Ire­land’s gen­er­a­tions of growth

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - 60 YEARS OF EUROPEAN UNITY - Daniel McConnell Ir­ish Ex­am­iner, po­lit­i­cal edi­tor

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”.

Keenan’s legacy

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.

Education boost

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.

Youth com­mit­ment

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.

Ir­ish Euroscep­ti­cism

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.

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