Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A back story to the UK withdrawal from UNESCO

No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
William Butler Yeats
Easter, 1916

Yeats was the first Irishman honored with a Nobel Prize. He was a driving force behind the Irish literary revival and with Lady Gregory a founder of the Abbey Theater. I have a small connection to Yeats in that he, together with Douglas Hyde and Lady Gregory, was a leader in efforts to rediscover lost Irish literature, and with Douglas Hyde was instrumental in creating the modern reputation of my ancestor, the poet Blind Raftery.
Yeats and Lady Gregory wrote a one act play titled Cathleen NĂ­ Houlihan. The lead role of Cathleen in the original Abbey Theater production was played by Maud Gonne, a famous beauty and dedicated Irish nationalist. She is notable among other things for having turned down four proposals of marriage from William Butler Yeats. Ultimately she married John MacBride.

John MacBride first came to general notice during the Boer War when he raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade (also known as the MacBride Brigade) which fought on the side of the Boers against the British. A leading member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he was an organizer of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, and was executed by the British after the rebellion, and immortalized in the great poem by Yeats quoted above.

Sean MacBride was the son of John MacBride and Maud Gonne. He was active in the Irish war of independence, and active in the IRA in his early years. In 1946 he founded the Irish republican/socialist party. His later distinguished career included stints as the Irish Minister for External Affairs, President of the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and vice-president of the Council for European Economic Cooperation, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, and President of the UN General Assembly. Wikipedia reports that he was responsible for Ireland not joining NATO. He was a founding member of Amnesty International, and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his work on human rights.

In 1977 he was appointed to chair the UNESCO International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems. The Commission produced its report, Many Voices, One World: Towards a New, More Just, and More Efficient World Information and Communication Order (Critical Media Studies Institutions, Politics and Culture) in 1980. The report, often called the MacBride Report, was the subject of a very divisive discussion at the following UNESCO General Conference. While the Commission report was considered moderate and is well regarded by many today, the developing nation delegates to UNESCO found it did not adequately reflect their demands for a New International Information Order that would make the media more supportive of their nation's needs for development and information for their peoples. The American and British media, which of course had huge international interests, covered the debate almost to the total exclusion of other aspects of the General Conference, and that coverage was largely negative.

The conservative Heritage Foundation had long opposed UNESCO and U.S. participation in UNESCO. In part the anti-UNESCO factions opposed the administrative practices of Amador M'Bow, and were concerned about charges of inefficiency of the Organization, but found the debate on the MacBride report to be a potent illustration supporting their charges of radical politicization of UNESCO debates (in directions contrary to U.S. interests). The conservative Republican administration of Ronald Reagan was convinced to withdraw the United States from UNESCO in 1984.

Why did the United Kingdom withdraw a year later? There were anti-UNESCO factions in the UK, and the Heritage Foundation had also been active in England lobbying against UNESCO; the media had panned the New International Information Order debate in the UK as it had in the United States, and it is generally agreed that the UK decision was in part influenced by and supportive of the U.S. withdrawal decision. Still the majority opinion in the British public and British Parliament were pro-UNESCO.

Margaret Thatcher had begun her long term of office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, and her administration was as conservative as that of Ronald Reagan in the United States. It is perhaps not surprising that it came down, over the objections of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, for withdrawal from UNESCO. I wonder, however, whether their opinions of the long history of anti-British activism by Sean MacBride and his parents might have had something to do with their response to the MacBride report and the debates that it influenced.

No comments: