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Aiken’s Playpen

Michael Lillis

Ireland at the United Nations: Memories of the Early Years, by Noel Dorr, Institute of Public Administration, 264 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1904541875

 

I joined the Department of External Affairs late in 1966 when already the gloss was fading on Ireland’s period of high prominence at the United Nations, whose apogee had been an extraordinary coincidence of events in 1960 and 1961. The Irish ambassador to the UN, Freddie Boland, was elected president of the general assembly for its most glittering session of 1960, which was attended by President Eisenhower, Harold Macmillan, Fidel Castro, Tito, Nasser, Nkrumah and Khrushchev; Boland became world famous and his president’s gavel an object of such notoriety when he tried to call Khrushchev to order as he heckled Macmillan by banging his shoe on the desk of the Soviet delegation that a legend took root that Boland had broken it on that occasion (he did break it subsequently when seeking to silence a different speaker); reproductions were later manufactured and presented to him by right-wing Americans.

 

In 1960, Ireland, in response to a request from secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold, contributed, with perhaps excessive haste, its first of two “peacekeeping” contingents of the Army to help counter the secession, under the local renegade Moise Tshombe, of mineral-rich Katanga from the newly independent Congo, an attempted breakaway which was being backed subversively by Belgian officers and British and French mercenaries. Our soldiers were poorly equipped militarily and in their traditional wool uniforms suffered hideously in the equatorial heat. Nevertheless they performed impressively and effectively in what was then for the UN an entirely uncharted area of aggressive peacekeeping, but tragedy struck in November when nine soldiers were killed by Baluba tribesmen at an ambush in Niemba.

 

In January 1961 General Sean McKeown was named commander of the entire peacekeeping force in the Congo, which numbered 20,000 officers and men. In May 1961, Conor Cruise O’Brien, then a senior official of the Department of External Affairs, was appointed special representative of the secretary-general in breakaway Katanga. O’Brien interpreted his instructions to clear the country of foreign (that is European) officers and mercenary soldiers with vigour, but Hammarskjold was attempting rather cravenly, probably under pressure from the French, British and Belgian governments and almost entirely behind O’Brien’s back, to facilitate a rapprochement between the legitimate government of the Congo and Tshombe: the secretary-general was himself killed when his small airplane either crashed or was (as seems likely) brought down by a mercenary aircraft on the Rhodesian border in September 1961 as he was secretly pursuing this campaign. The British tabloid press and the Belgian establishment led a series of savage attacks on O’Brien. On November 30th, 1961, in a continuation of Hammarskjold’s ambiguous approach, O’Brien was recalled to UN headquarters by the new interim secretary-general, U Thant. U Thant privately asked the minister, Frank Aiken, to recall O’Brien to the Irish foreign service, which Aiken did while attempting to save his official’s dignity by stating that he was urgently needed in Iveagh House. On the next day O’Brien – outrageously ‑ resigned from the service. His future wife, the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi, daughter of the distinguished finance minister Sean McEntee, followed him shortly afterwards. Then began the splendid or notorious (or both ‑ depending on your viewpoint) career of the country’s internationally best known polemicist. O’Brien did have the last laugh on his enemies in the UN secretariat, through the trenchantly argued memoir To Katanga and Back: A UN Case History, which riveted the denizens of Iveagh House by its characteristically arrogant and merciless attacks on his former closest colleagues in the department who, as serving civil servants, could not of course respond. But his revenge was even more effectively encompassed by the UN itself, which in 1962 and 1963 brought an end to the reign of Tshombe and to the secession of Katanga, not by the attempted appeasements of Hammarskjold but by the very means O’Brien had advocated and courageously attempted to apply: military force. This was for a period, before the next cruel dictatorship of the infamous Mobutu consumed the lives of the Congolese people for an entire generation, a rare and unquestioned success for the UN. Clausewitz once defined the difference between politics and diplomacy as that between winning the argument and winning the result; rarely enough in the multilateral world of the UN is either the result or the argument entirely won or even half-won; this was the exception – for the brief period that it lasted. And retrospectively O’Brien was – at least for once ‑ proved right. So prominent was Ireland’s role at the UN by 1962 that the Economist carried an article on the general assembly under the heading “the Afro-Irish Assembly” which began “Ireland bestrides the UN like a colossus”.

