EU leaders have had much to contend with in 2020 – coordinating efforts to deal with the economic fallout of a global pandemic and tackling democratic backsliding in EU countries, with a backdrop of a retreating US from the global stage and complicated relations with Russia and other states. Amidst this, it may seem that the EU might not have much in the way of spare political oxygen for Brexit, but the situation demands that it will, and will continue to, long after 2020. There will undoubtedly be much to discuss in this weekend’s Special European Council on 17 and 18 July.
Due to the requirement of consent of the Stormont Assembly to the arrangements of the Northern Ireland Protocol every four years, if approved by MLAs, Brexit will likely be an issue of continued focus on this island as well as the EU. Even before that, the departure of the UK from the EU will dominate much of Micheál Martin’s tenure. Coincidently, the last time a Cork native held the post, the entry of the UK into the then EEC dominated Jack Lynch’s immediate time in office when he became Taoiseach on 11 November 1966. Just weeks later on Tuesday, 6 December, he met the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and heard of the UK considering a new application to join the EEC as a result of political developments there.
The change came about at a summit of EEC leaders in The Hague the previous Friday, where they “reaffirmed their agreement on the principle of the enlargement of the Community”. Charles de Gaulle had resigned as French president in April of that year and was succeeded by Georges Pompidou. The new president did not share his predecessor’s view of vetoing the UK EEC application, something de Gaulle had done both in 1963 and 1967, paving the way for accession talks to begin the following year. The success of Ireland’s EEC application, resting on that of the UK’s, illustrated that, while Ireland had gained political independence, we were still economically tethered to the UK. It has only been through our EEC membership that our economic dependency on the UK has declined from 62% in the value of exports in 1970, to 10% in 2019.
While the Ireland of Jack Lynch could not join the EEC without the UK, the Ireland of Micheál Martin will not leave the EU with the UK.
Ireland’s EU membership has facilitated our independence, something which Lynch acknowledged in a 1979 interview with French academic Richard Deutsch. After centuries of British rule, he said that “I think now that we are in charge of our own destiny, we can survive cooperation.” At the same time, the EU became an unintended vehicle of opportunity in the fostering British – Irish relations. Regular EU meetings between ministers and officials yielded new levels of close cooperation that had not existed previously. The meeting of Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan and Jack Lynch on the side-lines of the April 1978 European Council in Copenhagen was the first between the leaders of the two governments in this neutral setting.
Micheál Martin will disappointingly not be offered the same opportunities that Lynch and former taoisigh had in being in a position to work with the UK as a member of the EU. There will be need now to look to creative ways of replicating the regularity of meetings with UK officials outside of the structure brought by the EU.
Micheál Martin acknowledged this change in a speech at the Institute of International and European Affairs in January 2020: “The ending of the close and permanent interaction between Irish and British ministers and officials in the context of the EU is a major concern… Let us not stumble into disputes because we no longer meet every day in Brussels.”
This concern has been carried over into the Programme for Government where the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference “will be enhanced to strengthen east-west links.”
It is hard not to see the historical parallels between the two Cork natives: Lynch’s term saw the UK begin a new period of close cooperation with Ireland in the EU, while Martin’s time in office will involve setting out routes to replicate this with a UK outside the EU.
As we adjust to a new reality, it remains to be seen just how wide or narrow the Irish Sea will be between the two.
– Noelle O Connell, Executive Director of European Movement Ireland