Ireland at the United Nations: Memories of the Early Years by Noel Dorr; A Small State at the Top Table: Memories of Ireland on the UN Security Council, 1981-82 by Noel Dorr, Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 2010, pp. 264, €25.00, pb. 978 1 904541 87 5

Reviewer: Andrew Cottey*

Noel Dorr, now retired, was one of Ireland’s most long-standing and distinguished diplomats. Having joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1960, he eventually became Secretary-General of the Department from 1987 to 1995, serving in Brussels, Washington, DC and New York (as Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN) in between. Dorr is more than qualified to shed light on Ireland’s engagement with the United Nations. As the sub-titles of these two books suggest they draw on Ambassador Dorr’s personal experience: this is one of their great strengths. Much is written on the United Nations by academics and other commentators, this often comes from the perspective of outsiders looking in; here we get the view of someone who has worked inside the United Nations - someone who clearly supports the UN and the principles on which it rests, but equally is not naive about the Organisation’s flaws and limits.

Ireland at the United Nations: Memories of the Early Years examines Ireland’s involvement in the UN in the 1960s. The book is introduced by chapters examining how Ireland joined the UN and on key Irish ‘personalities’ in the UN context during this period, such as Frank Aiken, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Freddie Boland, Irish Permanent Representative (Ambassador) to the United Nations. Two themes central to this period run throughout the book: the Cold War and de-colonisation. For readers to whom the Cold War and de-colonisation may seem like ancient history, the book provides a valuable sense of the dynamics at play during this period. In this context, Ireland as a small state with its own experience of having gained independence from one of the great colonial powers had a certain political standing – even moral weight – within the UN. Dorr notes that The Economist in the 1960s once even described the way in which ‘Ireland bestrides the UN like a colossus’. The book includes chapters on the UN’s troubled peacekeeping operation in the Congo in the 1960s, the accession of the communist People’s Republic of China to the UN, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and Ireland’s 1962 term on the Security Council (It lasted for only one year, because the two-year term was split with Liberia). Further chapters relate to the UN’s opposition to the Apartheid regime in South Africa, colonialism and Ireland’s (unsuccessful) attempt to internationalise the Northern Ireland conflict via the UN.

A Small State at the Top Table: Memories of Ireland on the UN Security Council, 1981-82 explores Ireland’s second term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, when Dorr was Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the UN. The book focuses on three conflicts which were central to the Security Council during this period: Namibia; the 1982 Lebanon war; and the 1982 Falklands war (with about half the book devoted to the latter). In each case, Dorr provides a detailed overview of the issue, highlighting Irish policy and initiatives. His analysis of the Falklands is particularly interesting because it still remains a sensitive – and to some extent controversial – point in Irish foreign policy and British-Irish relations. Of special interest is the Irish government’s (effectively Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s) response to the British sinking of the Argentinian vessel the Belgrano, which involved opposing the renewal of EU sanctions against Argentina and calling for an immediate cessation to hostilities and a negotiated solution, but did not demand an Argentinian withdrawal from the Falklands – thereby angering the British, especially Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Dorr shows that the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish mission to the UN sought to implement the government’s policy of seeking an immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated solution while also trying to minimize the damage to British-Irish relations. He concludes that the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish mission to the UN provided a ‘soft landing’ (p.247) for a government policy which, by implication, might otherwise have done more lasting damage to British-Irish relations. Dorr notes the ‘difficult choice’ the Irish government faced in balancing good relations with Britain while seeking a peaceful solution of the conflict and he explicitly criticises the government for failing to make clear its commitment to the principle of an Argentinian withdrawal from the Falklands (pp.281-2).

In the epilogue to A Small State at the Top Table Dorr reflects both on the Security Council and on the role which small states can play in the UN via the Security Council. The Council, he concludes, is ‘still …exasperatingly slow to respond to crises, still factious at times, still inadequately representative of the realities of power in the world today, still subject to – and always operating under – the threat that any one of its five Permanent Members may exercise the right of veto’. Yet in recent decades it has ‘come just a little closer to the original idea’ of a body capable of maintaining world peace (p.279). For a small state such as Ireland, Dorr argues, active membership of the UN, including taking up the burden of non-permanent terms on the Security Council, is the best way in which they can give substance to the commitment enshrined in the Irish Constitution to ‘the ideal of peace and friendly cooperation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality’ (p.284).

These are not academic books in the sense of testing theories of political science or international relations, but they are scholarly works: books written by someone with a deep understanding of the subject and shedding light on the realities of international politics. Anyone wanting to understand the way in which the United Nations works, the realities of what policy-makers and diplomats have to deal with and the role a small state can play in the UN will benefit from these excellent books.

© 2012, The Author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.