Ireland is far removed from the place it was fifty years ago when it first joined the European Economic Community (EEC). Gone is the country of conservative Catholicism and protectionist economics; in its place exists one of Europe’s most dynamic and wealthy societies. Though this transformation was driven by a number of internal changes, political and social, it is also inarguably linked to larger trends that were occurring in Europe at the time. The EEC membership was a pivotal vector for introducing many of these changes: giving up market protectionism for European economic multilateralism also involved abandoning the isolated state of mind that had long defined Ireland. It is therefore important to remember that the European project and Ireland’s role in it have been far more that just economic.
This fact is most noticeable in Northern Ireland. Decades of conflict, not just the infamous Troubles but also older conflicts like the Border Campaign, where brought to an end by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This is all part of the well known epic of 1998, however it is worth keeping in mind that peace was achieved on the island of Ireland by years of hard work as well as by the institutional frameworks that were in place which made it possible. As is abundantly clear now, the compromise that ended the conflict was predicated upon the rights granted by European Union (EU) membership: particularly the freedom of movement which allowed the border between the North and the Republic to be open and unmarked. Whether peace was impossible without this is hard to say, but certainly an open border made the peace process significantly more likely. Brexit has rocked the boat, but thanks to the flexibility of the EU and Ireland, the peace remains.
It is always a bad habit to try and predict the future, but certainly the direction Ireland is headed seems bright. The EU has brought Ireland both wealth and peace, as well as a good deal of experience on how to manage both these things. The hope, therefore, is that the European project continues and Ireland applies what it has learned to help in this endeavour. Few other countries have as much experience as Ireland in developing post-conflict and, as the EU looks to expand Eastward, the hope is that Ireland can take a leadership role in applying these skills to helping places like Ukraine and Bosnia rebuild. Ireland is far removed from the isolationism it existed in fifty years ago, and EU membership has brought it to a point where it can help others. Perhaps, in another fifty years, we will be discussing how Ireland’s leadership has led many other countries down the same path as it. That is certainly my hope.
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.