Suffice to say, I struggled to keep it on my fork! There we were, sometime in the very late 1970s, a group of four Irish friends, all on our first holiday to Europe, more specifically to central Europe. Between us, we were not practiced in the cultural etiquette of eating pasta, which unimaginatively, we had never seen before.

That spaghetti memory is important to me; it was the first time I felt what it might possibly mean to be ‘European’.

The food was part of a kaleidoscope of experiences that included crossing three land borders; listening to several different languages; enjoying different cultural traditions in music and dance; meeting people from a host of different European backgrounds, learning lots about a range of historical narratives and learning about the commonality and diversity of norms, values and experiences. And leaving behind, even for a short ‘foreign’ holiday, the reality of an Ireland that was, economically and socially, a very bleak place for many women and many others.

That trip was instrumental in significantly expanding my awareness of geography, politics, culture and history beyond the confines of Ireland, UK and the USA – the dominant influences at that time. My identity was triggered to expand from one linked to a very strong sense of the local and national, to a wider frame, shaped by European geography, politics, culture and history.

Ireland’s membership of the then European Economic Community was the primary facilitator of this cultural change. Today, the notion of a ‘foreign’ holiday no longer applies to our various trips to countries, capitals and cities in the EU. Our willingness to embrace things European was signalled in the 1972 national referendum on entry to the EEC. In a high turnout of 71.3% of the electorate, more than four out of every five voters (83.09%)  were in favour of joining the EEC. The government (Fianna Fáil) were in favour of joining along with Fine Gael. Other parties such as Labour and Sinn Féin campaigned against joining. Today, those parties once in opposition have elected representation in the institutions of the EU and engage on the policies of the EU.

The most recent Eurobarometer report, published in April 2022 provides an insight into what we think today about the EU:

  • 88% of Irish citizens are optimistic about the future of the EU, the highest across the EU27.
  • 71% of Irish citizens have a positive image of the EU, the highest in the EU, and significantly above the EU27 average of 44%.
  • 62% think the EU is going in the right direction.
  • Two thirds of Irish citizens trust both the European Parliament (64%) and the European Commission (63%) with 60% trusting the European Central Bank and the European Council.
  • 81% are satisfied with how democracy works in the EU. This is significantly higher than the EU average (55%).
  • (Eurobarometer, 2022)

In the past 50 years, political conflict and violence and conflict resolution, remains part of the EU and wider European regional narrative.

Our own ‘Troubles’ have been part of that conflict narrative that, more widely, includes the transition to and process of democratisation of much of Eastern Europe; the Balkans war and ongoing contestations in and between some Western Balkan countries; the current political conflict arising from Russia’s claim on Ukraine and, of course, Brexit.

John Hume famously claimed that ‘The European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution’ reflecting its roots in post-World War Two Europe.  That EU commitment to conflict resolution is actively reflected in the important role EU institutions and EU partners of Ireland (and the UK at the time) played in facilitating the negotiation and supporting the ongoing implementation of the peace process on this island, through the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, whose 25th anniversary occurs this year.

Four EU PEACE Programmes have been administered from 1995-2020. They had a critically important focus on supporting cohesion across divided communities in the North and on a cross-border basis. They supported community development ‘bottom-up’ approaches, through dialogue, participation and facilitating people and communities’ involvement in decision making.

These programmes invested in the strengthening of economic and social stability by supporting small and medium enterprises, education and training, social inclusion, reconciliation, urban regeneration and building new vital economic and social infrastructure. The funding has engaged with hundreds and hundreds of groups and thousands of communities, young people, women, victims and survivors of the conflict, ex-combatants and many more.

The EU’s commitment continues with the recent announcement of a fifth Programme, the PEACE PLUS programme until 2027 with a new investment of €235 million.

The EU is not, of course, a perfect international organisation. Its vision for free and fair trade is a strong cornerstone of its raison d’être that attracts criticism for its neo-liberal characteristics and impacts.

Bearing witness to the EU and its influences on Ireland since we joined in 1973, its, therefore Ireland’s, vision of and commitment to peace, security, sustainable development, solidarity and respect among peoples; to the eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights are compelling reasons to continue and promote our active citizenship of the EU.

In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.
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Joan O'Flynn
Joan O’Flynn teaches social policy and is an independent consultant who was Head of Information and Public Education with the Combat Poverty Agency and has also worked in the community and voluntary sector in Ireland and UK.

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