Sean Lester

Deputy Secretary General of the League of Nations

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Early life

He was born in County Antrim, the son of a Protestant grocer. Despite the fact that the town of Carrickfergus, where he was born and raised, was strongly Unionist, he joined the Gaelic League as a youth, and was won over to the cause of Irish nationalism. As a young man he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was working as a journalist for the North Down Herald and a number of other northern papers, before moving to Dublin, where he found a job with the Freeman’s Journal. There, by 1919, he had risen to news editor.
After the War of Independence, a number of his friends joined the new government of the Irish Free State. Lester was offered, and accepted, a position as Director of Publicity. He married Elizabeth Ruth Tyrrell in 1920, by whom he had three daughters

Diplomatic career

In 1923 he joined Ireland’s Department of External Affairs. He was sent to Geneva in 1929 to replace Michael MacWhite as Ireland’s Permanent Delegate to the League of Nations. In 1930 he succeeded in organising Ireland’s election to the Council (or executive body) of the League of Nations for a three-year term. Lester often represented Ireland at Council meetings, standing in for the Minister for External Affairs. During this time he became increasingly involved in the work of the League, particularly in its attempts to bring a resolution to two wars in South America. This work brought him to the attention of the League Secretariat and began his transformation from national to international civil servant.
When Peru and Colombia disputed over a town in the headwaters of the Amazon, Lester presided over the committee which found an equitable solution. He also presided over the less successful committee when Bolivia and Paraguay went to war over the Gran Chaco. In 1933, Lester was seconded to the League’s Secretariat and sent to Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), as the League of Nations’ High Commissioner. The Free City of Danzig was the scene of an emerging international crisis between Nazi Germany and the international community over the issue of the Polish Corridor and the Free City’s relationship with the Third Reich. During this period Lester repeatedly protested to the German government against its persecution and discrimination of the Jews. For this reason he was boycotted by both the representatives of the German Reich and the representatives of the Nazi Party in Danzig.
Lester returned to Geneva in 1937 to become Deputy Secretary General of the League of Nations.

Sean Lester

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