 

Noel Dorr, today an éminence grise of official Irish diplomacy, former ambassador at the United Nations and secretary-general of the department, joined the Irish foreign service in December 1960 and was immediately posted to the then elite political section, which concerned itself principally with Ireland’s policy positions at the United Nations. For a number of years he was a member of successive delegations to the general assembly and enjoyed a close intimacy with events. So central to the minister’s concerns was the United Nations in those days that the department was sometimes referred to as the “Department of the External Affair” and the taoiseach, Sean Lemass, was supposed (apocryphally?) to have observed that the UN was Aiken’s “playpen”. Certainly Frank Aiken dedicated more attention and time to the United Nations than most other foreign ministers, to a point where in later years he was sometimes to be found wandering its corridors when few other ministers were in New York other than those urgently seeking the attention of the security council for an international crisis at home.

 

Dorr has considerable admiration for Aiken’s “gritty integrity” and for his “almost Roman character and qualities”. His book is in large part an extended tribute to him through a narrative account of that “golden age”, as he calls it. It is an excellent chronicle of the way in which Iveagh House and its New York delegates addressed the main world issues during that period. It also provides insights into the fundamentals of Aiken’s approach, based largely on the doctrines developed earlier by Eamon de Valera and as certified in important speeches to the League of Nations and in the Dáil. This is an important book, which will feed the curiosity of the general reader about the building blocks of the Irish state. The approach studiously avoids controversy and is more akin to an “official history” than a revealing personal memoir, though the author occasionally seasons his text with personal recollections of an entirely respectable if mildly amusing character. Despite having been an official of the department for twenty-three years, I learned many interesting facts of which I was not previously aware. From a passing remark, we are to gather that this is the first of a series: I expect the next volumes to be equally interesting and valuable, but would it be too much to hope that we might get some more colourful insights into such events as the Irish initiative on the Falklands War at the security council, which did extraordinary damage to Anglo-Irish relations at a time of real crisis in Northern Ireland?

 

The “golden age” had begun with the appointment of Frank Aiken as Minister for External Affairs in 1957. On September 23rd that year he addressed the general assembly and dropped his first bombshell, announcing that Ireland would support India’s proposal that the question of the representation of China be the subject of “a full and open discussion” in the assembly. The US, powerfully influenced by Communist China’s role in the brutal Korean War, led the opposition. The proposal was defeated by forty-three votes against to twenty-nine for with nine abstentions. Cardinal Spellman, the charismatic and domineering leader of the Catholic (and at the time Irish-American-dominated) tribes of America and the supreme patriot who officiously paraded himself as the living proof of American Catholic loyalty to the Stars and Stripes, personally phoned the Irish consul general in New York. “Tell Aiken,” he said, “that if he votes for Red China we’ll raise the Devil.” He was as good as his word, though of course Aiken was voting for the issue to be discussed, not necessarily for “Red China” to be the representative of China. Aiken and the Irish government were strongly criticised by Church leaders in the New York area and elsewhere, as well as by prominent bishops at home. This was the beginning of Ireland’s, and Aiken’s, “independent” stances on a series of issues before the general assembly.

 

Aiken was by no means a simplistic advocate of radical positions for their own sakes and as the years went by, while he continued to support resolutions calling for the question of the representation of China to be discussed at the general assembly, he took opportunities to criticise the “Peking” (the usage of those times) government for its suppression of political and religious freedoms and to support resolutions in favour of the autonomy (never the sovereign independence) of Tibet. The US, under the pressure of the growing membership of Asian and African member states, changed its position in 1961 to that of requiring a two-thirds majority of the general assembly to change the representation of China: Aiken supported this position. By 1965 he was even advocating separate membership of the UN for the “ancient nation of Taiwan”, a cause that in the past few years seems to have found some new if somewhat eccentric advocates. In retrospect one could ask whether the Aiken of the late fifties and early sixties was entirely the radical that the politically correct version of that period has painted him as being: perhaps he had always been his own man, taking each issue that confronted him at the UN as he found it and in the context of that moment both in Ireland and globally, and not merely the biddable puppet that O Brien describes in his self-serving Memoir. That is, I believe, one of Noel Dorr’s points.

