Thursday 19 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Who can ask key questions about the EU? I know a candidate'

A form of intellectual fascism has discouraged discussion of Ireland's place in the EU - and it's time that changed, writes Liam Weeks

POWER TO SPARK DEBATE: President Michael D Higgins is sworn in last Sunday. Photo: Tony Gavin
POWER TO SPARK DEBATE: President Michael D Higgins is sworn in last Sunday. Photo: Tony Gavin

Liam Weeks

Noel Browne was a man before his time. A TD across five decades, Browne is best remembered for his early years in politics, especially when in 1948 he was appointed health minister on his first day in the Dail.

The title of Browne's best-selling autobiography, Against the Tide, sums up his independent streak. During his political career, Browne proposed what were considered radical social policies at the time in relation to divorce, contraception, gay rights and abortion.

Although he failed to make headway in any of these areas as a backbench TD, most politicians have since come round to Browne's way of thinking, translating his principles into policy.

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But not all of his political beliefs. One policy area remains untouchable - his challenging our participation in European integration. Browne was firmly against Ireland joining the European Economic Community (EEC) when it was high on the political agenda in the 1960s and 1970s.

He was dismissed then as an ideological crank, a treatment he would still likely face for such a stance if alive today. However, Browne was not the only politician preaching against the perils of EEC membership.

One of the most vociferous organisations campaigning against the 1972 referendum on our joining the EEC was the Common Market Study Group.

Just like the contemporary European Research Group (ERG) in the UK, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Common Market Study Group (CMSG) feared the erosion of national sovereignty as a consequence of EEC membership.

Although sharing a very similar sounding name (purely a coincidence, as I am sure the CMSG like to think they did not inspire Tory Brexiteers), the Common Market Study Group was much more to the left than the Conservative ERG, and included among its members our current President, one Michael D Higgins.

Indeed, during the 1972 referendum campaign, Labour and Sinn Fein also campaigned for a No vote, along with a considerable number of trade unions.

So, where have all these Eurosceptics gone? Why are so few political elites today questioning Irish membership of the EU?

One possible reason could be that they are simply following public opinion. Perhaps Irish voters no longer buy the arguments of the anti-EU side and share the dream of a wider and deeper Europe.

The evidence to back up this premise is less than clear-cut however. The year 1972 proved to be the apogee of support for the EEC/EU in Ireland, as membership was approved by 83pc of voters on a turnout of 71pc. No European treaty since then has come near to receiving such a turnout or a mandate, with the Nice and Lisbon treaties being rejected by the Irish electorate in 2001 and 2008.

Even when we consider the general attitudes of the Irish public to the EU from Eurobarometer surveys, things have changed since the 1970s. Initially, our perception of EU membership seemed tied up with economic growth. When the Irish economy floundered during the 1970s and early 1980s, attitudes to Europe remained pretty static, with just a bare majority of voters, and sometimes fewer, believing that membership was a good thing.

As the economy began to improve in the late 1980s, so too emerged a more positive image of the European Union. However, during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger, something happened - and the aura of the EU began to dip following the defeat of the first Nice Treaty referendum.

This accelerated during the years of austerity, when a majority of voters believed that Irish interests were not well taken into account by the EU - an opinion that only changed once Ireland exited the bailout programme.

During this time, the Irish levels of trust in the EU changed significantly. Historically, and peculiarly, Irish voters trust the EU a lot more than our own political institutions. While Eurobarometer data shows that near 3:1 majorities trusted the EU in the pre-crash era, this suffered almost a complete reversal during the recession, with the emergence of a 2:1 majority distrusting the EU.

While this trend has also reversed again, it shows the fickle nature of Irish attitudes towards EU membership. It then begs the question of why, at a time when our neighbours are debating an EU departure, is the question not being discussed here?

After all, one of the primary reasons why we debated joining the EEC in the first place was because the UK was joining. It is very unlikely we would have done so if they had not, so if we followed the British in, why are we not considering following them out?

There are many reasons brought up in the UK in defence of Brexit, from a loss of national sovereignty to economic independence. Why are these arguments not raised in Ireland anymore? Do these issues no longer matter to the Irish public?

In a pamphlet produced by the Common Market Study Group in the 1970s, a Welsh economist claimed that to say anything critical of the EEC was the equivalent of telling a dirty joke in a cathedral.

Forty years later, saucy humour is probably more acceptable from the pulpit than anti-EU sentiment. We live in an era of intellectual fascism in which those campaigning against the EU are deemed social undesirables, being grouped with xenophobes, fascists and crackpots. Those challenging the righteousness of the EU are condemned in the same manner Noel Browne was castigated for most of his career.

Irish people are pretty quick to reproach the British for having their heads in the sand over Europe, but the same could be thrown at us for our unblinkered view of the EU. We're like a starstruck adolescent who doesn't want to believe that the focus of our adulation isn't quite the superstar hero we might imagine.

Take the holding of a second referendum on Brexit. Many in the UK see this as undemocratic, and may only accept it as a last resort after several years of discussions, and the production of an unpalatable deal.

But in Ireland, even before the first Nice treaty referendum was defeated in June 2001, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had announced we'd have another vote if it was rejected.

Imagine the outcry David Cameron would have faced in Britain if he had made a similar declaration before the Brexit referendum.

Of course, it didn't just happen over Nice. It happened again in 2009, when the Irish electorate was asked to vote on a treaty it had rejected a year previously.

The question should not be why we changed our mind over these treaties, but why we were not more up in arms at the rejection of our democratic will.

Neither British politicians nor voters would have been as accommodating, so why were we? It is because of the taboo on discussing EU membership. This intellectual fascism is the kind of flat world-thinking that stifles debate and condemns us to Plato's cave, where, chained with our backs to the world, our only glimpse of reality are the deceptive shadows cast on the cave walls.

We need more politicians to follow Noel Browne's lead and debate the seemingly unfathomable alternatives. What if, post-Brexit, the UK prospers and the EU flounders? Will we be adequately prepared for such a scenario where Eirexit may have to be discussed as a real possibility?

If only one of those members of the Common Market Study Group from the 1970s held a symbolic position, one where they could contribute to national debate and ask questions that our Government, for political reasons, can or will not.

President Higgins, your time may have come.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc in Government & Politics at University College Cork

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