Eamon Gilmore at the helm of the OSCE
By Paul Cunningham, Europe Correspondent
Ireland is at the helm of a major international organisation and the responsibility for directing policy for its 56 member states falls to Eamon Gilmore.
For 2012, he holds the title of Chairperson-in-office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or the OSCE.
The OSCE’s mandate is to promote democracy and open government, as well as trying to prevent conflict and to negotiate peace.
The brief Mr Gilmore has taken on is very wide and therefore the workload is huge.
This job will be a significant challenge for Eamon Gilmore who, as Tánaiste, is expected to be au fait with all aspects of government policy.
He is also Minister for Trade – a crucial job that is at the core of Government plans for national recovery.
Mr Gilmore also holds the title of Minister for Foreign Affairs, a time-consuming brief, especially at the moment with Syria sliding headlong into civil war. He also happens to be the leader of the Labour Party.
Clearly the OSCE post is a prestigious one but it holds political risks too: No politician would like to find themselves trying to negotiate peace in the South Caucasus for example, if a significant domestic problem is raging back home.
It is also a burden for the Department of Foreign Affairs, which will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting given that staffing at the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, while keen, is very lean.
The minimum requirement for any of these diplomatic jobs is to avoid a cock-up.
The first half of Ireland’s year at the helm of the OSCE has gone very smoothly but stormy seas lie ahead.
Ensuring that the final outcome is a success usually requires a detailed policy programme with set targets. That is what Mr Gilmore has tried to put in place.
Ireland is promoting human rights work with a special focus on media and online freedom. A conference is to be held in Dublin next week on the issue.
A second focus will be on trying to develop so-called ”institution building” policies. This means trying to help weaker OSCE member states to insert checks and balances into their system of governance. To eradicate corruption is one such goal, and Ireland is using our Criminal Assets Bureau as an example of what can be achieved.
A third goal is to tackle protracted conflicts and to assess the opportunity to open-up dialogue. Put simply, to get the opposite sides in a conflict to talk and to find common ground. The experience of the Northern Ireland peace process gives Ireland some clout on this front. It gives Mr Gilmore the chance to argue that problems that seem intractable can be solved.
He is known to argue strongly that while such talks can seem impossible, securing peace brings immediate benefits to everyone, especially to the weakest in society.
There are practical problems to navigate too. OSCE decisions are always taken by consensus – just a single country can veto or block any or all initiatives.
For example, Mr Gilmore would like, and is campaigning for, a permanent OSCE mission in Georgia. However, Russia opposes the plan, so the initiative has yet to happen.
The Tánaiste accepts that this makes decision-making time consuming and frustrating.
However, he argues that when a decision is ultimately taken, it comes with the force of 56 member states and therefore has greater power.
The painful reality for Mr Gilmore and his officials at Iveagh House is that building consensus on the Irish platform is going to take an awful lot of effort. Even if the heavy lifting has already been done, it does not guarantee success.
Ireland will be judged on how many objectives have been achieved rather than just advanced.
Chairing the OSCE does give Ireland an opportunity to shine on the international stage.
At a time when our image has taken a battering over the absence of financial regulation and consequent property crisis, that is something we could surely do with.
Certainly, the mandarins at Iveagh House believe we can restore some of that tarnished reputation and prove that Ireland can deliver.
The nation has already operated successfully at the UN Security Council. It has acquitted itself very well when it held the Presidency of the European Union.
Yet, though the OSCE does provide another such opportunity – we still have to deliver the goods.
And we have competition in trying to deliver those goods: The OSCE is but one player in a very crowded diplomatic scene.
That is something the Tánaiste was keenly aware of as he travelled through the South Caucasus this week.
He visited Georgia and discussed with the president the thorny issue of those regions that want to secure independence.
However, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are also the subject of talks in Geneva, involving the EU and UN. Similarly, Mr Gilmore visited Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This dangerous dispute is subject to separate negotiations by what is called The Minsk Group, under the joint chairmanship of Russia, France and the US.
So, while the OSCE is involved in the negotiating processes, so are several other parties.
This means Mr Gilmore’s task is complicated.
The Irish strategy has been to focus on what is called ”real deliverables” – ie trying to solve a problem in a practical way by getting interested parties around the table to seek common ground.
A current example can be seen in Georgia, where the OSCE is developing water projects that will involve both Georgians and those seeking independence.
Observers will watch to see how many projects are created and how successful or otherwise they are.
Preparations are already under way for the annual OSCE gathering of foreign ministers, which will be held next December in Dublin.
Ireland wants to have a declaration agreed at that meeting.
The expectation is that it will try to advance the human rights brief of the OSCE. Once again, due to the consensus requirement, Ireland will have to secure unanimous support for any new initiative.
All it takes is for one country to be unsupportive and the year’s planning may have to be scrapped.
The meeting will be a significant diplomatic event. It will be Hillary Clinton’s swansong as Secretary of State, whether or not President Barack Obama has been re-elected the previous month.
With the international media descending on Dublin, Mr Gilmore will be under pressure to host not just a smooth-running summit, but a successful one, as he hands over the reins of OSCE power to Ukraine.
Eamon Gilmore is politically astute and has been around long enough to know how to avoid the pitfalls. He will know not to promise too much nor to over-extend himself.
On the South Caucasus tour, he showed a confidence in dealing with the media. He was very much on top of his brief and he was comfortable when answering booby-trapped questions about complicated conflicts.
The officials and advisers in is department are clearly relishing being back on the international stage and will work hard to achieve their goals.
This is their big moment – as Ireland will hold the Presidency of the EU next year, European matters are now the preserve of the Department of the Taoiseach and not Iveagh House.
That creates unique opportunities for Eamon Gilmore and for Ireland’s chairmanship of the OSCE. The difficulty is that things can go wrong for reasons outside of Ireland’s control.
Proposals at the December summit could get knocked back due to political games. And there is always the possibility of a domestic banana-skin to trip-up the best laid plans.
Come to think of it, there is another shocking Budget due in December, isn’t there?