 

In October 1961, through an intricate set of political circumstances in the UN which Dorr elucidates admirably, Ireland, though deeply reluctant, was elected to membership of the security council for the year 1962. Two events dominated the proceedings: the Pakistan/India tension over Kashmir and of course the Cuban missile crisis, possibly the most dangerous moment of the modern era. Ireland supported the US position but Aiken expressed some understanding of the Cuban reaction to the earlier inept Bay of Pigs invasion. Tellingly he offered a word of counsel to Havana, explaining the fundamentals of de Valera’s neutrality policy specifically towards our own large neighbour: “That principle was that under no circumstances would we allow our country to be used as a base for attack against our neighbour Britain ... It has special validity in the case of small countries placed beside powerful neighbours with whom they have disputes or disagreements.” Fidel Castro ignored this sage advice. Khrushchev overruled a furious Fidel and withdrew his missiles. It was nevertheless a revealing confirmation of the realities behind a major Irish policy decision.

 

Aiken’s most important and lasting contribution to world diplomacy lay in his advocacy, begun in 1958, of a treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This was hugely advanced after years of careful work and persuasion by the unanimous adoption of the “Irish Resolution” on December 4th, 1961 and crowned with eventual success by the signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in July 1968. Would the treaty have been achieved without the Irish spadework? Possibly it might, but both superpowers acknowledged that the Irish contribution had been crucial to its emergence. Although subverted and attacked one way or another by Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea and now apparently Iran, this was unquestionably Aiken’s finest achievement and one in which all of us can take a quiet, vicarious pride. Here it is agreeable to add that this Aiken inheritance continues to inspire Irish diplomacy. A fine recent example was the adoption in 2008 of a landmark convention banning cluster munitions by one hundred and eleven countries under the energetic leadership of Ireland in the persons of the minister, Micheál Martin, and the inexhaustible diplomat Ambassador Daithi Ó Ceallaigh. These diabolical weapons have posed the gravest danger to civilians, especially in heavily bombed countries like Laos, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

 

Aiken’s UN record on apartheid and colonialism began energetically in the late fifties. An example was his implied rejection of the counter-argument of the South African government – often supported by France and Britain – that to criticise apartheid, or indeed colonialism, was an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a member state. In October 1959 he said: “Wherever government action is directed towards the systematic violation of human rights, it is, we believe, the proper function of this Assembly to pronounce the judgement of world opinion on such a breach of the principles which all of us here are pledged to maintain and upon which our hopes of a just world order are based.” These were brave words at that time. In 1960 the ranks of the membership of the assembly were swollen by numerous additions from Africa and Asia and the tone and content of resolutions on these themes became increasingly shrill and in many cases frankly illegal, calling for measures which were clearly beyond the power and scope of the charter. Aiken was cautious on these matters, believing that to support such proposals would ultimately damage the integrity and effectiveness of the UN processes, which were for him the world’s best and only hope in mankind’s search for peace and justice. For this he was sometimes harshly criticised by liberal lobbies in Dublin and by his former adviser O’Brien, now turned hurler on the ditch. Dorr is defensive of the minister and, as far as this reader is concerned, convincingly so. Nevertheless events and other changes in the world had put Aiken, in his character as an old anti-colonial revolutionary, in an awkward position with the Third World lobby (both clerical and lay) in Ireland. Inasmuch as he had in his period in Iveagh House concentrated on the UN almost to the exclusion of all other issues, his ministerial career at the United Nations ended at the beginning of 1969 on a somewhat diminuendo note.

