FRED Potter, editor of the Skibbereen Eagle in 1898, penned Ireland’s most famous comment on Russian territorial ambitions. “The Eagle will still keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies – whether at home or abroad – of human progression and man’s natural rights which undoubtedly include a nation’s right to self-government. Truth, liberty, justice and the land for the people are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based.” The bombastic editorial in a small town newspaper became a comic cliché for Irish impotence in international affairs. Yet in many ways Potter was a visionary. If today’s editors had been more vigilant, and political leaders less tolerant, of Putin and his kleptocrats the dreadful suffering of the people of Ukraine might have been avoided.
Ireland has never been more influential in matters global, a reputation that has been carefully fostered over the past 90 years. Its first great diplomat, Sean Lester, was born into a family of Methodists in Carrickfergus, county Antrim, in 1888. He was appointed as the Free State’s representative to the League of Nations in 1929. As high commissioner for Danzig in 1936 he showed great courage in opposing Nazi persecution of the city’s Jewish population. As war consumed Europe he was made acting secretary general of the League, fled to Geneva and was given the task of winding up the organisation in 1947. His services were recognised with a Woodrow Wilson Award and honorary doctorates from the University of Dublin and the New University of Ireland in Galway. Philip Noel-Baker, a minister in the British post-war Labour government, said of him: “Calm, patient, unambitious, resolute and brave, Lester had every quality that was needed of a secretary general.”
The Republic has been a member of the United Nations since 1955 and a member of its powerful Security Council on four occasions. It held the presidency of the Council in September 2021. It earned respect when it agreed to set aside the ‘sore thumb’ of partition which has so often soured its relations with Britain and was a contributor to peacekeeping forces in the Congo, Cyprus, Israel and Lebanon in the 60s and 70s. Freddie Boland, the Republic’s first ambassador to the UK, became Ireland’s first permanent representative to the UN and was elected chairman of its general assembly in 1960 at the height of the Cold War. He famously broke a gavel attempting to silence Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev during one of his unscheduled rants. Former President Mary Robinson was high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002 and was made special envoy for climate change in 2014. Barack Obama said of her: “As an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world.”
Former attorney general and European commissioner Peter Sutherland was dubbed ‘the father of globalisation’ after playing a crucial role in the world of trade. He became director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1993 and under his leadership the organisation transformed into the World Trade Organisation. It was responsible for the biggest business deal in history and the creation of a new set of international rules. In his History of the WTO in 2013 Craig VanGrasstek, of the Harvard Kennedy School, said: “Sutherland was instrumental in elevating the office of director-general to one that dealt directly with presidents and prime ministers, not just ministers, a key factor in the success of negotiations and the political esteem of the body going forward.”
But it was joining the European Economic Community in 1973 which truly put Ireland on the world stage. It backed a single currency as early as 1979 and a single market in 1987. In today’s European Union it is the only English-speaking nation and regarded as a progressive contributor open to the prospect of deeper political and economic integration. Ireland helps balance the interests of smaller states with those of the larger nations. Mairead McGuinness, served in a number of international roles before becoming the first vice president of the European Parliament. She currently holds the portfolio of financial services, financial stability and capital markets at the European Commission, responsible for enforcing the EU’s sanctions upon Putin’s Russia.
But there has been a price to pay for this coming of age in international affairs. Ireland’s popular tradition of military neutrality has been stretched to its constitutional limit. Irish airspace was made available to the Allies during the Second World War and Shannon airport to US forces during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy Ireland’s Defence Forces cooperate with others to thwart international terrorism and cyber-attacks. They also participate in the EU’s 2,500-strong Nordic Battlegroup, designed to conduct humanitarian operations and rescue missions in places like Chad and Somalia. Irish troops are currently deployed in Mali and the Balkans. It has forged closer links with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and taken part in NATO-led peacekeeping operations. This brought about more formal ties in 1999 under the Partnership for Peace system which has taken Irish forces to Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Ireland will feel its share of pain as a result of Putin’s war. European energy policy must shift away from dependence upon Russian gas and food production must wean itself off Ukrainian grain. But Irish people may also be asked to conduct a fundamental assessment of their place in the world. Russian aggression has been matched by an enlargement and strengthening of NATO and defence is now high on the EU agenda. Taoiseach Michaél Martin has conceded the nation must ‘reflect’ upon its position of neutrality and meagre armed forces of around 10,000 soldiers, sailors and aircrew. Yet the country’s standing can only be enhanced by its compassionate approach to the refugee crisis; a meaningful contribution to the EU’s deft diplomacy and civilisation’s battle with Potter’s despots.