Nine Lives: The Reflections of a Deliberate Diplomat by Donal Denham (The Liffey Press, €19.95/£17.95)
It is rare if not unknown for a former Irish ambassador to publish a book about his life and times. Conor Cruise O’Brien gave us To Katanga and Back, but he had retired at Counsellor level and concentrated on his term in the United Nations Irish delegation, and of course as UN representative in the ex-Belgian Congo.
Beyond that junior diplomat, Eamon Delaney, published a witty account of his brief career under Iveagh House rules about 20 years ago, which achieved some success.
So it is interesting to have a fully-fledged ambassador giving a behind the scenes account of his diplomatic activities in nine overseas postings as well as his work in Iveagh House. Donal Denham does not reveal any State secrets, but he gives an at times fascinating account of life behind the glittering receptions and the exotic postings.
A lot of it is hard slog especially when you are representing one of the smallest countries in the world and trying to avoid the faux pas that could damage your record within the Department of Foreign Affairs and slow up the climb to the coveted ambassador level.
Denham in his account eventually makes it as ambassador, going to Lithuania in 2005, 31 years after joining the Department. In between he served in nine posts abroad: Paris, Lusaka, Brussels, Washington, Geneva, Ottawa, San Francisco, Vilnius and finally Helsinki – these names alone give a vivid impression of just where “our men abroad” are posted.
In between there were stints in Iveagh House, usually on EU dossiers. He reveals a rather cynical view of Irish membership of the ever-growing European Community, while observing at close-hand the dominance, and even arrogance, of the Franco-German axis when the big decisions were made.
“The one thing I will now say about the EU bureaucracy is that the rest of the world is safe in the complete and utter absence of initiative, creativity or imagination on the part of Brussels, relying almost entirely on the constituent Member States in the field to generate any sort of new thinking and proactive approach. God help Brussels without the UK!”
Perhaps his most enjoyable post was as Consul-General in San Francisco. Not weighed down by ambassadorial duties, he loved the city and the travel to the 13 western states that were part of his territory.
One of the few indiscretions he reveals was during the visit of then Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, to San Francisco while he was being briefed at an early breakfast by a senior official on why he should make a certain decision. “Brian turned to me, a mere acolyte a table away, and said to me in a loud voice, ‘Donal, let that be a lesson to you; never try to bullshit a bullshitter.’”
The book shows how much exhausting work has to be done at lower level in embassies to implement Irish policies at the highest level. And there is not always much thanks for it. Denham also describes the strains that constant moving puts on diplomatic families as wives have to uproot settled homes, children have to switch schools and adapt to a new language.
The decision to close the Irish embassy to the Holy See was taken while Denham was having a stint in Iveagh House and had to handle the “confetti blizzard” of protest letters to the Minister. They were ignored and “a personal letter from a former Secretary General and high profile Fine Gael supporter offering to mediate was also spurned”.
The author believes that “an intemperate Dáil speech by Enda Kenny who blamed the Roman Curia for the child abuse cover-up scandals which racked Irish society” dramatically underlined the break in diplomatic relations.
But, of course, his lips had to remain sealed – until now.
Joe Carroll was formerly the Diplomatic Editor of the Irish Independent.