It always struck me, as I watched and engaged with Irish commentators (journalists, thinktanks, academics), politicians and diplomats, how comfortable Ireland was in the European Union. And that, notwithstanding the periodic rejections of EU treaties: that was Irish democracy at work.
Ireland’s democracy and diplomacy, at home and abroad, often looked so adept compared to the UK’s, even in those days when the UK was one of the ‘big 3’, alongside France and Germany, and had a talented set of diplomats in Brussels and across the EU. One Irish commentator said to me, many years ago, that joining the European Communities in 1973 transformed Ireland’s relationship with the UK into one of equals in a way it hadn’t been before. More broadly, Ireland always seemed to have a much clearer and deeper understanding of the political benefits of EU membership compared to the UK and its obsession with things economic.
After the Irish public rejected the Nice Treaty in a referendum 2001, I was one of many EU experts invited to speak at the gatherings of Ireland’s National Forum on Europe which was then set up as a cross-party and wider public gathering to debate the EU, its future direction and the Nice Treaty. It was impressive in its ambition, its openness, its wide participation and the serious debate. For Ireland, debate, discussion and a second vote were a democratic path to respect its own democracy and its place in the EU after its initial rejection of Nice and then Lisbon Treaties. Nothing, of that sort managed to emerge out of the mess of Brexit.
Ireland always seemed, as well, to understand how to operate as a smaller member state in the EU: networking, collaboration, clear understanding of others’ interests as well as its own. During Ireland’s EU presidency in 2004, it was adept diplomacy that got the EU to a deal on its constitutional treaty in the early hours of a June morning – a treaty then rejected by the French and Dutch, who like the British and unlike the Irish, couldn’t contemplate a second vote.
Ireland’s European and international diplomacy was on full and expert display in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The other 26 EU member states swung behind Ireland both to defend the peace process and the open border on the island of Ireland and to ensure the hard Brexit that the UK sought did not damage Ireland’s place in the EU and its single market.
In Scotland, those supporting independence in the EU often look towards Ireland as an exemplar of that alternative future for Scotland. Yet Ireland, of course, chose to position itself clearly in the heart of the EU, including through adopting the euro. Many of those promoting the vision of Scottish independence in the EU are much more cautious about the Euro (in a rather British way). Irish diplomacy vis-à-vis the UK has also been notable in its steady tone despite the many and varied provocations since the Brexit vote, and Brexit’s threat to Ireland’s core interests. And with consulate generals in Scotland and Wales, Ireland has also shown it can navigate its way through and round the UK’s constitutional politics to good relations with those two countries.
As Ireland marks 50 years in the European Union, it has much to celebrate, as a core and influential member 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.