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A mix of pragmatism and idealism: What Ireland aims to achieve with its UN Security Council seat

On Wednesday evening, it was announced that Ireland had won a two-year stint on the UN Security Council.

A frustrated German foreign minister Heiko Maas at a meeting of the UN Security Council in February.
A frustrated German foreign minister Heiko Maas at a meeting of the UN Security Council in February.
Image: Michael Kappeler DPA/PA Images

ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, the Irish government had something to celebrate: it had won a seat on the UN Security Council. 

The Taoiseach said that “once again we are taking our place among the nations of the world and that we are taking our place at the top table”. 

From 1 January 2021, Ireland will begin its fourth stint on the UN Security Council after previously served in 1962, 1981 and in 2001.

Efforts had been under way as far back as 2005 for Ireland to try to take a two-year temporary seat on the security council for 2021-22, with civil servants and diplomats working behind the scenes on the bid for some time. 

Those efforts behind the scenes were supplemented by some high profile endorsements from the likes of U2 frontman Bono and former president Mary Robinson over the last two years.

So why was a great deal of time, effort and money (some €800,000) put into getting Ireland onto the UN Security Council, and what does the government plan to do now it’s won a seat?

UN Security Council

There are 15 seats on the UN Security Council.

Five countries have permanent memberships – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US. The other ten seats are won by countries who occupy the seats on a two-year temporary basis. 

xinhua-photos-of-the-day File photo. Council meeting in New York Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

On the United Nations website, it says the UN Security Council has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. 

All member states of the United Nations – of which there are 193 – are said to be obliged to comply with the council’s decisions. 

It calls upon parties in a dispute to settle it through peaceful means. In some cases, the council can resort to imposing sanctions or authorise the use of force to “maintain or restore international peace and security”. 

It can provide a mandate for the deployment of peacekeepers – deciding where they go and what their remit in that particular region is. 

However, tensions between the permanent members can often mean a lack of consensus, particularly with each of the five having a powerful veto on certain resolutions. 

It intervenes in areas of conflict and tension around the world and through various subcommittees on specific topics, it holds hundreds of meetings every year. 

Just this week, the Security Council received a report on political reform in the Central African Republic that voiced concern over the failure to disarm rebel groups. 

It also has become centre stage for a brewing disagreement between the US, Iran and Russia with the latter accusing the US of trying to “manipulate” the Security Council to put pressure on Iran. 

Also this week, temporary members Germany and Belgium sent a draft resolution to the council aiming to extend the authorisation to cross the Syrian border by one year to allow humanitarian aid from NGOs and government agencies to be delivered to the region. 

The Syrian regime has failed to adhere to a 2015 resolution from the Security Council calling for a ceasefire, elections and political transition in the country. 

This is one example where the council can be perceived to be weak or ineffective on vital matters.

The UN Security Council was also centre stage during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 led by US forces. A number of sanctions had been levelled against Saddam Hussein’s regime already by the UN Security Council and resolutions passed concerning weapons inspectors being sent to the country. 

While the US and UK argued that existing resolutions made the invasion legal, critics say further resolutions would have been required. Despite unease from many members of the council at the time, the invasion went ahead anyway and efforts to solve the issue via these diplomatic means failed. 

Why did Ireland want a seat?

In Budget 2020, the Irish government allocated €838 million for its overseas development assistance fund. 

It follows decades of significant investment in projects in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Irish Aid website, “the aim of Ireland’s aid programme is to reduce poverty and hunger, particularly in sub- Saharan Africa where the needs are greatest”.

“Most of the funding is spent on agriculture and nutrition programmes, health and HIV, education services, and on providing much-needed humanitarian assistance in emergencies situations,” it said.

We channel our aid in a number of ways: through government systems in partner countries, through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organizations and through multilateral organsiations including the UN agencies.‌

From the government’s perspective, getting a seat on the Security Council would allow Ireland to have a greater influence on the decisions that affect the regions it already invests heavily in.

At the top table, Ireland would have the ability to draft key resolutions and recommendations that would help to build on and support the aid programmes it already has. 

5 NO FEE Taoiseach Press Birefing The Tánaiste and Taoiseach campaigned for Ireland's seat on the council. Source: Leon Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

And, if the UN Security Council is making decisions that will affect the regions Ireland invests in, it is seen to make sense to aspire to be part of making those decisions. 

Furthermore, Ireland has historically had a central role in UN peacekeeping activities and could have as many as 600 peacekeepers active in the field at any one time and often in dangerous situations. 

With a seat on the Security Council, we will now have the ability to influence where peacekeepers are deployed and what their mandate is wherever they are sent. 

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On a wider level, Ireland has served on the UN Security Council roughly one year in every ten since joining the United Nations in 1955, and it’s understood the objective is to consistently sit at the top table of the UN to play as large a role as possible in the key decisions that are made and have a global effect. 

And, on a more practical level, Ireland’s position as a small trading nation means that it’s in our natural interest for a peace and stability across the globe. Being on the UN Security Council means that the country would have more influence than it otherwise would have to foster an environment for economic and social development. 

Leo Varadkar spoke on these points in launching Ireland’s campaign formally back in 2018 in New York. He said that the UN is “the conscience of our humanity” and that “in these troubles and uncertain times, as a global island we want to play our part in defending, supporting and promoting its values”. 

He has also said: “Winning a seat on the UN Security Council would place Ireland at the heart of UN decision-making on international peace, security and development.”

This was echoed by former President Mary Robinson, who said: “Ireland is a bridge builder which the UN badly needs, with an empathy and an ability to understand the other.”

What does the government hope to do now?

After sustained diplomatic efforts involving the likes of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and President alongside the most senior civil servants and diplomats to win the seat, the focus will now turn to what Ireland can achieve on the council.

It should be noted that it’ll be the next government – likely to be Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens – who will likely be in place for Ireland’s tenure on the council. 

As much as the Irish government puts forth its reputation as a bridge builder, however, there will be several tricky situations to navigate during its two-year stint on the council.

The US frequently disagrees on important matters with Russia and China. India, which has also been at odds with China in recent times, has also been chosen to sit on the council for the next two years. 

It’s common for smaller countries such as Ireland who come onto the UN Security Council to work with countries of similar values to try to get resolutions passed which are sustainable over a period of time. 

As mentioned above, because of Ireland’s role in overseas development in African countries, for example, it will seek to strengthen the effectiveness of its efforts in these areas. This could take the form of resolutions that support the aims that it already has for that area. 

The government is said to be aware of the limitations of what can be achieved on the council but hopes to advance its goals as much as possible over the two-year period. 

It then hopes afterwards to pass on the baton to a country with similar values who will follow a similar approach to key issues.

Speaking after the country was awarded the seat on Wednesday evening, the Taoiseach said: “Our return to the UN Security Council is a recognition of our work on the world stage over many decades, and we will use our presence to advance the causes we’ve championed, peace and security, conflict resolution, reconciliation, climate action, sustainable development, and gender equality.

We will work to help those countries that are most vulnerable, most fragile, most threatened by challenges facing the international community today.

Ireland will begin its two years on the UN Security Council on 1st January 2021.

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Sean Murray

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