 

For what it is worth, my own recollection of early days in the Department of External Affairs at the end of 1966 includes a feeling that by that time the department was seen in government to be largely irrelevant to the real foreign policy concerns of the state. Sean Lemass was focusing increasingly on our candidature for membership of the European Economic Community. While some officials, notably Sean Morrissey and Robin Fogarty, made key contributions to preparing the ground for membership – as they had done in the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement (wisely intended to be an important preparatory experience for our economy) ‑ it appeared that the minister had little interest in or enthusiasm for these crucial matters. Even the normal round of bilateral diplomacy in important capitals did not seem to engage much priority, and I for one had the distinct impression that we should not bother the minister with such trivia. Paradoxically, this anomaly served my own interest well when I was posted to Madrid in 1967 as a third secretary. For much of the five years that I served there I was chargé d’affaires because two successive ambassadors were absent for long periods. It was the most enjoyable experience I had in my twenty-three years with the department. There was at that time almost no trade with Spain (beyond a tiny volume of seed potato exports to the Canary Islands) and the Madrid embassy was in practice treated as a consular post catering for the needs of Irish au pair girls in Madrid (Kate O Brien had started a trend) and of the Irish tourists beginning to swarm on the Costa del Sol.

 

I recall a day in 1968 which was exceptional only in that two interesting events happened in the space of a few hours which were otherwise repeated separately several times. At 4pm or thereabouts I recall receiving in my small flat, with junior colleagues from the British, French, Italian and German embassies, Felipe González, then a young clandestine trade union organiser. He briefed us on his political views and plans and disappeared into the streets, where he was “on the run”. My tiny flat was regularly used for encounters with such clandestine political “revolutionaries” precisely because it was so unremarkable and because it was agreed that the Guardia Civil saw Catholic Ireland and its local junior representative as well disposed to the regime and thus probably requiring less political surveillance. Later that evening, dressed in a hired “white tie”, I called at the Palacio de El Pardo, the residence of General Franco, and escorted his granddaughter to the opera, where we sat in the royal box under the watchful eye of her duenna. Later we joined the generalissimo and his wife and family at home at dinner. At that time I could not, on the tiny allowances payable to the third secretary in Madrid (£800 a year), afford even a small car. I recall that we were driven to and from the opera in the caudillo’s splendid motor, a beflagged Hispano-Suiza if I correctly remember. I think I may have been the only foreign diplomat ever to dine en famille with the Francos – as I did several times and got on well with the old man, who was by then manifestly suffering the early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease – I was invited only because they wanted to send their granddaughter to the security of Catholic Ireland to learn English and requested my assistance to arrange this. In my own way I was carrying out the classic diplomatic role of cultivating the circles of power – and of opposition ‑ in my country of accreditation.

 

The point of this little story is not merely to show that very junior diplomats in the Irish service could have an interesting time even if we were not judged to qualify for the elite status of those chosen for the political section, but rather to make the point that I did not report to Dublin on either of these events because it had been borne in on me that the department would prefer not to know about such matters. That was how things were. On most other evenings I dined splendidly and drank copiously of excellent Rioja and cheap brandy and acquired a taste for small Havana cigars for the equivalent of about half a crown in workers’ cafes, where I enlarged my Spanish vocabulary with the help of mostly illiterate young men from Andalucia who were doing their military service at a neighbouring barracks. Despite my real poverty I was a very lucky young fellow, even if my contacts with an important underground trade union leader and future head of government and with the then head of state and dictator of Spain were of no interest to the Minister for External Affairs and his department.

 

Noel Dorr at several points in his account very politely and delicately touches on the concerns and reservations that Lemass clearly had evinced about the priorities of his foreign minister. It is impossible for me to escape the impression that the department had acquired an aura of unreality and was indulged mainly because of the minister’s unquestioned authority as a senior statesman close to the president and a revered revolutionary hero.

 

One of the most valuable insights that Dorr shares with us is his careful analysis of the origins of the Aiken doctrine. Here he finds a strong continuity in the foreign policy of the state from the assertion of independence and the commitment to collective security from the day that Ireland enthusiastically joined the League of Nations in September 1923, “this magnificent world concourse” as William T Cosgrave, president of the Executive Council, gushed that day in Geneva. De Valera replaced Cosgrave in March 1932 and in September that year delivered a major speech as acting president of the assembly. Japan, a permanent member of the council, was attacking the territory of another member state, occupying Manchuria and bombarding Shanghai. This was the league’s first great crisis. He said: “No state should be permitted to jeopardise the common interest by selfish action contrary to the Covenant, and no state is powerful enough to stand for long against the League if the Governments in the League and their people are determined that the Covenant shall be upheld [my italics].” His words had no effect on the Japanese, or apparently very much on any other delegation, but they articulated a profound conviction.

