My first foray with Alexander Downer occurred back in 1994 when, as Leader of the Federal Opposition, we were pitted to debate, through the columns of Neos Kosmos’ New Generation, why Australia should (he argued not) become a republic. The second time our paths crossed was when – by then – Australia’s longest serving foreign minister, Downer, was appointed as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Cyprus in 2008. His South Australia office rang me requesting a recent research article I published on the Cyprus Peace Talks. This was followed with subsequent requests for both editions of my book Resolving the Cyprus Conflict: Negotiating History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 & 2011). I found that nothing excites academics more than the alluring belief that their work might influence policy making and shape history – whether Downer did, or did not, is a very ephemeral presumption on anyone’s behalf.
However, my first actual meeting with Downer was over a steak and a good red (I, like a good child of the working class, opted for the local KEO brew as my beverage of choice) at Nicosia’s Hilton Fontana Restaurant on 23 June 2010. Joined by Australia’s High Commissioner Mr Evan Williams, this was a most revealing and light-hearted conversation. By then, caustic headlines had begun to saturate the predominantly, but not exclusively, Greek Cypriot media (i.e. ‘Greek Cypriots’ anger at ‘biased’ Downer’, The Age, 22/2/2010). He remained utterly undeterred. He was not “here to win a popularity contest”. He was not seeking public office nor was he a practicing politician seeking re-election. He was there to push ahead and in a very robust, tenacious and matter-of-fact Aussie way to get the two sides to agree to a settlement. Alas, dear Alexander, if only the Cyprus problem was that uncomplicated.
In a way it’s very easy to ‘pick on’ Downer. His demeanour and his readiness to be open and frank (especially with the media) – frequently landed him in many-an-undiplomatic remark (considered margaritaria [pearly gems] by most eager news-seeking reporters) that he needed to climb back from. By the end of his tenure, Downer’s relationship with the Greek Cypriots, in particular, had all but dissipated.
Until Downer took over the thankless task of the UN SG’s special envoy to Cyprus – for ‘blessed (may be) the peacemakers’ (Matthew 5:9) but let me assure you they are often scorned upon by those they are trying to reconcile – Australia’s reputation in Cyprus was pretty good. This was largely due to the diligent, good nature and impartial role of the Australian police contingent serving with UNFICYP since 1964 and the good fortune to have had very first-rate, accessible and earnest High Commissioners in Nicosia. I suppose Downer began with gusto – manoeuvring in the shadows of the Annan plan and the 2004 referendum – honestly believing that the threads were there to bring it all together and settle this long protracted problem by way of some old fashion Australian robust pragmatism (a can-do attitude – not quite the American jingoism of Nike’s “Just do it” or their penchant for sloganeering such as Obama’s “Yes we can”). And while he rightly assessed the power relationships involving the various parties – in particular focusing on Ankara as the main decision maker on the Turkish side – and that it had to be an indigenous “Cypriot-owned, Cypriot-led process and solution” to even have a chance of getting up – he nevertheless faulted in comprehending the potency of the internal political front within each side – what is known in the conflict resolution parlour as the ‘negotiator’s dilemma’: meaning that the intra-communal process is as significant as the actual inter-communal negotiations in successfully reaching a mediated settlement. But to be fair to Downer this is something that all negotiators and third party mediators have failed to apprehend.
Assessments of Downer’s foray into the Cyprus conflict have been mixed: ranging from Dr Andrekos Varnavas’ 2010 astute observations to more scathing annotations such as those from Panteio University’s Prof Mario’s Evriviades – roughly corresponding to the two ideological narratives that have dominated Greek Cypriot discourse as far back as 1878 when British colonialism and modernity arrived in Cyprus (invariably many binary adjectives have been used to describe them including: accommodationalists-rejectionalists, moderates-hardliners, pragmatists-militants). However, there is always a tendency to exaggerate the role that personalities can – or cannot – play in these situations. For sure leadership is an imperative factor for change and continuity in developments, but I rather subscribe to more structuralist factors and determinist renditions of causation. Structural problems/obstacles, not Downer (και “ο κάθε Downer”), are what is impeding a solution to the Cyprus problem.
Finally, when all is said and done, I think that after six years, Downer – like so many before him – got tired and frustrated over the gridlock that is the Cyprus problem and with a new Coalition federal government in Australia, fresh opportunities beckon for ‘young’ Downer on his illustrious post-parliamentary adventures – including a return to his old stomping grounds, the UK, as Australia’s High Commissioner.
*Dr Michalis S. Michael is deputy director for the Centre of Dialogue and senior research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne.