News Analysis

Tuesday 30 September 2014

John Downing: Despite ups and downs, we still belong at the heart of EU

Published 02/01/2013 | 17:00

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LET'S start by shamelessly stealing and adapting John Hume's great phrase about Northern Ireland in the dark days of the Troubles. "Anyone who is not confused about Ireland's relationship with the European Union doesn't know what is going on."

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For years, the Irish had a dangerously simple relationship with the European Union as we got direct farm and development aid. Then it got a little complex as Ireland became prosperous and no longer qualified for such volumes of aid.

Finally, it became difficult as we stupidly banjaxed our economy, over-using cheap loans that were available through the one-size-fits-all eurozone interest rates. When we sought to default on some of that enormous bank debt, the European Central Bank said we could not.

And we could not gainsay that instruction as we were dependent on that same ECB for day-to-day survival. So in some ways the 40-year Ireland-EU relationship appeared to have come full circle and become a whole lot more complex.

It is worth looking back a little and dwelling on another phrase. "This result represents the political realism of the Irish people."

That was Taoiseach Jack Lynch's response to visiting overseas journalists on the evening of May 11, 1972, at Iveagh House, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. He had expected the Irish electorate to say Yes to joining the then EEC by a healthy margin of 2:1.

In fact, the final margin in the 1972 referendum was 5:1 in favour, with seven out of 10 voters turning out. There had been dire Sinn Fein and Labour warnings about the loss of sovereignty and the end of military neutrality – themes which voters would hear repeatedly in the following four decades.

But the Irish voters caught the key message: there was future prosperity and opportunity in this Europe business.

The great thing about the EU and Ireland has been the money – a total of €44bn from the Common Agricultural Policy and a further €18bn from regional and social funds.

Then again, the terrible thing about the EU has been that self-same money – or rather all our political leaders' failure to move Ireland's EU relationship beyond it to a broader definition of economic interest.

In June 1992, the Irish were asked to vote on a planned EU single currency and a suite of other fledgling policies contained in the Maastricht Treaty.

The Taoiseach of the day, Albert Reynolds, had a brutally simple campaign strategy: "Vote Yes to Maastricht and Brussels billions."

It worked as EU regional and social funds were about to flow at a rate of €1.2bn per year over a decade.

Mr Reynolds got a 60pc turnout and a 70:30 Yes vote. But future governments soon found out how hard it would be to sell other EU treaties that were not accompanied by truckloads of grant aid.

The biggest tragedy of Ireland's relationship with the EU has been the failure of almost all politicians until very recently to emphasise the one great benefit of membership for this country. It is first and last about the opportunity of access.

That opportunity of access cuts two ways: it allows Irish business and farmers to sell to a market of 500 million people. It successfully invites international business to locate in Ireland as part of the EU and the eurozone. It opens up cultural links across 27 countries and puts vastly more equality into our relationship with our former coloniser and nearest neighbour, Britain.

It is also now undoubtedly true that Ireland has both a political and moral case for an easing of the bank-debt burden. It is further true to state that we are again feeling our lack of political strength in the way we are being treated by the bigger paymaster EU states. But the answer lies in hanging in and pushing the case harder.

The European Union is a process for dealing with issues and problems. Over our 40 years of membership, it has been beneficial for Ireland. For the past decade, these benefits have been less apparent but no less real. And for the past five years, our involvement has brought us and the other member states quite a a few problems as the euro has been in continuing turmoil.

THE entire EU process is now going through a prolonged period of doubt and difficulty, much of which is down to a lack of leadership and vision when compared with that shown by Kohl, Mitterand and Delors in the 1980s and 1990s. The year 2012 closed with more hopeful signs that the key EU leaders may finally be about to put some shape on the eurozone, though the road ahead remains long and grim.

But for the very foreseeable future, Ireland's EU membership remains the only show in town. One way and another, the majority of us fully realise this.

Or, to borrow Jack Lynch's phrase, when it comes to the EU – after 40 years of good and bad – Irish people retain their political realism. There is still 'prosperity and opportunity in this Europe business'.

Irish Independent

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