by money prostitution.

How did this country use its seat on the Security Council? Garret FitzGerald stated recently on RTÉ that he knows the country played a major role behind the scenes in relation to the Iraq crisis. Cowen openly supported the Secretary-General in calling on all states to uphold international law and maintain international order.

"States must honour their international obligations," Cowen declared at the UN in September. "Unless we consistently call to account those who defy or flagrantly violate their obligations, our system will be discredited." Although people may not normally associate Cowen with diplomacy, he has grown with the job. This was a subtle warning not just to Saddam Hussein but also to George W Bush, who had been threatening to take international law into his own hands.

Under intense pressure, both domestic and international, Bush relented and turned to the Security Council, even though he has been uttering dire warnings of his determination to act if the Security Council fails. Another president from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, persuaded Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, authorising him to wage war in Vietnam. He got the help of people like Senator J William Fulbright to pass the resolution as a kind of bluff reasoning that America would not have to fight if Congress backed the president. There were only two dissenting voices in Congress, but the whole thing went disastrously wrong.

With the new moves in relation to the Freedom of Information Act here, we should learn what our Government actually did in the Security Council, without having to wait over 70 years, as in the case of our first stint on the council of a world body. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Royal Irish Academy have just published the third volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, covering 1926 to 1932. It provides a detailed insight into our successful quest for a seat on the Council of the League of Nations in 1930. The pity is that the book, which runs to around 1,000 pages, is unlikely to get the publicity it deserves.

Initially, the Irish Free State was "absolutely negligible at the League, neither saying nor doing anything whatever", according to Ernest Bythe. Even the decision to seek a seat on the council was merely a posturing gesture to demonstrate the country's independence by acting independently of the British Commonwealth. It turned out, however, that the Free State was on the council at the outset of the greatest international crisis of the last century.

For hundreds of millions of people, Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 marked the beginning of World War II. The five permanent members of the council initially met in committee to discuss the crisis, much to the irritation of the Irish representative, Seán Lester, who protested at the exclusion of the other seven members. The French president of the council apologised and henceforth all 12 members were included in the discussions.

Lester had struck a blow for small nations, and he tried to take a strong stand in support of the League.

Japan promised to withdraw her troops from Manchuria in September 1931. When she failed to do so, Lester proposed a map be drawn up to show what the Japanese had done, but at this point the Minister for External Affairs, Paddy McGilligan, and the department undermined Lester's initiative.

Lester received a urgent telegram from the Department of External Affairs: "Minister thinks it better that you should take no positive action at council whether in the way of asking for map or otherwise."

"Japan is at present the outstanding factor making for stability, progress and civilisation in the Far East, and no one can minimise the importance of maintaining, and even strengthening, this bulwark against Bolshevism in a region in which it has already shown some tendency to spread," Joseph P Walshe, the department secretary , warned in a covering letter to Lester on November 14, 1931. "The minister considers that the Irish representative should not himself put forward at the council positive suggestions as to possible settlements of the dispute; that he should, whenever possible, seek further instructions before definitely voting on suggestions by others.

If this is not possible, he should vote with the majority of the members of council."

Lester complied even though he was clearly disillusioned by these gutless instructions, which he saw as a betrayal, not just of the ideals of the League but also of those countries that had voted to put Irish Free State on the council. "I feel bound to express my disappointment that I should not at least be instructed to uphold the moral authority of the League in the greatest crisis it has yet faced," he replied. "Is the issue really between upholding the League against Japan and opening the Far East to Bolshevism?

"Is the vast population of China not more likely to turn to Bolshevism, the friendly neutral, if the League fails to protect their territory against a rapacious capitalist neighbour?

"My own view is that not only can Bolshevism not be stemmed by the aggrandisement of Japan at China's expense, but that that policy is much more likely to bolshevise the ignorant Chinese millions outside Japanese military control."

Time would prove Lester right. China did go communist within 20 years. Mercifully, the Irish people were not fooled by McGilligan's posturing diplomacy. Cumann na nGaedheal was ousted by Fianna Fáil under Eamon de Valera in early 1932.

De Valera seized the international spotlight by speaking out forcefully on the issue at Geneva when it fell to Irish delegation to preside at the council the following September. He also delivered a strong address the following week over the League's radio station, and the Irish Free State co-sponsored a positive resolution at the League, but this was undermined by the British and French appeasers.

Ultimately, the League capitulated in the face of Japanese aggression, but at least this country did eventually play a role of which we can be justifiably proud. Lester's courage was recognised when he was invited to serve on the secretariat of the League of Nations. He eventually rose to become its secretary-general during World War II. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union blocked his subsequent transfer to the secretariat of the United Nations.

When Lester applied to rejoin the Department of External Affairs, his request was shamefully ignored. He was forced into an early retirement to be virtually forgotten, but his granddaughter, Susan Denham, currently sits on our Supreme Court.

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