On 10 May 1972, ‘What do I do’ by Sandie, Joe and the Dixies was top of the Irish charts, the day the public voted on whether Ireland should join the European Economic Communities (EEC). Across the country, 70.9% of the electorate cast their ballot which, to this day, remains the highest percentage turnout for any Irish referendum. By a resounding 83% , Irish people answered ‘Yes to Europe’. There and then, it was clear what Ireland should do.
45 years on, discussions on Ireland’s relationship with the EU continue to take place. Some, in the pages of this newspaper and elsewhere, have called for more debate on an Irish exit from the EU. They argue that with Brexit, Ireland’s interests are no longer best served by our continued membership of the European Union. Irish citizens have always interrogated and questioned our relationship with the EU. This is only right and asking ‘What do I do’ has never more understandable against the backdrop of Brexit.
It is true that lessons must be learnt from Brexit, and that the UK’s pending EU withdrawal forces us to consider in sharper reality our position in Europe. The divisive UK referendum illustrated the importance that such a debate is informed. Hyperbole, soundbites and rhetoric are impractical if not accompanied by considered and viable solutions. Disentangling more than forty years of close and deep co-operation creates multifaceted problems which cannot be ignored.
So, with that in mind, let’s continue the debate. Should Ireland follow the UK’s example? Is it in Ireland’s national interest to leave the EU?
First and foremost, it’s not an exaggeration to say that there is little real public appetite for Ireland to leave the EU. Far from revealing a latent Euroscepticism, a May 2017 Red C poll, commissioned by European Movement Ireland, found that 88 per cent of Irish people believe we should remain in the EU, notwithstanding Brexit. Opinion polls may, to some degree, be only snapshots in time of often complex stances on questions of national importance. However, this level of support for Ireland’s continued EU membership has remained high and markedly steadfast.
Some of the benefits of being a member of arguably history’s most successful peace project are well known and indeed, often repeated. Indeed, they can sometimes appear to us as a given so it is worth reiterating their significance in the context of this debate.
As a result of Ireland’s EU membership, Irish people enjoy the right to live, work, study and travel freely in 27 other European countries. Our largest trading partner is an EU Single Market bloc of over 500 million consumers to which diversified Irish business enjoys unfettered access. Since our accession in 1973, Ireland has received more than €74.3 billion in funding from the EU to modernise our roads, our towns and our farms. From Irish students participating in the Erasmus+ exchange programme to equal pay legislation and safeguarding workers’ rights, to enhanced food and environment safety standards, it’s fair to say that Ireland has been transformed by our EU membership.
How could access to these considerable advantages continue to be enjoyed outside the EU? Are the alternatives a better option and more attractive than those we currently enjoy and avail of?
Irish membership of the European Union elevates our political clout on the world stage. Far from relegating Ireland to “play in the reserves”, as Ray Kinsella writes, EU membership rather allows small states, such as ours, to amplify their interests in Europe and onto the international playing field.
Relations with our nearest neighbour have normalised and improved greatly within the framework of the European Union. Over four decades of shared EU membership facilitated Ireland’s move away from a frankly dependent relationship with the UK, towards the more welcome and equal one of today.
Whether we like it or not, Brexit leads us to think anew about our relationship with both the UK and the EU. As we are already seeing, the negotiations are going to be tough and far from straightforward, as perhaps befits a decision of such magnitude.
For Ireland, ‘What do I do’ is once again top of the charts.
The EU is not perfect. However, instead of turning towards a now historical, periphery, we must recognise that 21st century challenges are global in nature and do not respect borders. As an outward looking nation, we are best served to meet these challenges through continued co-operation, engagement and influencing solutions as part of a reforming EU.
Whatever Brexit means, staying in the EU remains in Ireland’s national interest.
Noelle O Connell is Executive Director of European Movement Ireland