NGOs On The Brain

In a sense, I am a great believer in the concept of naivety. Not in the sense of being uninformed. But in the sense of the value of someone taking an entirely fresh look at things. If there can be value in my approaching a history of international relations, it may be that I have not attempted to do so before. So what may be familiar to many will be entirely new to me and I can perhaps produce a perspective that is valuable because it is entirely original and fresh.

Culturally speaking, however, it seems that in Ireland the amount of interest in international relations in the country from historians of statecraft is far less than the amount of discourse provided by the existence of numerous ‘non-governmental organisation’ (NGO) type groupings. While there are not many, academic writers on international relations in an Irish context tend to reflect this, whether they address questions of humanitarian organisations or even the question of patriotism, where there is a sense that patriotism is a matter for NGOs rather than governments. There are, of course, ‘NGOs’ and NGOs. If one ignores for the moment the notion of a publicly registered charity and the like, this is a concept that can be expanded to include all sorts of phenomenon; perhaps even the history of Irish freemasonry, which, in contrast to reputed experiences elsewhere, evidently served as an instrument of empire far more so than an expression of intellectual diversity or freedom of thought (the fascinating side of freemasonry). The sense of the centrality of ‘NGOs’ to the Irish political experience has also coloured writings on the Irish revolution and the soul-searching of those writers who find it impossible to explain outrages committed, particularly during 1922. Culturally speaking, one could sum up the tenor of such writings by noting that one can find statements such as if a petite nun gives a drink of water to a starving African child she is not merely a good Christian, she is also an Irish patriot. However, if a burly soldier blows the brains out of a man who is attempting to destroy the Irish government, then that soldier is neither a defender of law and order nor a patriot: he is quite simply a murderer.

A lot of these attitudes probably date back to the nineteenth century, when people were taught by supposedly ‘patriotic’ priests that arms-bearing was morally wrong under all circumstances, but they most probably stem from the fact that Ireland’s struggle for independence in the early 20th century involved entirely part-time volunteer forces (another type of ‘NGO’?) standing in moral opposition to highly professional military forces; almost a David and Goliath situation. As a result, when the necessity arose that there should be a highly professional Irish military force, many found this to be a mental adjustment that was too difficult to make. Some memoir writers have indicated, indirectly, that the ongoing existence to this day of a culture of ‘the RA’ is but an expression of this ongoing cultural reality, as is Irish governments’ unwillingness to operate anything more than a meagre defence budget. If so, however, then one might be tempted to judge that professional opinion in the country may be serving only to sustain this situation by an unwillingness to see patriotism as anything more than a cultural issue of identity. One might also be tempted to judge that promoting that identity is considered by the state as a matter for NGOs as much or perhaps even more so than the state itself. Such are the dynamics of Irish political culture, perhaps.

I wonder sometimes if this means that people have NGOs on the brain a little too much; a trend perhaps encouraged by the fact that, reputedly at the insistence of (bfo) academia in Britain, Irish political history is not generally recognised to be a distinct subject outside of Ireland. Economic historians of Ireland usually treat social questions such as fertility rates and the social status of women: they do not generally address the question of national fiscal policy. Cultural historians of Ireland address the constitutional status of the presidency, and then what do political historians do? There is no easy answer to that. But focusing on what they do not do can perhaps be instructive. There are many histories of ‘the RA’. They are little or no histories of the army of the Republic of Ireland. There are articles written on aspects of the history of the Irish department of foreign affairs. However, there is very little written that places the history of Irish foreign affairs in the context of the political history of international relations, which is not the same thing as ‘IR theory’. There are memoirs of civil servants whose contents seem to reflect the fact that very few histories of the Irish civil service exist. The wherewithal to produce anything more than the most fragmentary of narratives must have a root somewhere but, wherever it has been (if it has been), this root has not necessarily produced much fruit. Foreign policies reflect states in all sorts of ways. I have not hitherto been a historian of the twentieth-century Irish state. But it could be that no better synthesis of the history of that state can be achieved than by producing a political history of Irish international relations that actually has a full sense of context. So be it.

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