Ireland Says "Thank You" to Europe (Part II)
In what ways has Ireland’s EU membership proved crucial to the achievement of peace on the island?
- Membership in the European Community and European Union has produced a golden age of peace and prosperity, tolerance, optimism and confidence for the Irish people.
- Since the Republic of Ireland entered the European Union in 1973, its agriculture has experienced the longest and greatest period of prosperity and growth in Irish history.
- It was partially the growing impact of EU social spending that led to the 1994 cease-fires and to the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
- The referendum vote was a devastating defeat for the go-it-alone Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein.
Ireland’s membership in the European Community and Union has proved crucial in diluting and eventually ending the Northern Irish “Troubles,” Europe’s most intractable conflict since World War II.
European investment, encouraged by successive Irish and British governments, flooded into Northern Ireland. It often took the form of social grants for programs aimed at alleviating poverty and social despair, such as building play centers and creating new infrastructure like schools, medical centers, social centers and sports facilities.
These investments eased traditional working class despair and bitterness on both sides of the sectarian divide. More importantly, for two generations of working class Northern Irish Protestants, they established the ingrained attitude that the European Union and its bureaucrats in Brussels were sources of wealth, security and good things, not bad.
It was also no coincidence that it was Garret FitzGerald, to that date the most pro-European of all Irish Taoiseachs, or prime ministers, was also the leader who successfully negotiated the landmark 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement with that most nationalistic and implacable of modern British prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher, who was always far more pragmatic than her most know-nothing admirers in Britain and the United States have always imagined her to be, cut the deal after making a show of force in Northern Ireland, through regaining control of the streets for the British security forces for the first time since 1968 and riding out the deaths of 11 Irish Republican Army hunger strikers.
But it was the Anglo-Irish Agreement that over the following decade cut the ground out from IRA and Sinn Fein popular support in the Northern Irish Catholic nationalist community.
And as IRA attacks and support dwindled, their enemy Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries, who fed off their own community’s fear of the IRA, weakened as well. It was the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the growing impact of European Community and then European Union social spending that led to the 1994 paramilitaries’ cease-fires, and to the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Therefore, Ireland’s long, stable and prosperous membership in the European Union proved to be crucial to the achievement at last of peace and the start of the reconciliation process in the northern, British-governed section of the island too.
The referendum vote was also a devastating defeat for the go-it-alone Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein. It was ironically a blow also for the nationalists’ mortal enemies — the hard-line Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party, which dominates the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. About the only thing that Sinn Fein and the DUP agree upon is the supposed evils of the European Union.
Yet once they became the dominant governing parties of Northern Ireland, they did not hesitate to ignore their supposedly cherished principles and work highly effectively, both singly and together, to negotiate even more investment and aid for social and economic programs out of the European Commission in Brussels.
There is a huge amount of hypocrisy and playacting in this pose. The Reverend Ian Paisley, the founder of the DUP and the scourge of peace processes in Northern Ireland for more than 40 years, endlessly inveighed against the EU, even ascribing to it diabolical intentions when wearing his other hat as founder and leader of the extreme fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church.
Yet after he won election as a Member of the European Parliament in 1979, he became a secure fixture there for decades, secured by bringing home the bacon for his constituents in the form of proportionately enormous financial infusions to businesses and social programs in his own European constituency.
Since the Republic of Ireland entered the European Union in 1973, its agriculture has experienced the longest and greatest period of prosperity and growth in Irish history. Higher education has flourished. Unprecedented international investment has flooded into Ireland, attracted by favorable tax rates and investing conditions fostered by a bipartisan consensus of the main political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gail.
Membership in the European Community and European Union has therefore produced a golden age of peace and prosperity, tolerance, optimism and confidence for the Irish people.
Friday’s overwhelming referendum vote in favor of the Lisbon Treaty therefore was not the product of despair or brainwashing: It reflected a considered, broad recognition of Ireland’s best interests in remaining a successful and constructive member of the European family.
Editor’s Note: Read Part I 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.