Developments in Northern Ireland were also changing rapidly while Anderson was in D.C. A significant part of her job was explaining the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement to members of the American media. When she returned to Dublin in 1987 Anderson continued her involvement in Northern Ireland as part of the Anglo Irish division at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“I had been very interested in what was happening here with employment equality legislation, and when I returned to Ireland they were the years of the early outworking of the Anglo Irish Agreement,” she says.
“I was involved with fair employment legislation for Northern Ireland and I was very inspired by the principles of fair employment that I had been exposed to here. It was very rewarding to be able to transfer, to a degree, some of the knowledge.”
A promotion to assistant secretary, which holds the rank of ambassador, was confirmed for Anderson in 1991; she then worked for four years as head of administration at the department, dealing with personnel and budgets.
After that she returned to Geneva as Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN there. Her primary involvement was human rights work, and her diligence was duly noted when she was named as chair of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights – only the fourth woman in the illustrious history of the group to earn the honor (Eleanor Roosevelt was the first).
Former Irish President Mary Robinson was the UN high commissioner for human rights at the time, and Anderson remembers feeling pride at two Irish women serving in such prestigious postings.
“Mary is wonderful,” Anderson says. “When I look back that is definitely one of the highlights for sure.”
When her time in Geneva was up Anderson was named as Ireland’s permanent representative to the EU, based in Brussels, an intricate job that requires constant negotiation with representatives of other member states, each looking to secure the best deals for their home countries. Anderson’s work on behalf of Ireland earned her the honor of Diplomat of the Year, as named by the influential website European Voice.
In 2005 Anderson was appointed Ireland’s ambassador to France, and since 2009 she has been in New York, heading up the Irish mission to the UN. Given Ireland’s reputation as a greatly trusted member of the world body often called on to provide extra leadership, Anderson’s work has been incredibly varied.
“We are regularly sought after to take on additional roles on top of our day to day responsibilities. For example, my complete preoccupation at present is working on the UN Millennium Development Goals for 2015,” she says.
“The goals are a series of targets to try and benchmark how the world is moving to end poverty and advance development. The goals originally set in 2000 have been very influential in shaping what’s happened over the past 15 years, so we are now laying the groundwork for the next set.”
A major UN meeting on September 25 of this year to fashion the framework of the 2015 goals has been coordinated by Anderson and her counterpart from South Africa. “We’ve been trying to get agreement on the arrangements and on the outcome document. It’s very sensitive and has required an enormous amount of work,” Anderson says.
“I say this because it’s indicative of the trust Ireland has in the UN that we were asked to do this work in the first place. It’s a real recognition for Ireland.”
Anderson has also been overseeing Ireland’s latest participation on UNDOF, the UN peacekeeping force. Just last week, the Irish government agreed to send forces to the tense Golan Heights area that separates Syria and Israel.
Her rise to the top of Ireland’s foreign service doesn’t surprise those who know Anderson. She doesn’t deny that working in a male-dominated profession has definitely offered up some surprises.
When she was named Ireland’s ambassador to the EU in 2001 a bit of gender shock ensued – not only was Anderson the first woman to represent Ireland in the EU, she was the first woman from any EU member state to hold the post.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she remembers. “I didn’t realize it until I arrived there. There was a small article in the Financial Times about it – they said, ‘She made history by sitting down.’ I thought it was a great sentence.”
Anderson is quick to note that she never felt at a disadvantage at the EU because of her gender. “I have to say I wasn’t conscious of it as an issue, but it was certainly indicative of something that in all the decades of the EU’s existence, I should be the first woman ambassador from any member state,” she says.
“The EU job is incredibly tough and a lot of heavy lifting is required. You can only think that it wasn’t coincidental that there wasn’t any other woman ambassador before me. But my male colleagues treated me fine. No concession was made and there were no difficulties.”