When I think of Ireland’s place in the EU I’m reminded of a famous scene from Monthy Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. The unhappy locals, led by John Cleese, sit down to complain about the ruling Romans.

“What have the Roman’s ever done for us?” he challenges the crowd.

When I was growing up and anyone asked ‘what has the EU ever done for us?’ the quick answer was the same as the one from the movie.

“Well, they did give us the roads.”

In fact, the EU funded 61% of Ireland’s roads budget between 1994 and 1999 as the State made its infrastructure ready for the 21st century.

That’s a tangible thing you can see and touch as a result of Ireland’s 50 years of European Union membership.

But Ireland is dramatically different in so many ways, not all of them as obvious.

I came along about two fifths of the way through our European journey, and in some ways it’s difficult for someone born in 1993 to evaluate how things have gone.

I’ve never known anything but Ireland being in the EU. It’s never been a question, more a constant certainty that we are part of something larger.

I’m part of a generation which has seen transformational change in the country. A generation too young to remember first-hand the violence in Northern Ireland, too young by far to remember Ireland not being part of the EU.

Part of a generation born as the Celtic Tiger was stretching, getting ready to run Ireland’s economy up a mountain and eventually off a cliff.

There’s no question Ireland’s place in the EU has dramatically changed in those 30 years. Going from a small nation on the periphery, almost a tag on to the UK’s membership, to an economic powerhouse and net contributor to the EU budget.

From a nation driven by agriculture to one of the tech capitals of the world.

But also one which sees itself differently, which has wrestled with some of the demons of our shared past.

Ireland has emerged onto the world stage wielding influence far beyond what should be expected of a country our size. Be that in the EU, on the UN National Security Council or in the White House every March.

That’s not to say everything has been perfect. The conditions imposed on Ireland during the bank bailout years still rankle, feeding into a time of deep austerity which cost many people dearly.

There are concerns about how much power we cede to the EU with a special parliamentary committee being set up just to oversee the transcription of EU law into Irish law, something which is taking up more and more time in the Dáil. Important, if boring, work.

And as with every country since February 2022 our security position has been threatened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Ireland is a militarily neutral country, something which the majority of people are not keen to see change. We haven’t had a Finnish-style conversion to NATO membership.

But there is a national dialogue starting to debate whether being neutral is a tenable position in a world where everyone seems to be picking a side.

While some member states would like to see an EU army, the collective defence of our collective achievements, that’s not something Ireland is remotely ready for.

One of the big fears for a smaller country in the EU is being bounced into decisions we don’t want to make. How can little old Ireland say no in the face of 26 other, usually bigger, countries demanding something?

The cynic in me has always seen that as a worry. That we’ll be placated until the greater collective decides otherwise.

That was the big fear with Brexit. One which turned out to be unfounded.

I watched on multiple trips to Brussels, while several British Prime Ministers came back and forth to varying degrees cajoling, twisting and even threatening to get the kind of deal they wanted. As people at home wondered whether Ireland would pay a price for the British decision to exit the EU.

Fears re-emerged over the potential return a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Would the hard-won gains of the Good Friday Agreement be lost?

What followed was a remarkable show of solidarity from the European Union. At every junction the negotiators kept the Irish Government informed and never backed away from those core principles which ensured the Good Friday Agreement was protected.

The message was clear. Ireland is a part of the EU, a part of the single market and a key part of Europe’s future.

Dublin has always had close links with London and Washington but with our two neighbours falling ever deeper into their own culture wars Brussels has appeared as the stable partner.

It’s a marriage 50 years in, who knows what the next 50 will bring?

Seán Defoe
Seán Defoe is the Political Correspondent for Bauer Media Audio Ireland including national Irish radio stations Newstalk and Today FM. Seán is a regular visitor to Brussels covering EU Council summits and managed extensive coverage of the Brexit negotiations over the past few years.

    The Celtic Phoenix after 50 years of transformative EU membership

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