Ireland, Africa and the end of empire: small state identity in the Cold War, 1955–75

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Kevin O’Sullivan
(Manchester University Press, £65)
ISBN 9780719086021


Historic ties between Ireland and Africa run deep. The earliest mission stations along the Congo River were founded by the Grattan Guinness family back in the 1870s. They provided King Leopold II with the stepping-stones for building his Congo Free State. In 1900 the Kells-born historian Alice Stopford Green established the African Society, the West’s first African think-tank. After independence Ireland built a religious empire, and Irish Catholic missions stretched throughout the sub-Saharan region. More recently, Irish Aid funds an annual Africa Day to raise positive awareness of the African community now living in Ireland. Mary Robinson’s recent appointment by Ban Ki Moon to serve as UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, with a brief to stabilise a deeply troubled and war-torn region, is the latest instalment in a long connection. Ireland has changed Africa and Africa has changed Ireland. This clear and well-argued monograph by Kevin O’Sullivan makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of why and how.

During the two decades under examination (1955–75) there was a radical reshaping of global power relations. After its successful engagement with the League of Nations, Ireland emerged sluggishly from post-war isolation. When we joined the UN in 1955, Africa was on the brink of rapid decolonisation. While Ireland’s anti-colonial credentials gave it some credibility in a world of burgeoning independence movements and civil rights agitation, it is the case that revolutionary credentials are not necessarily the best credentials within diplomatic circles. Deepening Cold War tensions turned African freedom struggles into a security threat for western powers and their continuing interests in the region. By 1975 Ireland was a member of the EU and a new turn was taken.

Throughout this period, Ireland defined a role for itself by siding with the ‘fire-brigade states’. This cluster included Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden: ‘a group of small and middling powers valued by the international community for their support for collective security and the primacy of international law’. Evaluation of Irish policy beside these other fire-brigade states provides the comparative axis for the main argument of the study.

Ireland’s coming of age opened with a peacekeeping mission to the Congo in 1960. Belgium’s retreat from its central African colony was sudden and violent. Chaos ensued and Ireland found itself in the line of fire during the Niemba tragedy. There were challenging internal tensions. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s secondment from the Department of External Affairs (DEA) to the UN secretariat was the most notable.

Two chapters on the Biafran war tackle the most noteworthy shift in foreign policy and the interaction between DEA officials and Ireland’s missionary movement. This conflict changed the way Ireland understood the outside world. The ‘penny for a black baby’ campaign and the moving pictures of starving children propelled images of suffering into the classroom and the Irish homestead. The media played a defining role in dictating the parameters of public discussion and influencing diplomatic reaction. Missionary involvement declined in favour of Christian-based intervention by non-governmental organisations. Ireland’s prestigious NGOs—Concern, Trócaire and Gorta—were born from this crisis and went on to become recognised leaders in the field of international humanitarian relief.

Ireland’s relationship with South Africa tells a different story and one in which public involvement shaped official intervention. The birth of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) should give us all hope. It demonstrates how collective action can bring about positive transformation, if the political will is there to deliver change. ‘Boks Amach’, the chapter on the ‘Springboks Out’ campaign, confirms how politics and sport are inextricably entangled. Although the somewhat fleeting dilemma presented by Rhodesia’s entry into the World Ploughing Championships held in Wicklow in October 1973 was deemed to be the DEA’s most pressing ‘Rhodesia problem’, the moment highlights Tip O’Neill’s well-known quip that ‘all politics is local’.

If there was a diplomatic mentalité determining DEA decision-making it was an inherent common sense, prudence and sagacious conservatism. Anti-colonial idealism provided continuity between the era of Frank Aiken and that of his ministerial successors, Patrick Hillery and Garrett Fitzgerald. Working in the background to much of the diplomatic negotiation of this period there linger a number of experienced and dedicated permanent officials. These include the first two Irish ambassadors to the UN, Freddie Boland and Con Cremin, and the tirelessly capable Seán Ronan and Paul Keating.

One of the book’s strengths as well as its weaknesses is how it ignores any reference to the immense critical literature on decolonisation. That over-determined phenomenon called ‘globalisation’ has irrigated a vast swamp of academic writing on imperial history. Some readers familiar with the territory will be either refreshed or disconcerted to find no mention anywhere of Franz Fanon or post-colonial studies. Even a seminal essay on the period, such as W. Roger Lewis’s The imperialism of decolonization, is absent from the bibliography.

Nevertheless, this monograph is a fine example of Irish empirical history at its most precise and incisive. It breaks valuable new ground and helps to fill the void in our broader understanding of Ireland’s association with Africa. Whether as ‘global citizen’ or ‘European republic’, independent Ireland has intervened in a measured and conscientious way in international affairs. Recognition of this responsibility was evident in its selection earlier this year to serve on the UN Human Rights Council. As this book argues, much of this respect for Ireland is traceable to the historic links underscoring its own anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles. These have made it a beacon for human rights and international justice. Let us hope that this light shines on and, as the African community in Ireland finds a voice, it is vital that it does.

In 2011 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (as the DEA is called today) published a document called Ireland and Africa: our partnership with a changing continent. This prioritised Ireland’s commercial interests in Africa and the need to win regional business. If, as some believe, Africa is suffering from a new 21st-century scramble for its resources, it is imperative that the DFAT does not merely reconfigure national interests to bolster the corporate agenda but instead remembers with pride that time when African people came before profit.

Angus Mitchell’s biography of Roger Casement, the latest in the O’Brien Press’s 16 Lives series, will be published shortly.


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