Ireland’s generations of growth
In 1973, 27,135 students reached thirdlevel. By 2015, it was 173,649
In 1972 — as Ireland headed to the polls to vote on joining the then European Economic Community (EEC) — senior diplomat Seán Keenan produced a report weighing up the pros and cons of membership.
Keenan concluded that, while entering Europe would lead to “some diminution of our present sovereignty”, he said membership would greatly aid Ireland’s “long-term political aim of reduced dependence on the British market”.
This was because it would give Ireland access to European export markets and a role in the shaping of community policies. In global terms, Ireland “could exercise a worldwide political influence which could not be ours in isolation”.
Kennan continued that “membership could obviously contribute significantly towards the ending of Partition” — which was significant at a time of great strife in the North.
While the two main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, strongly backed a yes vote to join, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin called for a no vote. Labour argued Ireland should have applied for associate membership of the EEC rather than full membership. The party argued that associate membership would have given Ireland greater freedom of action without the formal ties of membership.
Sinn Féin proposed a ‘New Ireland’ instead of admission to the Community. This would involve a new constitution, new governmental structures, complete State control over the import and export of capital, State control of industries, and of the country’s mineral resources.
The Irish people voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining by a margin of 83% to 17%; and on January 1, 1973, Ireland along with the UK and Denmark ‘slipped quietly’ into the EEC without any pomp or fanfare.
Since that fateful day, Ireland has changed, changed utterly. Our membership of the European Union, as it is known today, has brought with it significant benefits to Ireland in almost every sector you care to examine.
According to European Commission figures, Ireland’s net gain from EU budgets has been €44.6bn since 1976 — though some would argue the €64bn cost of bailing out our banks has also to be considered in that context.
As in many other sectors, being a part of the EU has forced Ireland to modernise and adopt many policies and practices that it otherwise wouldn’t.
For example, European legislation on equality in the workplace has ensured Irish men and women are entitled to equal pay for doing the same job.
They also have legal protection when it comes to equal and fair treatment at work and women are entitled to maternity leave. More women can now access the labour market thanks to EU legislation that led to the abolition of an outdated marriage bar for women in public service jobs in 1973.
In education, the impact of being a member of the European club has been enormous too. In 1973, when Ireland joined the EU, just 27,135 Irish students reached third-level education. By 2015 that figure had increased to 173,649.
Since Ireland joined the EU, Irish agencies and State bodies have received almost €6.5bn in investment from the European Social Fund.
Under the EU’s Youth Guarantee, Ireland will receive €68m to increase employment, social inclusion, and skills for young people.
EU funding has helped improve education standards in Ireland as well as creating great opportunities for studying abroad through Erasmus+, EU’s study and work abroad programme.
Irish farmers — through the Common Agricultural Policy — have benefited significantly from European funds. Currently, Irish farmers receive EU funding of €1.2bn every year through CAP funding and since 2007, Irish farmers have collectively received a total of €10.5bn.
Nonetheless, despite all of the above benefits, attitudes towards Europe in Ireland have not always been universally positive.
Questions in relation to sovereignty have dominated many conversations about Ireland’s relationship with Europe ever since we joined in 1973.
Such fears of a loss of sovereignty amid moves towards tighter integration were also behind two shock rejections of EU-related referendums in 2001 (Nice treaty) and 2008 (Lisbon treaty).
Both referendums were rerun and were successfully carried when those fears were allayed, with the retention of a commissioner for each country being enough to swing the second Lisbon treaty referendum.
Calming Brexit concerns
Ireland’s relationship with Europe is back in sharp focus.
Having lost our closest ally from the negotiation table, grave concerns have been expressed about our ability to negate the impact of Brexit given our close proximity to the UK.
However, the agreement reached at the April 29 summit, which gave special prominence to Ireland, shows Europe is listening to our needs and concerns, as of now.
Credit is due to Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his officials for succeeding in making the Irish case so successfully in recent months.
As a people, we remain very loyal to the European project. A recent Red C poll showed more than 80% of people wanting to stay with Europe now that Brexit was happening.
What is clear is that the possibilities and opportunities for Ireland, identified by Keenan in his 1972 policy paper, are very much still there to play for.
Politically and socially, being in Europe has forced us to abandon our insular ways and have allowed Ireland, and in some ways dragged Ireland into being a far more progressive open tolerant society.
That alone has made it all worthwhile.