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Women in diplomacy in changing times

Women in diplomacy in changing times

Marie Cross. Photo Credit: DFA/Phil Behan

By Marie Cross, former Irish Ambassador

I am delighted to be invited to contribute an article for Visible Women 2020. It is a terrific initiative by Ambassador Helena Nolan and her team at the Embassy, to add to all the other very interesting projects they have undertaken this year, in spite of the enormous challenges they have faced. They have maintained a schedule of very interesting events and kept the flag flying in a most admirable way.

In the course of my career with the Department of Foreign Affairs, I enjoyed two separate postings in Brussels. In this context, Ambassador Nolan invited me to reflect on these and some other aspects of my career.

I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in November 1970, in a group of five Third Secretaries, of which I was the only woman. There were three other female Third Secretaries already in the Department at that level and one senior officer at Counsellor level. The marriage bar was still in place, so for the few women recruited, remaining was not an option once married, which accounted for the lack of senior female officers. At that time, apart from the Damocles Sword of daring to fall for anyone that might conceivably lead to marriage, not least another colleague, the Department was a great place in which to work. It was small enough to get to know the group of Third Secretaries well - there were something like 13 of us. The whole group was able to crowd into one room (deemed unsafe for use as an office!) for morning coffee. The work was wide ranging and interesting. The Biafra War was raging at this time and Ireland had a very particular interest due to the number of its citizens in Nigeria. A senior colleague, sent out to rescue citizens, mainly missionaries, came back having been injured by both sides in the civil war. Events were also becoming tense and difficult in Northern Ireland and the negotiations had begun for the entry of the state to the European Economic Community, along with the United Kingdom and Denmark.

I worked in the Political Division, where I had a series of three month sessions at the United Nations. Contrary to the perception that all women delegates were nominated to the Third Committee, the so-called Womens’ Committee, in my second and third year I sat in the Special Political Committee, dealing with Middle Eastern Affairs and Peacekeeping. While at the UN in 1972 I received a blue envelope posting me to Washington - no phones in use for postings in those days!

The Washington embassy is a wonderful posting, even for a Third Secretary at the bottom of the diplomatic pile - and it is a very big pile as most embassies in the capital are very well staffed. Washington was an incredibly exciting city in the Watergate years. The aura of power was palpable in the city and no more so than on Capitol Hill.

The posting to Washington was all too short a period when another blue envelope arrived and I was sent back to Headquarters to swell the numbers for EU membership on 1 January 1973. This opened a whole new dimension in Irish foreign policy. In 1974, shortly after the removal of the marriage bar in 1973, I married my husband John. The removal of the bar opened the way for women to remain in the Service and thus to achieve promotion through the various grades and for the Department to retain trained and able staff.

My next posting was to the Embassy of Ireland to the Kingdom of Belgium. Brussels was, and still is to a great extent, split into two quite distinct areas for diplomats. Those who are accredited to the Kingdom of Belgium and those accredited to the EU, which I was to be later.

I greatly enjoyed my two years posting to the Embassy to Belgium. I had the opportunity to get to know Belgium as a country and also the Belgian people. Getting to know people was possible because my business and social life involved mixing with Belgian officials, a number of whom became good friends. I loved the city, with its different and very beautiful styles of architecture. I enjoyed the countryside, when I found out where one could safely walk (and not to wander everywhere as in the Irish hills!). We lived in a lovely part of Brussels, in an old apartment in Avenue Emile Duray, opposite the Abbaye de la Cambre with the Bois and the magnificent Forêt de Soignes close by.

With a change of Head of Mission in 1978, I accompanied Ambassador Mary Tinney in a horse drawn carriage to the Royal Palace to present credentials to King Baudouin. With the arrival of Ambassador Tinney the “3 man mission” had an all-female diplomatic staff, with Gillian Davidson as Third Secretary. This caused quite a stir in Ireland. We were photographed on the front of The Irish Times but no one took any notice of this phenomenon in Brussels where we went about our business as usual. It was, I suppose in retrospect, an indication of how the participation of women in diplomacy had advanced. I made good Belgian friends, which is always such a help in a posting and much appreciated.

