Anne Anderson will become Ireland’s first female ambassador to the U.S. next month. She speaks to Debbie McGoldrick about her lifelong career representing Ireland abroad. 

Career diplomat Anne Anderson is set to take up the post of Ireland’s ambassador to the United States at the end of August, marking the first time that a female has assumed the important, high-profile post.

But for Anderson, 60, being first lady on the job is something that she’s well used to given the male-dominated world of diplomatic foreign service.

She’s been Ireland’s first female in all of her prior postings, including her time as the Irish permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva in 1995 and the European Union in Brussels in 2001, and as ambassador to France in 2005.  Anderson just completed four years as Ireland’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York – again, leading the way for other females to follow.

But her new posting in Washington, D.C., she says, will truly be special, the ultimate goal for someone such as herself who has dedicated her career to representing Ireland’s interests abroad.

“I wasn’t expecting it, but I was absolutely delighted with the news,” Anderson told the Irish Voice last week during an interview in her office at the Irish Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Anderson had indicated a preference for the job to the Irish government some time back, given that she was at the end of her time at the UN and was due for another relocation.  But the decision rested with the government.

“I had hoped for it,” she says.  “It’s every diplomat’s dream to serve in Washington and I love the United States. I served in Washington in the mid-eighties for four years, so here I am 30 years later.  I feel a tremendous sense of pride and privilege.”

There is no doubt that Anderson is up for the new challenge.  She has seen and done it all during a 41-year foreign service career in which she’s been deeply involved in just about every issue on the Irish radar screen.

Her childhood years also helped her prepare for the one constant in a foreign service livelihood – relocation.  Born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, her father worked in the psychiatric health service and moved the family to Kilkenny when she was eight, followed by another move to Dublin.  

Anderson gradated University College Dublin when she was 19 with a degree in history and politics and was leaning towards a career in teaching. Her father, though, had other ideas, and wanted his daughter to secure a safe, solid job in the Irish civil service.

“When you went to college when I did, we weren’t career focused in the way that young people are nowadays,” Anderson recalls.

Civil service, though, didn’t interest Anderson. But when her father saw an ad in a newspaper for an entry level opening in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs she was intrigued.  She applied for the position and got it, and hasn’t looked back since.

“When I got the job I thought I’d try it for a couple of years, but then it became addictive,” Anderson remembers.

The times were exciting for Ireland.  Soon after Anderson joined the foreign service Ireland became a member of the European Union, so things were changing at a rapid pace.  It was the perfect environment for an enthusiastic young worker like Anderson.

“I had enormous responsibility as a 20 year old writing briefs for ministers to go to EU meetings and so on,” she says.  “I couldn’t have imagined in those early years another career that could offer such scope and challenge, so I was hooked.”

Anderson quickly rose through the ranks, and her first foreign posting came in 1976 at Ireland’s mission to the UN in Geneva. She spent four years there, including a six-month stint in Belgrade working on tense east-west relations.

A return to Dublin to continue her work on Eastern European issues followed, and then came Anderson’s first exposure to the U.S. in 1983. She was based at the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. for four years where she was a jack of all trades, doing economic and media work, and acting as agricultural and labor attaché.

Her time in D.C. sparked an interest in labor issues that continues to this day. Anderson counts famed labor Irish American labor leaders Tom Donahue and John Sweeney as mentors who exposed her to American-style problems and solutions that she was able to apply in other postings as her career progressed.

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.”

The lifestyle of a diplomat expected to travel the world can pose personal issues, Anderson acknowledges, but she adds that they can be equally harsh on men.

“The reality is – and I’m not just being politically correct in saying this – that the diplomatic career is challenging for any two-career couple,” says Anderson.

“If you have a male diplomat the problems are the same for his spouse – disrupting a career and moving around.  This is an immensely rewarding career, there’s no question about that.  But in terms of disruption to your personal life, there can be a cost.”

Anderson has a grown daughter who was born during her first posting in Washington, D.C., and is fluent in French as a result of her mother’s travels.

“For children, if they are adaptable and don’t have particular challenges, it’s a wonderful opportunity,” she says.

“My daughter has lived among many different cultures and races, and she’s a citizen of the world really. And that is a huge benefit.”

The prospect of representing Ireland in Washington, D.C. and indeed all the 50 states is one that Anderson relishes.  After a return home for some vacation time – a highlight of which will be seeing Bruce Springsteen in Kilkenny this weekend – she will be on the job at the end of August.

Top of her to-do list?  Doing whatever she and the Irish government can to move the comprehensive immigration debate here to a successful conclusion.

“Without a doubt that is the priority,” she says, noting that she’s been keeping a close eye on the debate that holds the promise of legalizing tens of thousands undocumented Irish here, and also ensuring a future legal flow of Irish via the proposed annual E-3 Schumer visa program.

“We are totally aware of how important this issue is both for those here and their families at home.  Everybody in Ireland has either been directly affected by the plight of the undocumented here, or knows someone who has.”

Anderson plans on reaching out to legislators on Capitol Hill who are supportive of immigration reform, and more importantly, she says, “those who aren’t.  

“I’d very much like to meet with Republicans in the House who are not in favor and talk to them about the issue and where we are coming from.  We will do as much as we can, as much as a government can do, but of course the decision rests with Congress.  But the government is totally supportive of the effort.”

Stimulating U.S. investment in Ireland in coordination with the Irish consulates across the country is a project Anderson says she will undertake, and she’s also keen to immerse herself in cultural matters which will again peak in 2016 with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Building on the Irish Proclamation of 1916, Anderson is hopeful that 2016 can be a year of “proclaiming Ireland” in the U.S.

“I think the anniversary will be an important catalyst,” she says.  “If we are going to mark it in an appropriate way we are going to need good lead-in time, so I’m obviously going to see what’s already in place and pick up on that.  I hope we can weave in our culture and theater and literature, and see what other strands we can weave in as well. I’m hoping to be able to continue the thinking that is already beginning, and build on that in a way that is high impact.”

Anderson thought about a teaching career after she finished college, and sharing knowledge is something she’s still passionate about.  She occasionally served as a visiting lecturer at Fordham University while in New York, and building relationships with think tanks and universities in D.C. will also figure prominently on her agenda.

“It’s not just that it interests me personally, but I think it’s very healthy that we have an agenda with the U.S. that isn’t just about us coming to the U.S. to ask for certain things, but where we are fully equal partners,” Anderson maintains.

“Ireland is at the cutting edge in its conceptual thinking about world hunger and development issues, so when we work with the U.S. on that we are co-leading something that is a shared agenda for us.  

“So I think that’s a very healthy place to be, and I look forward to working and building relationships that are beneficial both to Ireland and America.”