Ireland and the United Nations

Having been rejected admission several times, Sam Keane takes a look at the historic relationship between the UN and the Irish.

Ireland has a long and storied history as a member of the United Nations. Our island has often played a role far larger than what would usually befit a nation of such a small size. Irish troops have served in over twenty UN peacekeeping missions, distinguishing themselves in countries such as Lebanon, Cyprus and Chad. Several Irish men and women have been appointed to key positions within the organisation including Mary Robinson, who served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 until 2002. Considering the integral part that our republic has played in the UN since our admission in 1955, it may come as a surprise to find out that Ireland’s applications to join the organisation were rejected several times throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. This article deciphers why, beginning by considering just how the UN came into being and what its initial aims were.

Much of the world lay in ruin following the defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945. Six years of war had resulted in the deaths of millions of people, economic devastation across the globe and the displacement of countless civilians. The UN’s predecessor organisation; The League of Nations, had failed in its stated aim of preventing international conflict. The traditional world powers of Britain, France and Germany were severely weakened by years of fierce fighting. It was strikingly apparent that a new world order needed to be established if another world war was to be avoided. In April 1945, representatives from fifty allied nations met in San Francisco to draft the United Nations Charter, which established the UN in October of that year. The organisation's objectives included maintaining international peace and security and upholding international law. Ireland had been heavily involved in The League of Nations prior to the second world war. In 1932 Eamon de Valera had been elected president of the General Assembly. In his inaugural address he advocated sanctions against any state breaking its Convention, a request that unfortunately fell on deaf ears. Apart from levying intense criticism at the fascist Italian government following their decision to invade Abyssinia in 1936, De Valera was unable to convince the League to take any meaningful action, exposing the inherent weakness of the organisation. In the end, Ireland’s neutrality during the war meant it was not invited to join the new organisation. Despite this, Taoiseach Eamonn De Valera hoped that an application made at a later date would be accepted so that Ireland could play an active role within this new intergovernmental body.

Alas, it would be ten years before Ireland was finally invited to take a seat at the UN Headquarters in New York. All applications made by the Irish government between 1945 and 1955 had been vetoed by Stalin’s USSR.  On the first occasion, the reason given was the absence of Irish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. However, subsequent applications were rejected on the basis that, according to the USSR, Ireland had expressed sympathy to Nazi Germany by refusing to enter the war. In response, De Valera spoke to the Dublin correspondent of the New York Times, making clear that Ireland was not intimidated or disturbed by the USSR’s veto. His response mirrored his famous retort to Winston Churchill’s attack on Irish neutrality. De Valera pointed to the Stalin’s hypocrisy stating: “If Russia, which attacked Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, can be regarded as qualifying as a peace-loving nation, it is difficult to see how a nation which kept the peace and scrupulously fulfilled all its obligations as a member of the League of Nations can rightly be regarded as not qualifying”. De Valera concluded by summing up the ordeal as an abuse of power and warned that “no organisation in which such action is possible will command the peoples’ respect or can long endure.” This restrained yet effective response marked a high point in his political career. It drew acclaim particularly from the United States, whose citizens were growing increasingly fearful of the nuclear armed superpower spreading communism throughout Eastern Europe. 

It was not until 1955 that the impasse was resolved, and Ireland, along with fifteen other nations, was admitted to the United Nations. Frederick Boland was appointed as Ireland’s first permanent UN representative and was ultimately elected to the position of President of the General Assembly. From 1957 onwards, Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank Aiken became a serious player in the United Nations. Drawing parallels between the British occupation of Ireland and the plight of other small nations, Aiken vigorously defended the right to self determination of nations such as Algeria and Hungary on the UN stage. Despite substantial opposition from the United States, he stubbornly asserted the right to discuss the representation of communist China at the General Assembly, whose seat had been held by Chinese nationalists based in Taiwan since the end of the civil war. Aiken was also a passionate proponent of nuclear non-proliferation and was the first minister to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 in Moscow. UCD’s Professor Ben Tonra stated: “Ireland played a role well beyond its size at the UN in the early years of its membership -indeed it was pivotal on some issues such as nuclear disarmament, decolonisation and on the allocation of the  Chinese seat on the Security Council.” The active role played by Frank Aiken in these early years cemented Ireland’s role as a substantial player in international affairs and was viewed with an immense sense of pride back home. Ireland sat on the UN Security Council from 2001 to 2002 and in 2015, celebrated 60 years in the UN. To date, 90 Irish soldiers have lost their lives on UN peacekeeping missions. We are currently a 2020 candidate for an elected seat on the UN Security Council for the 2021-2022 term. Despite shaky beginnings, Ireland’s position as a committed and respected member of the UN looks set to continue into the distant future.