“You don’t retire from being a woman, you don’t retire from having a sense of justice, and you don’t retire from having a vision for what a more equal world would look like.” These words were uttered by Anne Anderson in January 2017 as she neared the end of an extraordinary 45-year career in Ireland’s foreign service. It was a remark that epitomises the spirit of Ireland’s most decorated foreign servant, who blazed a trail for women in the diplomatic sphere and who always stayed true to her goal of creating a better, more just society.

Anne Anderson’s contribution to Irish public service cannot be overstated. The first female Irish ambassador to the European Union, the United Nations and the United States of America, she led the way for women in foreign service – not only in Ireland, but around the world. She also made an important contribution to Anglo-Irish relations at a pivotal moment in the late 1980s through her work on employment legislation in Northern Ireland.

As a career diplomat, Anne Anderson faced the constant challenge of reinvention. Moving from post to post every few years, she regularly had to pack up her life and embrace a new test in a different part of the world. No matter where she was posted, however, Anne always remained committed to making a difference on major issues such as labour rights, immigration and gender equality.

Anne Anderson has the deftness and acuity of a master diplomat but also the determination to forge a path on behalf of women. She has spoken in the past of the steely backbone she was forced to develop early on in her career, when, as a young recruit to Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, she had to battle hard for equal and equitable treatment. This courage in fighting for equality for women would become a hallmark of Anne’s career.

Anne Anderson’s resolve and bravery did not develop overnight. Unfurl those threads and you arrive at her childhood in Clonmel, County Tipperary, when her mother, a Limerick woman named Margaret Griffin, instilled in Anne a fierce intellectual curiosity and a sense that her horizons should not be limited by the “constraints of class and gender”. Margaret Griffin was a woman with a sharp mind and a lifelong love of poetry, and she gave to her daughter a passion for the written word as well as the ambition that fired a remarkable career. Anne has since passed the same traits on to her own daughter, Claire, a talented writer and literary agent.

Anne graduated from University College Dublin with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Politics in 1971. At 20 years of age, she joined the Department of Foreign Affairs just as Ireland became a member of the European Economic Community, now known as the European Union. Anne has described Ireland’s EU membership as “the most transformative event in Irish foreign policy since we achieved independence”, and she was quickly thrust into positions of great responsibility despite her youth. She frequently engaged directly with Garret FitzGerald, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, and describes her experience at the department as “exhilarating and addictive” and leaving her in no doubt that she had found her calling. It took only four years for her to be posted overseas for the first time – as First Secretary in the Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva in 1976. As the first Irish married woman posted abroad, Anne paved the way for generations of future female diplomats.

Between 1983 and 1987, Anne Anderson served in the Irish Embassy in Washington before returning to Ireland as Counsellor in the Anglo-Irish Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs. She later went back to Geneva, serving as Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the UN from 1995 to 2001. During this time, Anne was Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Vice President of the UN Conference on Trade and Development and Chair of the Trade Policy Review Body at the World Trade Organisation. By now, she was one of Ireland’s most respected diplomats, known for her astuteness and clear judgement, so it should come as no surprise to us that, in 2001, she became the first female Permanent Representative to the EU, not only from Ireland but from any member state. Put succinctly at the time by the Financial Times, Anne Anderson “made history by sitting down”.

Anne’s performance as Ireland’s Ambassador to France from 2005 to 2009 prompted former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to describe her as the most successful Irish diplomat ever. She spent the next four years as Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, during which time she helped coordinate a major review of the organisation’s peacebuilding machinery.

Anne Anderson made headlines at home and abroad in 2013 when she was appointed as the first female Ambassador of Ireland to the US. She presented her credentials to President Barack Obama at a ceremony in the Oval Office and spent much of the next four years working on the issue of immigration reform for undocumented individuals from Ireland and around the world. While her posting coincided with a period of huge polarisation in American politics, her tact, probity and professionalism meant that she successfully cultivated relationships representing all political persuasions.

In June 2017, Anne Anderson’s time in Washington DC came to a close, as did her decades-long career in the Department of Foreign Affairs. To quote Anne herself on that occasion: “I’ve reinvented myself every four years anyway . . . now I get to reinvent myself again.” By taking on important advisory roles in public and private organisations such as Smurfit Kappa and the Druid Theatre Company, Anne has remained true to her word.

In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Anne put a lifetime’s worth of memories into her first book, a collection of speeches delivered over the course of her career. The book epitomises her ability to find the right word for the right moment but also reveals a woman with a deeply held set of principles. In one particularly illustrative chapter, she recounts how, in 2017, at a speech in front of then Vice President Mike Pence, she deliberately cited Ireland’s marriage equality referendum as a symbol of social progress – a pointed reference for the benefit of those not known for having tolerant views on sexuality.

In that instant, as throughout her career, Anne Anderson knew what she was fighting for. Like the very best diplomats, she understood how to make her point while maintaining a sense of dignity and decorum and representing the very best of Ireland. She has served her country with distinction and honour and represents an enduring and outstanding role model for generations of women in public life. It is for these achievements and qualities that we honour her here today.

Chancellor, I present to you Anne Anderson and ask that you confer upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Economic Science.