Think you don't care about Brexit? Think again, because it will change everything
Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30
'Why don't ye all just get on with harmonising sewer pipe gauges, or whatever, and leave me out of it." That dismissive comment from a long-time friend, when the EU came up in conversation, was typical of what I often heard on visits home during a decade of living and working in Brussels, reporting European issues for this newspaper.
People have a low boredom threshold with most foreign policy issues; the EU has a mind-numbing propensity all of its own. We rarely think of it. We used to vaguely think it 'a good thing' - now we vaguely think 'it might not be so good'.
But next Friday morning we will finally know whether British voters opt to leave the EU. We will face a very uncertain few years if they do opt for 'Leave'. Even if the 'Remain' side carries the day, a close margin may suggest a re-run sooner rather than later.
Whether you are in the minority who paid attention to 'Brexit', whether you gave it an occasional glance, or whether you ignored it entirely, you will have to pay attention to what follows.
I am not suggesting that Britain leaving the EU will trigger economic and social Armageddon for this country. But I am saying that a 'Leave' outcome will directly affect all our lives. It will mean Ireland must think again on its relations with the EU, and with all our neighbours on this island and in the neighbouring ones. We are close to a very fundamental fork in the road.
If Britain leaves the EU, there are signs that Scotland may well leave the UK, in efforts to stay with the EU. That would raise the prospect of the UK breaking up.
Given Northern Ireland's close personal and emotional links to Scotland, it would raise serious issues on this island. Our issues around the only EU-UK land border would be compounded by a reshaping of a host of relationships.
Our relationship with Britain in the EU has been very important. We could not have joined without Britain in 1973.
While we always relied upon coat-tailing France and Germany on agriculture policy, when it came to issues like social policy and taxation, we closely shadowed Britain.
Unlike our neighbours, still grappling with their post-colonial trauma, we were 'happy Europeans' from very early on.
The real problem was that our 'Euroconsensus' was often unhealthy and shallow, and based on very limited knowledge. Things were not helped by our politicians lazily selling it as 'free money' when the real benefits were in the opening up of possibilities for trade, travel, education and a host of other contacts. Our social organisations, notably the trade unions and political parties, have often been sluggish in mediating what the EU means to the ordinary Irish person.
Yet, we have contributed and punched above our weight on many occasions over the past 43 years. The quality of people we have sent to Brussels has been recognised as high. As just one small example, Ireland has provided two excellent secretaries general of the policy-guiding Commission in Catherine Day and David O'Sullivan.
The first signs of Irish people not necessarily loving the EU arose on June 7, 2001, when we voted by 54pc to 46pc to reject the EU Treaty of Nice, which was central to taking in new former East Bloc member states.
We were subsequently given a clear guarantee that we would not be obliged to join any military alliance. A re-run of Nice followed in October 2002 and it was carried by 63pc to 37pc.
It all happened again in June 2008 when Irish voters rejected the EU Lisbon Treaty, this time by a margin of 54pc to 47pc. After certain clarifications, Lisbon was run again and carried in October 2009 by a solid 67pc to 33pc.
It is important to note that most of these EU-related referendums were characterised by falling turnout and a growth in the hard core number of people suspicious, if not hostile, to Ireland's involvement.
That is part of a Europe-wide trend as anti-EU sentiment rises, fuelled by political movements on both the left and right. The European project used to be seen as a fount of peace and prosperity. Now many people see it as failing to deal with core problems, like the economy and migration, and a source of paralysis and bureaucracy.
Many people associated with the project acknowledge that it is time to think again and especially think about reforms and simplification. These things are easier spoken than achieved. The need to abandon the 'creaky bicycle analogy', that Europe must keep going forward with more integration or else fall over, is finally dawning.
Ireland has in the past had to make key decisions about the EU when Britain took a different route. The most notable was in 1979, when the Exchange Rate Mechanism was set up and Britain did not join. Ireland's decision broke the link with sterling for the first time since the State was founded in 1922.
A similarly momentous decision loomed in 1999, when the euro currency became a reality on international money markets. Ireland had decided to join as Britain shunned it.
We were pulled in two directions at once. But we coped. The prospect this week is much, much larger and needs internal debate and clear-headed decisions.
To paraphrase Trotsky on war: 'You may not be interested in the EU, but the EU is interested in you'.