 

Two years later Italy, another permanent member of the council, attacked and occupied Abyssinia (Ethopia). Twenty years afterwards, on July 25th, 1946, de Valera made a remarkable statement in the Dáil debate on Ireland’s proposed membership of the United Nations which emphasised the obligation and commitment , as he saw them, inescapable in joining the collective security system whether of the league or of the UN. “At the time of the attack on Abyssinia ... there was a question of whether military action would be taken or not ... it would have been our duty to play our part in that action.” Would Ireland really have committed military forces against Italy (in Dev’s words “a nation which was culturally associated with ours over a long period”) and in defence of Abyssinia (“a nation which was unknown to us”)? It seems unlikely. And then again perhaps not so. In fact in 1960 Ireland did commit relatively important contingents of soldiers to defend the Congo (“a nation unknown to us”) against the interests of the Belgians, French and British (“nations culturally associated with ours”). And that commitment was made all the more poignant by the tragedy of Niemba.

 

Dorr argues, cogently it seems to me, that de Valera originally saw the collective security commitment of the League of Nations as fundamentally central to Ireland’s national security. He says, however, that by the late thirties “the collective security organization in which he had been prepared to put his trust had failed ... This was the reason why in the World War Ireland’s security interest dictated a policy of military neutrality as long as that policy could be sustained.” But surely this was not the only nor even the predominant reason for adopting neutrality in 1939, so soon after the War of Independence, the imposition of partition, the foundation of the state, the Civil War, not to mention the conviction of so many “experts” in the early years of the conflict, including the repeated insistence, however erroneous, of his principal foreign policy adviser, Joseph Walshe, secretary of the Department of External Affairs during the war years, that Germany would inevitably prevail over the British.

 

Frank Aiken, former gunman and revolutionary and military leader on the rebel side in the Civil War, took the de Valera doctrine even further. In October 1960 he told the general assembly: “In 1913 I became a volunteer in our national revolutionary army. We had few weapons. We armed ourselves largely with the weapons we captured. We fought elections as well as guerrilla battles until we established our government ... we had no international forum to appeal to, no United Nations to support our struggle for freedom.” Dorr comments: “The fact that the United Nations now existed meant, in Aiken’s view, that the kind of armed struggle in which he himself had participated in Ireland some forty years previously should no longer be necessary.”

 

This extraordinary statement brings us to the Northern Ireland crisis which began in 1968. It is somewhat puzzling that Noel Dorr, in his central consideration of the Aiken years at the United Nations, should not have postponed for his next volume of memoirs his two concluding chapters, which deal with this issue and which only briefly and marginally involved Frank Aiken as minister. Aiken briefed the secretary-general of the UN in April 1969 on the developing crisis and departed the scene, surely ‑ given his own origins as virtually a Northerner and his philosophical and political trajectory since the twenties ‑ yet another sad example of Enoch Powell’s axiom that all “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”. Dr Patrick Hillery, a very different man, is described as struggling impressively but in the end without much success with the deluge of events in the Northern cauldron and in Anglo-Irish relations and particularly with the Irish government’s ill-digested desire in 1969 to “internationalise” the drama at the security council. This is an important footnote to the history of the Northern Ireland saga, though scarcely a glorious passage in the chronicle of Ireland’s “golden age” at the UN.

 

It is also worth recalling here, as Noel Dorr does in an earlier chapter, that in 1958 Conor Cruise O’Brien had advanced a proposal within the department whereby the issues of partition and Irish unity might, through “a convoluted procedural approach”, first through a draft resolution in the special political committee, and then through an adjusted draft to be co-sponsored by Canada and India in the general assembly (at that stage dropping references to “self-determination”), attain the status of permanent items on the agenda of the general assembly. O’Brien had of course played a leading role in the early fifties in Sean MacBride’s various anti-partition initiatives – a role he later rather awkwardly sought to play down in his Memoir. Boland squashed the initiative on multiple grounds, notably the likelihood that the British would if necessary, and to the embarrassment of Dublin, rely on the 1925 Agreement and go to the International Court of Justice in the Hague for a conclusive legal (rather than political) negative decision. I had never heard of this little episode.

