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Brexit Day - I was there at the beginning and I never thought it would end like this

Mary Kenny



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Optimistic days: Patrick Hillery and Jack Lynch sign the Treaty of Accession at the Palais D’Egmont in France in 1972

Optimistic days: Patrick Hillery and Jack Lynch sign the Treaty of Accession at the Palais D’Egmont in France in 1972

Optimistic days: Patrick Hillery and Jack Lynch sign the Treaty of Accession at the Palais D’Egmont in France in 1972

When it comes to the UK, Ireland and the EU, I feel I've been in at the beginning. I was a student in Paris in 1963 when Charles de Gaulle uttered his famous "Non!" to the UK joining what was then the EEC (and which effectively halted Ireland's membership as well).

The French seemed to rejoice at the rebuff of "perfidious Albion" - a Parisian spat at me in the Metro when I was reading a London newspaper with the story on the front page. "Dunkirk!" he hissed. (The wartime evacuation of Dunkirk was seen as Britain abandoning their French allies to the Nazi invaders.)

Roll forward to 1973, and I was a reporter for the London 'Evening Standard' covering the accession of the UK, Ireland and Denmark to the European Community.

De Gaulle was dead and things had moved on: Champagne corks popped to welcome the new boys - and it was, then, mostly boys.

What I remember most about the celebration party is Paddy Hillery, Ireland's first European Commissioner (later to be President), was unable to attend because his young daughter had broken her arm and he didn't want to leave her. This was thought admirable - a politician who put a family matter before a big political occasion.

They were optimistic days in Brussels and Strasbourg, and it was evident that British and Irish civil servants worked well together. The parity of relationship undoubtedly helped to create networks that were later to serve both sides in developing much improved Irish-British relations.

The EC's lessening of national barriers was a positive move - the days of gendarmes asking to examine "your papers" in the street in somewhat contemptuous style were over.

The Common Agricultural Policy always seemed to be problematic, and the Fisheries Policy didn't seem to suit either island nation. But wasn't exchanging benefits for costs part of the horse-trading?

My life moved on too, and I married an Englishman, Richard West, who was of that little-recognised tribe - Britons who embraced European civilisation but couldn't stand the EU. Richard spoke French, German, Italian and Serbo-Croat, and could get by in Polish and Czech. His favourite poet was Heine and even in frail old age could recite much of Dante's 'Inferno'. But he deplored rule from Brussels, and the barriers erected against old Commonwealth traders, from Australian lamb to Jamaican bananas.

I encountered other Englishmen like this, perhaps most notably Michael Foot, sometime leader of the British Labour Party. I sat next to him at a brunch given by David Frost, and he spent the entire meal talking about Ignatio Silone, the Italian left-wing novelist. Footy was a fierce opponent of the European Community, yet he loved European culture. The two are not incompatible - the EU is not, for everyone, "Europe".

Margaret Thatcher favoured enlargement of the EU, and got it. But beneath the surface, you could sense discontent growing - especially with Maastricht in 1992, which moved the EC towards "the superstate" critics so disliked.

And although Ireland sometimes demurred about ever-closer union - voters initially rejecting the Nice Treaty in 2001, fearing it compromised neutrality, and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, being the constitutional basis of the EU - on the whole, the Irish have remained strongly committed members.

The EU has boosted infrastructures, helped with equality and workers' rights (Paddy Hillery was a pioneer for this as a commissioner) and enhanced freedoms of movement and trade, even if there was a little local trouble with the euro debt crisis of 2008.

And Ireland calls on something in the deposit of history too - those long-established links with the Catholic Europe of France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal which were natural to Patrick Sarsfield, the Wild Geese and Daniel O'Connell.

Long before there were Erasmus scholarships, Irish men and women studied at Rome, Louvain and Salamanca - as my own father did.

From 1992, the UK was diverging, and the divergence culminated, as we know, with the Brexit referendum of 2016, which has been such a source of turbulence - and indeed division - since. But the die was well and truly cast by the December 2019 election and the triumph of Boris Johnson: today is what Brexiteers call "Independence Day".

I don't accept the oft-asserted trope that Brexit is based on xenophobia and a "Little England" mentality. Yes, unrestrained immigration did play a part in alienating working-class constituencies.

But it's about something deeper and older - call it an affirmation of national identity, or a gut feeling that "this is who we are". Granted, it's not straightforward - Remainers won't handle the Brexit 50p coin issued this week; Scotland protests; and we know about the problems squaring Northern Ireland's majority wish to Remain - prompting renewed speculation about a united Ireland.

Watching this odyssey has been a lifetime's journey: as a teenager I could never have imagined that De Gaulle's veto to the UK in the EU would be one day be repeated in reverse order.

I have been asked if I'm "pro-Brexit". I'm pro-democracy. I support Ireland's commitment to the EU, but I also support the UK's vote to leave.

And despite Leo Varadkar's joshing that the UK has a smaller team than Ireland and the EU, I truly believe that a new and creative relationship will eventually emerge.

Irish Independent