News Analysis

Sunday 31 August 2014

Aside from lots of fish and Pee Flynn, what did Ireland ever give to the EU?

Published 31/12/2012 | 05:00

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APART from casually gifting billions-worth of Irish fish stocks and giving Brussels Padraig Flynn on a seven-year extended loan, did we ever do anything for the EU?

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The short answer is that we did more than many people think. More recently, there are many who also believe we have naively shouldered a huge chunk of the EU's bank debt burden and are still awaiting any meaningful rewards.

But first off, let's deal with the fish. There is a theory in Brussels that all EU projects begin with high-minded politics and end in a row over fisheries.

And, in Ireland's case, there is a certain truth to that. In 1972, a small minority of people, including Donegal fishermen's leader Joey Murrin, warned that Ireland was walking into a trap that meant surrendering lucrative Irish fishing grounds.

Nobody listened as the rush to farm grants was far stronger politically. There were two Irish attempts in 1975 and again in 1985, when Spain and Portugal joined, which partially redressed the balance. There are hotly contested and variously reliable claims about the value of Irish fish stocks lost, but, suffice to say, the EU gained and Irish fishing communities lost.

But Ireland has made more deliberate and meaningful contributions. From the start, all of the governments put EU membership at the heart of their policies.

The first time Ireland took the EU presidency was in 1975. Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and Foreign Affairs Minister Garret FitzGerald did everything they could to facilitate successful membership re-negotiations by the British Labour Government ahead of a national retrospective referendum on the issue.

That EU Presidency was well received, as were subsequent six-month stints in the EU chair that followed in 1979, 1984, 1990, 1996 and 2004. Each term was characterised by various controversies to which Ireland contributed to the search for solutions.

In 1990, Charlie Haughey helped facilitate the EU element of sensitive talks on German Re-Unification, an issue at the heart of the very foundation of the European Union. In 1996, it was about preparations for the launch of the euro and, in 2004, enlargement to 10 former Soviet East Bloc states.

Ireland did not dominate or shape any of these developments. But its politicians and officials played their part and, at times, showed political skill to head off potential confrontations.

Ireland also showed willingness in the calibre of the people it sent to Brussels. Many of Ireland's commissioners, notably Patrick Hillery, Peter Sutherland, Ray MacSharry and David Byrne, left a legacy of solid achievement.

Padraig Flynn fuelled many an Irish satirist's scripts – but he did well in Brussels both in his EU Commission duties and in helping to push Ireland's case. Others who shone include John Bruton, who was named as the EU ambassador to the US. It is also notable that the current and previous heads of the EU Commission, David O'Sullivan and Catherine Day, are among dozens of Irish people who achieved much in the Brussels administration.

Ireland benefited hugely from the EU regional and social funds over the years. There were some failures but, by and large, the money was used reasonably well.

The past five years have seen the EU single currency, the euro, flounder from crisis to crisis with just some hope in 2012 that some serious action was taking place.

The past year has raised hopes that the EU will give practical recognition to Ireland's undue contribution in shouldering bank debt totalling some €64bn.

The issue – especially in relation to the position of so-called senior bondholders of bank debt – is vast and poses a huge challenge for the Irish Government. It will remain the Irish EU issue in 2013 as, clearly, it is an unjust contribution which undermines the credibility of the entire European project.

Irish Independent

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