 

Another intriguing nugget about the North that Dorr recalls was a tense debate between Freddie Boland and the domineering Indian ambassador, Krishna Menon, in 1962 during Ireland’s membership of the security council. Boland had urged talks between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir crisis. Menon took this amiss. “In retaliation, he threatened Boland that he, Menon, would raise the partition of Ireland in the Council – something that the Irish Government would not have thought helpful at that time.”

 

The real world of Northern Ireland exploded in the summer of 1969. The Irish cabinet was divided between hardliners (Blaney, Boland, Haughey) and the more cautious Lynch and Hillery, who were also concerned about the security and stability of the Irish state. Under the pressure of violent events, and particularly the televised attacks by the RUC, B Specials and Loyalists on Civil Rights marchers and on the Catholic inner city ghettoes of Belfast and Derry, there was irresistible pressure on the government to be seen to be doing something dramatic, whether or not it would lead to “progress”. An impulsive proposal to involve UN peacekeeping contingents, possibly with joint British-Irish forces, was presented in London to the foreign secretary, the entirely unsympathetic Michael Stewart. This was rejected. There followed a hasty scramble to have Dr Hillery raise the crisis at the security council. Here the obvious difficulty was the British veto. It must be acknowledged that both Hillery and the then Irish ambassador, Con Cremin, handled the situation with diplomatic skill. But the British representative, Lord Caradon, also seems to have gone out of his way to show sensitivity towards the Irish delegation with some useful assistance also from General Franco’s wily ambassador, Jaime de Pinies, who held the chairmanship of the council at that crucial moment. A formula was found whereby Dr Hillery could be invited to address the council as a courtesy on the polite grounds that he was already in New York. With some elaborate UN choreography, Hillery’s well-crafted statement was heard, Lord Caradon replied politely while disagreeing with some of the Irish case, the Soviet ambassador interjected a few jabs and then Ambassador Muuka, the Zambian representative, proposed that the meeting be adjourned. As Dorr concludes: “The Council did not take up the issue again – then or since.” The title of his concluding chapter sums up the matter : “A Well-Managed Scenario”.

 

It is difficult to avoid a sense of national cringe as one reviews this sequence of events. Certainly the dramatis personae, the minister and his diplomats, acquitted themselves competently and decently in the theatre of the security council. But where in this well-managed scenario were the real lives of the Catholic nationalist minority in Northern Ireland?

 

The underlying reality was dramatically epitomised by that mise en scène of August 20th in New York. The undeniable fact is that, after the death of Collins, the Dublin government or governments simply ignored the plight of the minority for forty-six years. When the explosion supervened they knew less about the reality of Derry and Belfast than they did about the complexities of Kashmir. Yes, they had huffed and puffed about partition and the inevitability of “reunification”, knowing full well that neither the British nor the unionist majority would pay the slightest heed; knowing that it was all nonsense except that it encouraged young men to take to stupid campaigns of violence which only exacerbated the lot of their fellow nationalists.

 

In 1922 Stormont abolished PR for council elections, depriving Catholics of their control of thirteen of twenty-four councils. Dublin said and did nothing. Later in the decade Craig did the same for Stormont elections. In the 1933 elections twenty-seven seats were not even contested by non-unionists. Silence from the Irish government. Derry city, seventy-five per cent Catholic, was blatantly gerrymandered and kept under unionist control for thirty years. From the beginning a convention was followed in Westminster prohibiting questions within the “jurisdiction” of the Belfast parliament. This was not once contested by Dublin. The entire security and legal establishments were completely dominated by unionists. The B Specials, one hundred per cent Loyalist, heavily armed and frequently based in Orange halls, were unrestrained in their harassment of their Catholic neighbours. The police were ninety per cent Protestant and unionist and had no operational independence from their unionist minister bosses, who boasted of the success of their “Protestant state”. Similarly with the judiciary. The Special Powers Act, used exclusively against Catholics, was draconian even by the standards of apartheid (as acknowledged by a South African justice minister). Catholics were systematically and massively discriminated against in housing and public and private employment. For many of them daily life was a sustained, deliberate humiliation. In 1933 the Stormont home affairs minister, JM Andrews, reacted defensively to rumours that twenty-eight of thirty-one porters at Stormont were Roman Catholics by confirming that there were thirty Protestant porters; there was he admitted one Catholic, but his was a temporary appointment.

