Gerard Cunningham, Ireland 25 years service to UNEP (1987-2012)

Gerry graduated in Production Engineering from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in 1978. He was awarded a Masters degree in Computing from TCD in 1979 and an MBA from United States International University (USIU) in 1991. Prior to Joining UNEP in February 1987, Gerry was a lecturer in the Institute of Technology (ITS), Sligo, Ireland and was a member of the team that established the first undergraduate course in Environmental Science in the Rep. of Ireland. He took a career break in Jan 1987 and never returned to his permanent lecturing post at ITS.

The early 1970s was very much a time of awakening with respect to awareness of environmental issues and it heralded the beginning of an era in which nature conservation benefits came to be appreciated by governments and the general public. Countries started designating protected areas and enacting environmental legislation. Governments and international organizations like the EEC began to establish environmental agencies and directorates. Initially, this new-found concern about the environment was in effect a backlash to the pollution caused by industry.

Casting my mind back to June 1972, I remember reaching the proverbial age of sweet sixteen in April of that year. I was living at home on a farm two miles outside the town of Sligo in the north-west of Ireland doing all the things that teenage males normally do – hanging about, playing sports, listening to music, going to discos, chasing girls, drinking the occasional pint of beer, grooming long hair and battling with acne.

In early June ’72 I had just finished 4th year of secondary school and was looking forward to a nice, long summer break before starting my final year of secondary education the following September, which was going to be a really tough year in the run up to the all-important, destiny-defining Irish Leaving Certificate exams to be sat in June 1973. I also recall 1972 being a particularly sunny summer which is unusual for wind-swept, rain-drenched Ireland.

To my eternal embarrassment, I have to admit that the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (5-16 June 1972) completely escaped my notice as I embarked upon my last three months of summer holiday freedom and occupied my mind with more mundane aspirations than saving the planet. The Conference was a resounding success in that it produced a Declaration containing 26 principles concerning the environment and development; an Action Plan with 109 recommendations, and a Resolution. It provided UNEP with a very strong mandate. I remember vividly that Alice Cooper’s classic heavy metal number School’s Out For Summer was the teenage anthem that summer having been released in June, so while the delegates in Stockholm busied themselves with international environmental politics, my friends and I busied ourselves playing air guitar and headbanging to the vibes of School’s Out.

Of course, the Munich Olympics and the tragic massacre of the Israeli athletes also caught my attention later that summer as I was very much involved with athletics and was even winning the occasional race in the 6-26 mile bracket. In fact I had quite a good season as a long distance road runner that year. Another unique event in Ireland that summer was the influx of thousands of refugees, mainly teenagers, from Northern Ireland to spend the July/August ‘marching season’ south of the border.

A group of around 40 teenage girls was given accommodation in a convent in my home town, Sligo - about 15 miles south of the border. My peer group of male teenage friends was politically aware of the troubles in Northern Ireland. We also took a particularly keen interest in this humanitarian gesture by the southern Government and took steps to become more culturally aware as we had never gone out with a girl from another country! The window of opportunity had to be seized.

That aside, I was also somewhat ‘environmentally aware’ by 1972 for two reasons: firstly, because I was raised on a farm and surrounded by unspoiled nature and secondly, because of observing at a distance the growing political importance being attributed to nature conservation when, two years previously, 1970 was designated European Year of Nature Conservation. This was the brain-child of the Council of Europe – an assembly of delegates from West European countries founded in 1949.

Sometime in the spring of 1970 I remember our Geography teacher frog-marching our Year 2 class out of school one day and straight across the street to Sligo Town Hall where an impressive exhibition was mounted to raise awareness of 1970 - European Year of Nature Conservation. I recall seeing beautiful photos of lakes, rivers, wildlife, mountains, peatlands and forests on display, presumably because the Irish Government prioritized these issues. The term sustainable development was unheard of at the time. In any event, the message came across to some of us rather ambivalent, pimply adolescents that we should not take natural resources for granted, but rather play our own small part in preserving them. I think that’s when I first became a closet environmentalist.

The growing political importance of the nature conservation agenda in the early 1970s is reflected by the fact that several European countries issued stamps to commemorate 1970 as European Year of Nature Conservation. The Irish Government issued two stamps – 6p and 9p in the new decimalization currency.


In hindsight I can see that around 1970 the environmental movement was starting to take shape in Ireland and in many European countries, although the focus was very much on the nature conservation agenda. Further afield, someone out there, possibly UN Secretary-General, U Thant or some member state representative, must have been thinking about a new UN entity to protect the world’s environment, and plans were probably being hatched to convene a major international conference on the human environment in 1972.


Fast forward 15 years to February 1987 and I find myself working for UNEP in Nairobi and responsible for office automation services in the Electronic Data Processing Unit (EDP). I took a career break from my lecturing position at the Institute of Technology Sligo for a change of scene and a sunnier climate. My first directive received from high above in an introductory meeting with Rudolf Schmidt (then #3 in the UNEP management hierarchy) about a week after my arrival was to “within a year, have a wordprocessor on the desks of every two secretaries across UNEP.” Back then professional staff did not need a computer, preferring to draft correspondence and other important documents on paper before passing these semi-illegible manuscripts on to their secretaries to type up - either on a typewriter or using a wordprocessor. As an ICT professional, I certainly saw value in Rudi Schmidt’s vision and busied myself implementing it.

A few months later in June 1987 I found myself cast in the role of a very small but vital lynchpin in ensuring the overall success of the 14th session of the Governing Council of UNEP (GC.14). Back then, Governing Council was a 2-week affair occurring annually around May/June ever since GC.1 in 1974. This challenge came with a good deal of trepidation and a sprinkling of terror. In a nutshell, most of the GC.14 documentation was being produced on an outdated Wang word-processing system in Conferences and Governing Council Service (CGCS) which was then part of UNEP and located in Block R.

The successful outcome of GC.14 was predicated upon the adoption of negotiated decisions derived from substantive inputs in various working documents, information documents and conference room papers - all of which had to be produced on the Wang system by staff in the English, French and Spanish pools of CGCS before being translated, copied and distributed to delegations for their purview and ultimate decision-making (the Arabic, Chinese and Russian pools were still confined to typewriters!). If the Wang system failed then everything else failed! Accordingly, I was instructed by my supervisor, Willy Spatz (Chief, EDP) who in turn was instructed by Jerry O’Dell (Chief, CGCS) who in turn was instructed by Mustafa Tolba (Executive Director of UNEP) that top priority had to be given to ensuring that GC.14 was delivered according to plan without any hitches. Success meant having to pull out all the stops to make it happen. Failure was not an option.

The downside was that it played havoc with my social life for the greater part of June 1987 because, in the pre-mobile phone era, I was obliged to stay at home every night within earshot of my house phone, ready to be at work within 10 minutes of receiving a call-out. Throughout GC.14 I had to provide a considerable amount of daily technical support to CGCS but fortunately, on only one occasion did I have to return to work late at night, when the Wang system went down and had to be re-booted using a set procedure. In the end GC.14 was delivered without any major complications. As a young P2, I felt proud to have contributed in a small way to the success of GC.14 even though no mention of it was ever made on my performance evaluation report.