It’s almost 40 years since Ireland became a member of the EEC in 1973.
Back then this was a conservative, self-contained, agrarian society reliant on the whims of British consumers to make a profit on exports which were primarily farm produce.
Even after half a century of independence we were, ironically, dependent on the markets provided by Britain. It may be galling to concede but we were, in economic terms, very much a satellite state and our capacity to develop was largely in the hands of British buyers of Irish farm output.
Even at today’s low point, it is hard to convey how confined economic potential seemed. The county was, in modern terms, largely underdeveloped and still suffering the consequences of post-colonial, nationalist exuberance and the stasis inevitable when revolutionary founding fathers of a state stay in power for far too long. Ireland, especially the North, was also beginning to feel the chilling grip of decades of terrorism and the negative impact that has on economic development.
In first-world terms we were in danger of being left behind. It is not overstating the case to argue that our membership of the EEC/EU has reshaped this society more profoundly than any other single development except the attainment of independence.
During the first two decades of our EEC/EU membership we were helped to develop infrastructure, education and, most of all, agriculture more dramatically than we had in the first half century of independence. We had become part of a far bigger family, and enjoyed the benefits that confers.
The development of agriculture was spectacular and a sector that could only be described as basic — in many instances little more than subsistence farming — became a European and, in exemplary cases, a world force. The EEC/EU energised a disparate industry and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Irish people for the better. We may be at that point again.
For the last two decades, Ireland’s milk producers have been limited by milk quotas but those shackles are about to be removed. In three years’ time the regime resented by so many ambitious dairy farmers will end and, if today’s conditions on world markets continue, the potential seems almost limitless.
Just one comparison seems enough to confirm this. When quotas were introduced in 1984, both Ireland and New Zealand produced something around five billion litres of milk. Today, New Zealand’s farmers produce 19 billion litres and our greatly reduced but far more efficient sector still produces just five billion litres. Using that comparison as a guideline we may have the capacity to quadruple our milk production. This would bring great benefits and some challenges too but the sector has more than shown it is capable of changing to meet the needs of the day.
There are not too many opportunities on the horizon with the capacity to change so many lives and communities, to rejuvenate parts of rural Ireland slipping into the grip of decline, as the ending of milk quotas. We must do all we can as a state, as individuals, as farmers and processors to make the most of what might prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
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