European relations - Time to take proactive role in EU

During the Celtic Tiger period, this country was seen as one of the great success stories on the international stage, but we have allowed our influence to wane.

Now that things have turned sour, we need to repair our influence within the European Union.

Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin seemed to be saying, during a Christmas interview with the Irish Examiner concerning the Lisbon Treaty, that we lost the run of ourselves. In the era of Celtic Tiger we suddenly felt we had made it and could stand on our own without the outside help that allowed the country to overcome the recession of the 1980s. At the time the treaty was rejected by the Irish people, it seemed that people were saying that we did not need Europe, but once the real impact of the recent downturn began to be felt, there was a distinct change of heart.

This country has punched well above its weight in the international arena since gaining independence. In the 1920s the Irish Free State played a particularly significant role in the British Commonwealth of Nations, where the country had a large input into the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the subsequent Statute of Westminster, which proclaimed the independence of the British dominions.

Countries like India and the developing nations of Africa looked very much to the Irish example. As a result, this nation exerted a disproportionate influence for such a small country. The Irish Free State was, for example, elected to the Council of the League of Nations.

During the Manchurian Crisis of 1932 Eamon de Valera distinguished himself as President of the Council, and he was later elected President of the Assembly during the Munich crisis of 1939. In the midst of both crises, he adopted an independent line that was highly supportive of the League. Through such stands this country won considerable respect. Many people in the world may not know where Ireland is, but among the political cognoscenti the country enjoys much more influence than any other nation of our size or population.

That influence largely derives from the impact of Irish immigrants, especially among their descendants. Irish people were surprised when Charles de Gaulle came to Ireland immediately after resigning as French President. People were even more surprised when he announced that one of his maternal ancestors was a MacCartan from Co Down.

Maybe Irish ancestry is only important in attracting notice for Ireland, but being noticed is the first step in influencing others. It affords us the opportunity to influence, and the rest is up to ourselves.

Since the second world war this country has been on an economic rollercoaster. At the end of that conflict, Ireland was per capita one of the wealthiest countries in the world, because it had an enormous external credit. Our infrastructure may have been underdeveloped but, unlike much of the rest of Europe, we had virtually no war damage and had a young virile population.

But we blew the advantages. In the next decade over 300,000 young people were forced to leave the country in search of a living. While the rest of the world was in the midst of an economic boom, this country was in depression during the 1950s. The country had adopted an isolationist mentality, hiding behind tariff barriers that destroyed our international competitiveness.

Things were turned around during the 1960s, as we recognised the need to interact fully with the European Economic Community. The farming community enjoyed the first fruits of prosperity as a result of the Common Agricultural Policy, following the country’s access to the EEC. Great strides were made, largely with the help of the French, with whom Irish farmers had much in common.

Things went sour again in the 1980s. In January 1980, shortly after coming to power, Charles Haughey recognised that the country was living beyond its means, but it continued to do so for the next seven years, by which time our economy was one of the sickest in Europe. Our European colleagues played a significant role in rescuing us with cohesion and structural funds in the early 1990s. The country then attracted international capital with our low corporate taxes and our high standard of education.

We even began attracting migrants from the rest of the world, but we became complacent. The defeat of the Lisbon Treaty in the 2008 referendum was probably as much an expression of insular arrogance as it was an attempt to punish our own government for its economic bungling. For a while, all of Europe was watching as we reversed our initial rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. Now we should demonstrate a positive influence by again adopting an enthusiastic and proactive approach to European affairs.


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