March 1, 2022 - 11:00am

If one political innovation has defined Ireland’s move from its conservative past to its current status as the poster child for hyper-liberalisation, it’s been the rise of the NGO. But in the last month some cracks have appeared in the ways that NGOs protect and define elite consensus in the country.

Last month, the National Women’s Council of Ireland announced a “No Women Left Behind” rally outside the Irish parliament to take place on 5 March. The event will feature speakers from a number of parties but none from Government, who were deemed insufficiently active in tackling violence against women.

This led to protests from a number of female ministers, angered that they were being denied some of the sweet credibility and reputational enhancement they felt entitled to, having opened the government purse-strings for the organisation.

Senator Regina Doherty said the Women’s Council was failing to represent a wide range of views and, critically, noted that the organisation is almost entirely state-funded. And she is right: the NWCI’s latest annual report shows that it received over €800,000 in funding from various government bodies in 2020 versus less than €40,000 raised from its own members.

This is a typical arrangement in a country that has around 33,000 NGOs. The state funds them to the tune of around €5 billion every year, comprising 8% of the national budget. For context, the Irish health service, its largest single item of expenditure, got €21 billion in the last budget.

The organisations funded are almost exclusively socially progressive. The National Council of Women has historically been a relatively neutral organisation, but in recent years it has adopted increasingly progressive positions, such as signing a letter asking the Government to no-platform gender critical voices.

This is reflective of a broader socio-cultural drift to the Left in Ireland, which has seen the introduction of an immigration amnesty, gender self-ID, and hate speech laws. In each case the Government kept the right kind of NGOs close at hand in reaching their final position.

But no immigration-restrictionist, free-speech or gender-critical NGOs are recipients of an ounce of government largesse: the money all goes on the other side of the scale. The large number of Catholic or Catholic-aligned organisations funded by the state are either silent on these issues or actively on the progressive side.

Nowadays, NGOs are simply too powerful, too useful and too deeply embedded in the decision-making process to be removed. The current spat between Government and the National Women’s Council of Ireland is the incipient end of a happy marriage; it’s more akin to the mob boss who is offended when the Mayor in his pocket won’t consent to them being photographed together. “I pay for your lifestyle — but you won’t be seen with me?”

There has already been some rapprochement between the Government and the NWCI, and the Minister of Equality has quickly noted that a funding change was not on the agenda. In the end it seems the Government was able to reach a solution that worked for everyone, both the partisan NGOs and the politicians who make use of their activism.

It also shut down Benefacts, the public body that tracks and reports on NGO funding, with immediate effect. In future, finding out who is funding partisan activism in Ireland will be as opaque as the activist organisations themselves. Welcome to life in the Irish public square.

Conor Fitzgerald is a writer from Dublin. His Substack is TheFitzstack.