I recently came across an article written by Dr Paul Gillespie, a former foreign policy editor with The Irish Times, on the future of Ireland and its place in the EU. The Irish Times article focused on a recent conference of the Irish Association for Contemporary European Studies: ‘After Brexit, what next?’ Guests included Eoin Drea from the centre right Wilfried Martens think tank in Brussels, Sean Healy from Social Justice Ireland, an independent social justice think tank addressing the causes of problems, and Dr Viviane Gravey who is a lecturer in European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.
This topic of Ireland’s future in the EU has been on my mind for quite a while as I have just recently concluded a nine part podcast series on the future of Europe and how Ireland will feature in this future (you can access the podcast on our platform here). The podcast was quite an enjoyable experience in which we tackled some interesting topics, my favourite being an episode on neutrality. I tried to avoid guests from a number of political, high academic circles or think tanks. Not because I don’t value their contributions, in fact I see them as vital because they are focused on the issues and can provide excellent insight, but for this series, I tried to talk to people from grassroots level.
As a nation in the EU, on paper, Ireland is pretty happy and despite those calling for us to join the UK by getting out, the vast majority, regularly coming in at around 80 plus percent, want to stay in. An Irish Brexit is not going to happen anytime soon.
But we do lack something that is very prominent in other member states and crucial to us as a partner for the future of Europe. We seem to be unable to create a grassroots community here in Ireland when it comes to the conversation on Europe. We consistently have rooms full of academics, politicians and think tanks, but go to Brussels, Paris, Rome and Berlin where you will see ordinary people hosting forums on Europe. In Ireland we have a closed door with elite organisations holding court over who gets to speak and, more importantly, control policy regarding the EU.
We are obsessed with Anglo Irish relations at the expense of our place in European society and genuine independence which, unfortunately, Brexit has made worse. It seems that at every meeting or seminar, it is not really about the EU but about our relationship with the UK and that worries me a lot. Even the name of the mentioned conference was ‘After Brexit, what next’ but that should not always be the case. Europe has a wealth of organisations that encourage debate, foster conversation and give people on the street a genuine place at the table. There are too many to mention, but most are very easy to find. But if you look for something similar in Ireland, you would be hard pressed to find anything other than a Facebook page or Twitter account with a couple of hundred followers. The organisation that hosted this conference has only a couple of hundred followers on Twitter and most are from an academic background. This is expected because the Irish Association for Contemporary European Studies is academic based, but my question is why is it only these organisations that government bodies in Ireland turn to? It’s very clear that they do not in any way represent real views of the Irish people and, frankly, it is a mystery as to what exactly those views are.
There is more to Europe than Brexit, yet the conversation is dominated by it and cannot continue to be the case. Any Europe focused event here in Ireland is being hosted by one or two well entrenched organisations with the same fifty or so faces and when it comes to European issues represented by political parties, it is virtually non-existent. We have no Europe focus political party here, whereas continental politics is full of them. When was the last time we had a debate on European integration, in particular the concept of a federal Europe? Despite what many may think, this idea is a big question in European cities, but Ireland seems to have no conversation on the topic. None of the European focused organisations here in Ireland have tackled it in recent memory and continue to be fixated on Northern Ireland and UK. With due respect to these organisations that indeed work hard they are part of problem. Academic studies are all well and good, but if people on the street are not involved, nothing will change. We need to take a leaf out of the European book and invest in European mindset for everyone, not just the elite, and we need a Eurocentric party to promote the values of the EU.
Irish governments are getting lazy and allowing ‘independent’ think tanks and groups to do their footwork for them. But what are they doing? Preaching to the converted, mostly middle class ‘educated’ people but saying nothing to the people who would prefer to know what the future has to offer them in real terms and not in a formatted future in a federal Europe that offers what precisely format? Personally, I am all for closer union, although not federalism, but would rather everybody sees the options and not those thrown at them by one or two groups and a handful of individuals and all the rest of the clones they are one of.
Only by giving a regular voice to all of Ireland, can we truly have a conversation on its future in the EU and despite the stereotype sentiments we may be surprised what we may find. It could be positive or may be a more critical set of views, but at least it will be honest and truly representative.
Featured Image includes portions from the Pinclipart library.