Review of Anne Marie O’Brien’s The Ideal Diplomat? Women and Irish Foreign Affairs, 1946-90 by Ciara Meehan

SetWidth440-9781846828515Anne Marie O’Brien, The Ideal Diplomat? Women and Irish Foreign Affairs, 1946-90 (Four Courts Press, 2020). ISBN 978-1-84682-851-5.

The Ideal Diplomat? is a fascinating account of how Irish women negotiated the male-dominated world of foreign policy. Anne Marie O’Brien seeks to rectify the near silence on women who worked in the Irish Department of External, later Foreign, Affairs between 1946 and 1990, noting that they have been either on the peripheries of or completely absent from the historiography. As she further observes, this is a trend repeated internationally (11).

There is a slight discrepancy between the description on the jacket cover and the actual content. We are told that the book is the story of ‘the pioneering women of the 1940s through to the trailblazers of the 1990s’ (blurb). But it is much more than that, and the blurb undersells what O’Brien’s book actually achieves: both a broader and more nuanced view, and one that is not confined to the higher ranks. As readers, we are offered an insight into the day-to-day experiences and operations, gaining an understanding of the policies that women worked on and helped shape, their career opportunities and limitations, their achievements and challenges, and their working relationships with some of the most familiar names in Irish history. O’Brien not only restores women to the narrative, giving them their own identity, but she also fleshes out our knowledge of how foreign affairs functioned.

What emerges from Chapter One is a picture of women who were privileged, whose social class gave them access to the type of education that facilitated their entry into the civil service. Despite this exceptionalism, we also see familiar themes common to most women for much of the twentieth century. Róisín O’Doherty’s marriage, in accordance with the marriage bar, ended her career as a third secretary. Josephine MacNeill, Irish Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to The Hague, was paid less than her male counterparts; when she raised the question of a salary increase, her query did not even yield a response.

Chapter Two offers a fascinating insight into another challenge that women encountered: the reality of being women diplomats, as opposed to diplomats. The assumption was that women delegates to the United Nations would concern themselves with ‘women’s issues’, and they were typically appointed to the Third Committee of the UN, the remit for which included social, humanitarian and cultural matters (52). Sheila Murphy was the first woman to be selected as part of an Irish delegation to an international organisation, and, as O’Brien observes, she was predictably assigned to the Third Committee. Murphy was later joined on that committee by Máire MacEntee, who attributed her appointment to her relationship with Conor Cruise O’Brien whom she would later marry – an interesting insight in itself into power dynamics. Whatever the reason, she proved to be a forceful delegate. Despite being assigned to the Third Committee, O’Brien argues, Murphy’s and MacEntee’s advancement was evidence of the growing trust that the Department of External Affairs had in women.

When Mary Tinney became Ireland’s first woman ambassador in 1973 it was at a time when women’s activism was growing. The Commission on the Status of Women, which published its report in the same year that Tinney was appointed, identified numerous discriminations against and barriers to women’s advancement. Amidst this growing discussion about rights and equality, the 1970s saw an increase in the number of women as third secretaries and in other diplomatic positions. O’Brien attributes much of this to Garret FitzGerald, who served as Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1973-1977.

A fascinating element of the discussion about the advances made by women diplomats is their exclusion from Anglo-Irish affairs. We’re told that, by the 1980s, Irish women were being appointed to supposedly dangerous postings in places like the Middle East, yet relationships closer to home remained beyond their reach (146). The reasons aren’t, however, fully clear and the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.

While chapters three and four deal with the advancement of women diplomats from being ‘token’ women to being seen as a natural element of foreign affairs, some of the concluding observations are sobering. Although some gender barriers remained, as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, women were playing an increasingly prominent role in Irish foreign policy. But (and it’s a big one), although they were present at almost every diplomatic level, they were still being directed into certain policy areas or targeted for mainly administrative appointments. O’Brien is not too disheartened, arguing that these positions still resulted in advancements in other ways, and she points to the development of family friendly policies as an example.

A minor quibble: there is scope for a small amount of foregrounding. Passing reference is made in the introduction to the fact that Josephine MacNeill was the first Irish woman in more than twenty years to hold a diplomatic post in foreign affairs (9). The starting date of the book is well justified, but a short commentary on those who preceded the women examined would be helpful in understanding the tradition into which these women arrived. In contrast, the contextualisation of the Irish experience in the international realm throughout the book is useful.

O’Brien’s task was no easy one given the dearth of personal papers for most of the women she examines, but her background working on the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series serves her well. This book is the product of wide-ranging research across multiple archives and official publications. It is essential reading for those working on women’s and gender history and on Irish foreign policy.

Ciara Meehan is Reader in History and an Associate Dean at the University of Hertfordshire. She has published widely on the politics of independent Ireland. Her co-authored book, Saving the State: Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar, will be published by Gill Books in October 2020.