The Irish Times view on the role of NGOs: power and protest

The reliance on State funding poses challenging questions for all charities

A recent row over the exclusion of Government members from a rally organised by the National Women’s Council shines a revealing light on the tensions within Ireland’s advocacy sector. At one level, the idea that a campaign group cannot hold a protest without inviting the ruling parties is a denial of the obvious adversarial dynamic that must separate activists from decision-makers. That separation is a basic ingredient of democratic politics; blurring the lines can produce cosy consensus and groupthink, leading to bad policy. If non-governmental organisations are merely research and communications branches for government departments, they are not serving any real purpose.

At the same time, the State’s political culture is such that, in general, government and civil society groups work quite closely together. For an organisation such as the Women’s Council, a protest rally is less about forcing change – it has the access to make its points directly to ministers and civil servants – than it is about generating public attention and galvanising members. The very fact that the organisation is heavily funded by the State shows that its aims are hardly inimical to Government policy; on the contrary, the council has enjoyed good relations with successive administrations. And, as any campaign group knows, some of the most useful allies are backbench TDs – the group most annoyed by the protest snub.

The State gives billions of euros to charities each year. Some of them provide essential services, particularly in education and social care, that the State either does not or cannot provide. Others, including the Women’s Council, which received more than €800,000 from Government in 2020, contribute to a vibrant civil society and help bring about positive change. The reliance on State funding poses challenging questions for all NGOs. Can they be regarded as truly independent if the Government they lobby happens to provide the bulk of their funding? And yet, given the absence of a strong domestic philanthropic culture and the heavy cost of renouncing public money, what other choice do they have?