In January 2021 Ireland will take a prized seat at the UN Security Council for the first time in 20 years. A number of NUI Galway alumni are at the top table when it comes to global peace and security.
When he joined NUI Galway as an undergraduate Arts student in the early 1990s, General Assembly Ambassador Mícheál Tierney never thought he would one day be sitting at the UN Security Council negotiating Ireland’s priorities for multilateralism, soft power and global peace and security. But 30 years on, the French and Philosophy graduate is one of a handful of diplomats who will steer the global response to major conflicts, natural disasters and humanitarian crises in 2021 and 2022.
A fluent French speaker, he credits his Arts education with providing a solid grounding for his career as an Irish diplomat. Philosophy gave him the capacity to be “rigorous in the way you think about things, think critically and separate truth from falsehood”.
Mícheál helped drive Irelands campaign for a UN Security Council seat and has now been appointed as one of Ireland’s Ambassadors to the Security Council, working alongside a team of colleagues from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
By any measure the outcome was a major coup. Tierney believes Ireland’s ambitious programme of priorities, our own emigrant history and our commitment to peacekeeping, multilateralism and development all helped.
“We got support because we articulated very strongly that we don’t want a world that’s dominated by aggressive nationalism. That’s not what our country represents; we want a world that organises itself so that there is cooperation around health, around climate change, around economic development and security,” he says.
“So we feel that we’re not just going in there on our own, we’re going in there because we got a mandate on these issues. The vast majority of members of the UN want a civilised international order. And I think that Ireland is identified with that. It should be a matter of pride for Irish people that we’re seen as a country that represents the spirit of cooperation and international dialogue. We’re going to try and bring that to the floor of the Security Council.”
Tierney cites Ireland’s commitment to development aid, multilateralism, nuclear disarmament, climate action, and the UN’s sustainable development goals as key priorities. Major issues such as respect for international humanitarian law, accountability for crimes against humanity, and conflict prevention are also at the top of Ireland’s agenda.
“One of the reasons that Irish people have been prepared to allocate significant amounts of public money to international development is that we’ve seen development work in our own country in the space of 50 years. We went from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to being one of the richest. So Irish people know that development cooperation isn’t just charity money. It’s actually a strategic investment that can really help countries get themselves to a level where they can progress. And that’s good for the whole world.”
“So it’s not just about fighting words, it’s also about the experience that Irish people have had. A lot of people have gone away as volunteers, as peacekeepers, as educators, as nurses, as doctors, and they have done this country great service in terms of our reputation.”
Ireland’s neutrality is also an advantage, he believes. “It’s not just a passive neutrality. We seek to use our neutrality in a positive way in conflict. And it’s also, I think, a neutrality that helps us in peacekeeping contexts to be accepted as honest brokers. That cannot be overestimated. The power of that acceptance can be seen in places like Lebanon, where we’re not perceived as being aligned with military blocs, but we are prepared to put in a huge effort, in terms of deployment of our officers, helping keep the peace, and enforce UN mandates in order to do so.”
But being neutral doesn’t mean staying quiet in the face of injustice, he says. “It’s also about trying to use your moral voice, for example, on issues like human rights. And it’s often possible to displease people by speaking out, but you must have the courage to do it.”
It’s not just at the Security Council where NUI Galway graduates are taking a global lead in peace and security. Vice Admiral Mark Mellett (PhD, 2009) was appointed Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces in 2015 following a distinguished and highly decorated military career – the first Naval Officer to hold that command.
NUI Galway has more than a 50 year history of links with the Defence Forces; many Army, Navy and Air Corps officers have completed their undergraduate degrees in Galway and a number have also gone on to undertake Masters and research degrees in areas including human rights, law, politics, diplomacy, public policy and governance.
“That education has been critical in the development of the high calibre of Irish peacekeeping,” according to Vice Admiral Mellett. “One defining feature of our officers is the fact that they’re really good diplomats. They’re able to pull together disparate groupings.But what gives them that language of others is their outlook and how they’ve developed academically, how they’ve looked at the social sciences in particular, but also political science – to be able to understand how communities interact. Being a diplomat and also having that broader outlook, which goes beyond being a purely professional military officer, is critical in the complex world in which we operate,” he says.
“That connection with NUI Galway has been a bedrock of Defences Forces’ education and has been vital in the delivery of those critical diplomacy capacities,” he says, “and this level of training gives personnel the capacity to weigh situations, distil information and think critically about disinformation, manage and mitigate risks, and make informed decisions in difficult circumstances.”
The Irish Defence Forces have a long and proud history of peacekeeping – almost 60 years of unbroken service in some of the world’s most dangerous, challenging and difficult conflict zones, including the Congo, Lebanon, Liberia, East Timor, and most recently in the Mediterranean where the Navy has been active in the refugee crisis. “We’ve stood up to violent extremists, we’ve freed hostages and in the last number of years, we rescued nearly 23,000 people in the Mediterranean. COVID has also caused profound challenges at home and abroad,” according to Vice Admiral Mellett, with Defence Forces personnel providing aid to the civil powers at home, as well as continuing its peacekeeping work abroad. There have been more than 50,000 troop movements in support of the HSE in recent months.
He predicts that in future, Defence Forces personnel will face increasing risks from pandemics and other challenge such as climate change and biodiversity loss, in terms of peace and security, and humanitarian assistance. Vice Admiral Mellett also believes that Ireland’s Security Council seat will present an important opportunity for Ireland to put its stamp on our key priorities of peacebuilding and multilateralism.
“Peacekeeping is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end. It creates the environment for good stuff to happen. So there is a broader understanding of other actors, whether it be investment, whether it be the NGO community, whether it be interim arrangements in terms of government, whether it be in ensuring that institutions can take root and actually grow. But it’s also a more sophisticated understanding in terms of some of the drivers of insecurity. And if I look at it in terms of three key lines our time [on the Security Council is going to be about peacekeeping, peace building, and accountability.”
NUI Galway Vice President for Development, John Concannon, who worked Ireland’s UN campaign, agrees, adding that winning the UN Security Council seat is a major vote of confidence in Ireland’s international reputation. He said the campaign was built on the 3 core values of Empathy, Partnership and Independence, which underpinned all of the messaging throughout the bid. “Ireland’s values led approach, and our past history of famine, migration, and colonisation helped us stand out vis a vis our competitors, with a strong authentic voice.”
Vice Admiral Mellett, Chief of Staff of Ireland's Defence Forces -
Professor Siobhán Mullally, Director of NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for Human Rights and UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, says that Ireland’s election to the Security Council is a hugely important moment. “It is a critically important time in relation to what has been a weakening in recent years of commitments to the UN system and to multilateralism in terms of international relations. So Ireland is joining at a very important political moment, and a key priority will be to rebuild and strengthen commitment to multilateralism and cooperation in maintaining and building peace and security.”
Professor Mullally argues that urgent action is required by the Council on issues including climate justice, gender equality, women’s empowerment and ensuring accountability and promoting peace and security.
Prof Siobhán Mullally, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway, and UN Special Rapporteur -