Ireland Says “Thank You” to Europe (Part I)
How has membership in the European Union benefited Ireland over the past few decades?
October 8, 2009
The overwhelming Irish vote to approve the new European Treaty on October 2 was a badly needed shot in the arm for the revived process of European integration, but it also repays historical debt: Over the past 36 years, membership in the European community has been an unmitigated blessing for the Irish people.
Why, then, did the Irish people reject closer European integration when the new treaty first came up for a referendum vote in June 2008? And, with over two-thirds of voters favoring the treaty and relatively high turnout of 59% (up six percentage points from last year), why did they so dramatically reverse themselves this time around?
It was certainly the case that the Irish government and all the mainstream political parties of the Republic campaigned vigorously for approval of the treaty. It was also the case that, in the classic manner of European diplomacy and integration over the past 60 years, the referendum agreement was sweetened by concessions and compromises in ways the Founding Fathers of the United States would have understood very well. But there was a lot more to it than that.
Consider that the first referendum vote rejected the treaty in a time when Ireland was still enjoying unprecedented prosperity and security. In contrast, the second vote came as the republic was reeling from its worst economic crisis in generations.
The usual pattern in any democratic country is that increasing hardship leads to desperation and the strengthening of political extremism on both the right and the left. The Great Depression in Europe, after all, proved to be a paradise for the growth of fascism and communism.
But that hasn’t happened in Ireland. For as bad as things have been in Ireland, as the global economic recession hit — intensified by more than a decade of big spending, feckless government policies and collapse of the housing bubble that left everyone in Dublin feeling like millionaires — they would have been infinitely worse if Ireland were still dependent on its own vulnerable old punt (Irish pound) currency.
Being in the eurozone, however, cushioned the blow by acting as a lifeline keeping the Irish economy afloat — and thus prevented the economic crisis from turning into a catastrophe.
Therefore, European integration did not weaken or destroy the Irish economy — it saved it. And the overwhelming pro-referendum vote marked the widespread recognition of this fact by the Irish people.
But the referendum vote also reflected the Irish people’s recognition and appreciation of the 36 years of prosperity and stability they have enjoyed thanks to their European association.
Similarly, European nations with traumatic experiences in their recent history (like Italy, Greece, Spain and Germany), or that have been torn apart by civil war, have welcomed the cosmopolitan, moderate and tolerant transformation of their national identity fostered by European integration.
In contrast, the British, especially the English, still fear and resent it. It still goes too much against the memories of an imperial heritage that becomes more rose-tinted with nostalgia as it recedes into history.
However, the situation is different for the Irish. Their sense of national identity remains strong. But isolation from continental Europe has always been a catastrophe for them.
For 250 years, beginning in the late 16th century through the Great Potato Famine of 1845-48, the Irish people suffered extermination on a genocidal scale (either deliberately or because of callous incompetence) no less than four times while they were trapped within the British Empire.
Even after national independence was achieved in 1921, for more than 40 years Ireland remained a well of unparalleled poverty on the forgotten western fringe of Europe. Social and economic upheaval was only averted by exceptionally high rates of emigration to Britain, Australia and the United States.
During those years, national politics were dominated by Eamon de Valera and his Fianna Fail Party, which practiced the “Sinn Fein” policy of “ourselves alone.” But this proud, prickly diplomatic and national isolationist independence only translated into total economic dependence on neighboring Britain without any effective investment or special treatment from its far larger, wealthier and more populous neighbor. It proved to be the worst of all possible worlds.
Entry in the European Community (as it was then called) in 1973 changed all that. The endlessly reviled but exceptionally successful Common Agricultural Policy proved an enormous boon to overwhelmingly agricultural Ireland. And Ireland’s political leaders and diplomats quickly proved adept at mastering the intricacies of EC politicking.
Britain was finally forced to treat Ireland with more than amused contempt too. However, Ireland’s vote in EU institutions counted for as much as Britain’s, and the Irish could now take their concerns about British behavior to the European Court if the need should arise, causing far more difficulties and international embarrassment for Whitehall.
This proved to be particularly important, not just over the conflict in Northern Ireland, but in restraining British Nuclear Fuels from its long-standing practice of dumping into the Irish Sea huge quantities of potent radioactive waste from the Sellafield (formerly known as Windscale) nuclear complex on the northwest English coast.
Until the Chernobyl meltdown in April 1986, Sellafield-Windscale had a deserved reputation as the worst-run and most dangerous civilian nuclear facility in the world.
Editor’s Note: Read Part II of this feature here.
Belfast native Martin Sieff walked the streets of Belfast City through a dozen razed city blocks he had played in as a child during the sectarian rioting of August 1969 that started 25 years of sectarian conflict, Europe’s worst civil strife between the end of World War II and the break of Yugoslavia.
He started his career working as a desk editor on Belfast and Northern Ireland’s two main papers when the British Army was battling the Irish Republican Army and its supporters for control of the streets in the early 1980s.
And in 2000, he was an eyewitness (by luck rather than intent) when Northern Irish police acting on accurate intelligence swooped on a car containing Irish Republican extremists who had planned a terror attack on Christmas shoppers to mar a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton.
European integration did not weaken or destroy the Irish economy — it saved it. The overwhelming pro-referendum vote marked the widespread recognition of this fact by the Irish people.
Even after national independence was achieved in 1921, for more than 40 years Ireland remained a well of unparalleled poverty on the forgotten western fringe of Europe.
As bad as things have been in Ireland, as the global economic recession hit, they would have been infinitely worse if Ireland were still dependent on its own vulnerable old punt (Irish pound) currency.
The referendum vote reflected the Irish people's recognition and appreciation of the 36 years of prosperity and stability they have enjoyed thanks to their European association.