Irish commitment to the European Union in 2022 marks a remarkable contrast with the case of Brexit in its nearest neighbour. Ireland joined the European Economic Community alongside the United Kingdom and Denmark in 1973. For many years prior, Irish hopes of joining the group seemed to rest on the UK doing likewise. Despite Brexit, the difference between both state’s attitudes to the EU now could hardly be starker. On the fiftieth anniversary of accession, it is worth reflecting on the longer story of the Irish state and Europe, considering Irish links to the continent in a broad sense as well as development in the state’s political, social and economic imperatives.
One of the key actions of the revolutionary First Dáil which convened in Dublin’s Mansion House on 21 January 1919 was to issue a message to the free nations of the world. As Ireland set out to break free from British rule, such a step reflected nationalists’ emphasis on establishing a de facto government but also engaging with the wider world — a longstanding theme in Irish nationalist strategy and rhetoric.
Sinn Féin’s landmark victory at the 1918 election had indeed been framed as the country’s ‘Independence Day’ in the era of US President Wilson and the post-war peace conferences which would redraw the map of Europe. Engagement with Europe was a hallmark of the early decades of Irish independence — the perceived inwardness of the Irish Free State notwithstanding.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty had of course placed the new state in a Commonwealth framework rather than necessarily a European one. The Free State was granted dominion status — roughly equivalent to the autonomy enjoyed by the former settler colonies of the British empire while Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. Cumann na nGaedheal government ministers attended imperial conferences and used this framework to extend sovereignty — and even discuss avenues for ending partition. However, the state also placed importance on cultivating diplomatic relations begun in 1919, establishing emissaries across Europe and further afield as well as playing an active role in the League of Nations. It was in this forum that Éamon de Valera often spoke on issues affecting interwar Europe.
Irish interest in Europe was often centred on Rome it is true — as evidenced by the impact of the 1929 Papal Encyclical and the conservative Catholic outlook which permeated so many elements of the state. The Spanish Civil War convulsed Irish public opinion and the Dáil debate on the non-intervention bill introduced by de Valera’s government was one of the stormiest since the Irish Civil War. Fine Gael’s James Dillon characterised the war as a choice between ‘Godism or no-Godism’ though Irish volunteers enlisted on both sides of the conflict with contrasting ideological motivations. The debates in the country were often as fierce as those taking place in other European countries about the future of Spain.
Ireland was not alone among small European states in choosing to remain neutral during World War II though it was more fortunate than most in having its neutrality largely respected for the course of the conflict — as Michael Kennedy and John Gibney have pointed out, Irish plans envisaged remaining ‘neutral only until it had been invaded’. While neutrality which was strict in censorship and other matters, Ireland also offered practical benefits to Britain and by extension the Allies.
While neutrality spared the state the worst ravages of war, the historian F.S.L. Lyons famously argued that neutrality during the Second World War left Ireland needing to emerge from ‘Plato’s cave’. Yet, though it is true the victors kept Irish neutrality firmly in their minds, after 1945, the state immediately sought to engage with new international bodies like the United Nations.
Anglo-Irish relations and partition remained central issues in Irish considerations. Post-war international developments provided hope Irish unity could be achieved — even if they were disappointed. As Ireland became a republic and left the Commonwealth in 1949 (a year before India would become a republic within the Commonwealth), attention continued on newer international alliances, and shifts towards more open economic policy aligned with efforts to join the EEC.
There were, however, continuities. Catholicism remained a major force in Irish life and events like the arrest of Cardinal Josef Mindszenty provoked strong reactions in Ireland in 1949. While the state remained neutral, such feelings hardly spoke to ambivalence about the Cold War.
The state had to wait until 1955 for entry into the United Nations and a similar wait was in order for the EEC. Nor was the decision unopposed — the referendum campaign was lively and major debates were had about sovereignty and economic implications (with Labour among those in the No campaign). Later referenda on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties evinced some similar concerns and divisions. Yet, as Ireland’s ‘Civil War’ parties sit in coalition for the first time, placing the EU at the centre of political and economic planning and priorities appears a stronger thread than ever.
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.