I returned to Headquarters in 1979 again to bolster HQ in advance of the first Irish Presidency. In time, I was promoted to be Head of Personnel. By this time there were many more women in the Department. My postings had taken place, as they had for others, at various times of the year – February, December, March. It seemed at this stage worth testing a planned posting system whereby postings would take place in the Summer to assist childrens’ schooling and the search for accommodation (I had memories of flat hunting in the slush of a Washington winter).  Seán Donlon as Secretary General was very supportive and after dozens of matrix forms were produced, the Planned Posting System was born.

In 1986 I had two young children, so I took a 4 year career break, working on contract for the Department on the renovation of the Irish College in Paris. In 1990 my family and I went to Bonn in Germany for what proved to be an incredibly exciting posting. It was the eve of reunification and we had a ring side seat at one of the most momentous periods of European history - the binding together of West and East Germany.

After 4 years we returned to HQ where and within 6 months I was promoted to Ambassador to open an embassy in the newly created Czech Republic, with a side accreditation to Ukraine. We all packed our bags again and planted the Irish flag in a beautiful office building in the heart of Prague. Prague is a beautiful city and the early 1990s was a fascinating time to be posted in the region given the enormous changes that were underway.

After our 4 years in Prague, which we all enjoyed - my husband John worked in the Czech Academy of Sciences and the children attended the International School - we headed back to Dublin.

After some years as Head of Corporate Services I returned to Brussels. My posting this time was as Ambassador to the Political and Security Committee of the EU (PSC). This is the Committee of the EU which meet twice weekly to discuss the political, security and military issues on the EU agenda. I was based in the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU on Rue Froissart, where the team included 5 military officers headed by a Brigadier General.

This posting in Brussels was in complete contrast to the first one to the Kingdom. The only Belgians one meets are the PSC colleagues - present in the same number as any of the other member states. It is very much an EU bubble, with 2 full days of meeting each week, so a great deal of time is spent in the company of ones EU colleagues. This is, of course, a big advantage because in the foreign policy world of give and take and compromise it is of great value to know ones counterparts and their likely positions. This is where the present situation with COVID-19 is such an inhibition to progress as so much of searching for compromise is done behind the scenes - before and during meetings.

While in the EU bubble I did have the great advantage of living again in Brussels, in the lovely area of Avenue de l’Observatoire. My husband and children remained in Ireland - children grow up! My husband, having been granted 3 career breaks from his job as a scientist in the National Parks and Wildlife Service, returned to his post. He had picked up interesting experience working in his own field in the EU Commission and in Bonn and Prague. It is worth mentioning that the career break system offered by the Civil Service has been of vital assistance to Foreign Service officers - both male and female.

I left Brussels in 2009 with many regrets. It is a great city in which to live, work and enjoy all the arts, culture, entertainment it has to offer, as well as great outdoor pursuits.

I returned to HQ to take on the Policy Planning portfolio and, as the recession began to bite, the Irish Abroad and Consular areas. I retired in 2011 after a momentous year following the crises in Egypt, Libya, the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in New Zealand.

I have to say that I enjoyed my entire career in the Department of Foreign Affairs. Of course, not all is good all of the time. Like all careers there are highs and lows. It is not easy moving every 3 or 4 years and my children had 4 different schools in one 6 year period. But there are wonderful experiences too, not just for the officer, but for the family in living in living abroad with different cultures and peoples. And all the time with the great satisfaction of working for your country abroad. It’s hard to beat!

About Marie Cross

Marie Cross is a retired Department of Foreign Affairs diplomat. During her career she served in posts in New York, Washington Brussels and Bonn. She was Ambassador of Ireland to the Czech Republic and to Ukraine, and to the Political and Security Committee of the European Union. At DFA Headquarters, she served as Director General for Corporate Services, Strategic Planning and Consular Services, the Irish Abroad Unit, the Global Irish Network and the Global Irish Forum. Outside of the DFA she was Executive Director for the first stage of the renovation of the Irish College in Paris. 

She is currently Chair of the Future of Europe Group of the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) and Co- Chair of the Security Group. She holds a degree in science from University College Dublin. Marie was appointed to the IIEA Board in 2013 and is also Senior Fellow of the IIEA.

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