 

All of this is a familiar, almost a banal, recital but it conceals the reality of a generation of thousands of lives which were frustrated or otherwise thwarted. Peter Barry’s expression “the nightmare of the Northern Catholics” was far from an exaggeration. What is acutely distressing and even humiliating is that successive governments in Dublin did nothing and said nothing to the British to address these wrongs. And apparently did not much care. Eddie McAteer, not the most forceful of nationalist leaders, came away from a meeting with the Taoiseach: “Lemass said it appeared to him that the Catholics of the North were just as intractable as the Protestants ... I came away with the conviction that as far as Sean Lemass was concerned, the Northern Irish were very much on their own." (quoted in Making Sense of the Troubles, by David McKittrick and David McVea).

 

Sean Donlon, also a former secretary of the department and a former ambassador to the US, provided me with this telling example by email: “In late 1968 I was a First Secretary in the Embassy in Bonn where we were beginning to get queries from Germans about what was happening in NI. I was aware (probably through the media) that there was a group in Dungannon led by Dr. Con McCluskey who were producing pamphlets on discrimination etc. I asked the Dept. for a supply but was told that the Minister (Aiken) had directed that these pamphlets were not appropriate for use by Missions. Instead I was sent a very old circular, from the late 50s I think, about the Government’s policy on NI. It was of absolutely no use in the new NI circumstances.”

Of course none of this excuses the British, the responsible power, whose particular systematic neglect amounted in practice to the active encouragement of Unionist abuses. But the fact of uninterrupted blanket Dublin neglect of the lot of their fellow nationalists is shameful and has something of the character of an original sin dating from the foundation of the state. It is not spoken of. It has never been officially acknowledged. How the Dublin establishment could have presumed to demand any measure of loyalty to the Irish state from Northern nationalists defies decency or common reason. Of course Dublin ‑ and London ‑ reaped the whirlwind of unpardonable neglect and wilful ignorance when the situation exploded. Officials in Dublin had not the slightest idea of what was happening or of what to do. A young chargé d’affaires in Madrid, I had a phone call (most unusual in those days) from a first secretary in Iveagh House who told me: “This is war!” Measured against the posturing on partition and the neglect of the real life experience of the minority, the choreography and empty gestures at the security council do point up the hypocrisy and heartlessness of a smug and complacent state, as well as its impotence when confronted by its own failings. Auden’s powerful sonnet “Diplomacy”, set in the Geneva of Dev’s rather theoretical speeches to the League of Nations on a day that the mists lifted from the peak of Mont Blanc, speaks more loudly for the victims of neglect and violence, including for the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland as they stood that day in 1969, when considered against the background of such “well managed scenarios”:

 

As evening fell the days oppression lifted;
Far peaks came into focus; it had rained:
Across wide lawns and cultured flowers drifted
The conversation of the highly trained.
Two gardeners watched them pass and priced their shoes;
A chauffeur waited, reading in the drive,
For them to finish their exchange of views;
It seemed a picture of the private life.
Far off, no matter what good they intended,
The armies waited for a verbal error
With all the instruments for causing pain:
And on the issue of their charm depended
A land laid waste, with all its young men slain,
Its women weeping, and its towns in terror.


Michael Lillis was diplomatic adviser to the Taoiseach (1981), head of the Anglo-Irish Relations division of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1982-85), Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Agreement Secretariat, Maryfield, Belfast (1985-86), Ambassador to the UN in Geneva (1986-88), managing director for Latin America for GPA (1988-90) and for GE Capital Aviation (1990-96), board member VivaAeobus Airlines Mexico 2007 to date. His Scandal and Courage: the Lives of Eliza Lynch, co-authored with Ronan Fanning, was published in 2009.

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