Ireland makes her place in the world

Ireland makes her place in the world Wide view of the General Assembly Hall. UN Photo/Manuel Elias
Ireland: A voice among the nations

by John Gibney, Michael Kennedy & Kate O’Malley (Royal Irish Academy, €30.00)


Ireland’s foreign policy over the past 100 years may seem secondary to how the country has evolved politically, economically and culturally, but this book shows how closely they are intertwined. This is “an official history of Irish foreign policy, presented through text and images,” according to the Introduction, rather than “an institutional history of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”

The authors, from the Royal Irish Academy, are not diplomats so they can take a critical approach at times to official decisions, which is welcome. The large photographs and illustrations with informative captions give the format of the book a coffee table aspect useful for display in embassies, but the images add greatly to its value. They are so well chosen that they could almost be a ‘Foreign Policy for Dummies’.

From 1920 to 1950 foreign policy was focused on Ireland’s relationship with Britain and the efforts to achieve a fuller sovereignty as a member of the Commonwealth and still a dominion. At first the only overseas posts were London, Washington and Geneva where membership of the League of Nations provided valuable international contacts. By 1930, representation was widened to Paris, Berlin and the Holy See.

The arrival of Fianna Fáil to power in 1932 with Éamon de Valera taking over as Minister in the department as well as head of government,  widened foreign policy as he used his chairmanship of the League’s council to take positions on big issues such as sanctions against Italy for aggression in Abyssinia and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.


The next period from 1939 to 1948 was dominated by the struggle to maintain neutrality during the ‘Emergency’ marked by “limited and discreet cooperation with Britain”. The price for neutrality was post-war isolation as the Soviet Union vetoed Irish membership of the new United Nations Organisation.

In 1948 Seán MacBride of Clann na Poblachta succeeded de Valera in Inveigh House and it is noted that his “high-handed style clashed with the experienced officials”. But he shook up the Department, appointed ambassadors from outside including the first woman, Josephine McNeill, set up a cultural and information section closely linked with the new Irish News Agency for anti-Partition propaganda. MacBride was also active in the new Council of Europe which reduced Irish isolation from European efforts at cooperation

The period 1955-69 was notable for Ireland’s belated entry into the UN and the activism of the new Fianna Fáil minister, Frank Aiken, and Irish diplomats in the working of the General Assembly and for a term in the Security Council where American wrath was felt against the Irish vote in favour of discussing the possible admission of Communist China.


The next phase from 1969 to 1973 was dominated by the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and the negotiations to join the European Economic Community. While the former put much strain on relations with London, the latter saw both countries cooperating closely in a successful entry into the EEC.

From this point, Irish foreign policy is nearly all about advancing enthusiastically into a more integrated Western Europe and its economic benefits while keeping increased security cooperation at a discreet length.

An invitation to join NATO in 1949 had been turned down because of the disputed frontier with the United Kingdom although MacBride later offered to join if the US would pressure Britain into ending Partition.

There is a brief reference to the closure of the embassy to the Holy See in 2011 “due to cutbacks” arising from the financial crisis. The authors add that “this was also a period when Irish relations with the Holy See were strained due to the Catholic Church’s handling of a range of clerical sexual abuse scandals in Ireland”. The readers can draw their own conclusions.

MacBride later offered to join NATO if the US would pressure Britain into ending Partition”

The later years do not have the spirit of adventure which marked the new state’s entry into the wider world. There are now more than 90 diplomatic missions abroad and cultural and development aid programmes which do the country credit.

It is a long way from 1919 when the Sinn Féin delegation to the Paris Peace Conference took up residence in the Grand Hotel when refused recognition at the Versailles carve-up of the post-war Europe. The Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 opened the door to that wider world albeit as a dominion. The rest, as they say, is history, 100 years later.