Ireland in the European Eye, eds Gisela Holfter and Bettina Migge, Royal Irish Academy, xx + 515 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1911479024
When I was young, a frequent headline in newspapers seemed to be “Irishman’s success abroad” or similar (“Corkman is Philadelphia police chief”, “Leitrim priest honoured in Melbourne”). The regularity of such instances may not have been quite as great as my memory suggests, but certainly it was a trope of the times and it is not so hard to unpick its meaning or meanings. Emigration had forced many of our people out of the country, including some of the best and brightest. We were still interested in how they were doing half a world away (though in many cases contact was lost) and pleased if they were doing well, for surely this said something also about us who remained: namely, that we were perhaps not as naturally and irredeemably feckless as those who had long run things in our country suggested, and that given an even break in more favourable circumstances than those, say, of 1880s Donegal or 1920s Longford, we might do as well as anyone. Around the same time, it was customary for any Hollywood star who might be visiting Dublin to he hauled onto The Late Late Show. An inevitable question was “And what do you make of the Irish?” These were savvy people so it was probably not necessary to rehearse the range of answers that would be considered acceptable beforehand in the green room. And I don’t remember any of them, not even Oliver Reed, saying: “They’re an awful shower of wasters that would lie in bed all day if they didn’t have to cycle into town to collect the dole.”
Most of our emigrants had gone to Britain or the United States, though some who left (voluntarily or otherwise) in the nineteenth century also ended up in “the colonies”, principally in Australia. Our diaspora then was situated almost exclusively in English-speaking countries and it was with these that we had our primary extraterritorial emotional attachment. New York, or Glasgow, or Coventry could also be a source of badly needed “remittances” for many Irish families (as Dublin is today, no doubt, for many Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian ones). From the 1970s onwards however, remittances began to arrive from a different source, not payable directly to families but certainly benefiting most citizens indirectly. On this Brigid Laffan, in her essay in Ireland in the European Eye “Transforming Ireland into an EU member state”, quotes Kevin O’Rourke:
Ireland’s accession to the then EEC in 1973, and the construction of the single market in the early 1990s, were the two crucial turning points that allowed our Republic to put decades of underachievement behind it and become the prosperous and self-confident State that it is today.
Dr Laffan reminds us of some aspects of “the good old days” we may have forgotten, or of which younger people may not be aware: unemployment at 17 per cent, inflation at 12 per cent (both 1987); 310,000 work days lost through strikes (1986). One might add a pervasive atmosphere of bleakness, leavened only by the New Wave music explosion – if you’ve nothing else to do why not make noise? ‑ and that wonderful holiday from reality supplied by the Irish football team in 1990. Unemployment was to fall in every year from 1993 to 2001, an improvement that Laffan attributes to the impact of European structural funds, the industrial peace brought about by social partnership and the increase in foreign direct investment (FDI) as Ireland increasingly became a base for US companies to export into the European single market.
Mind you, not everyone was happy. Dr Laffan cites the interventions of two government ministers in 2000. Síle de Valera and Mary Harney delivered speeches (both, interestingly, in the US) that questioned Ireland’s European orientation. For de Valera it was a question of identity and culture: “we have found that directives and regulations agreed in Brussels can often seriously impinge on our identity, culture and traditions”. Harney’s speech is better-remembered, or at least it provided a soundbite that is well-remembered: “Geographically, we are closer to Berlin than Boston. Spiritually, we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin.” Dr Laffan sees both interventions as representing a “soft Euroscepticism”, which may be true, but it could also be important to emphasise the very large gulf in political philosophy that lies behind them.
Ms de Valera, I would suggest, was expressing a hope that what was left of the traditional Ireland cherished by her grandfather would not be sacrificed in the pursuit of wealth. Why she thought the threat to traditional Ireland came principally from “Brussels” it is difficult to say given that she was rather unspecific in her assertions, but there was certainly present in her thinking some fear of cultural homogenisation. It is rather clearer where Ms Harney was coming from and one could say that her position was diametrically opposed to the deValeraist one. If Síle wanted us to spend our Sundays at least watching the contests of athletic youths if not participating in them, Mary would have preferred to see us driving round and round the M50 in pursuit of bargains, not just for our own satisfaction but to play our part as good citizens in driving competition and delivering “keen prices” for the consumer in that wonderful mechanism the market. Rather than an Ireland that was Gaelic and free, the minister for enterprise wanted, more than anything else, one that was “a good place to do business”. American society, she said, was “built on the rugged individualism of the original frontiersmen, an economic model that is heavily based on enterprise and incentive, on individual effort and with limited government intervention”. Postwar Europe, on the other hand, was driven by “a strong concern for social harmony and social inclusion, with governments being prepared to intervene strongly through the tax and regulatory systems to achieve their desired outcomes”. Naturally enough, she wanted Ireland to follow a “middle way” between these philosophies – but not too middle: “I think it is fair to say that we have sailed closer to the American shore than the European,” she concluded with satisfaction.
Most Irish people were probably happy with the way things were going in 2000, and quite a few of course were happy with Mary Harney’s philosophy and record in office, though I doubt if many identified “Europe” as a significant threat to their continuing progressive enrichment. Brigid Laffan sees both speeches as betokening “a rising confidence, perhaps overconfidence”. From the perspective of the events of 2008 and their calamitous consequences it is easy to point the finger at the hubris (and madness) of the Celtic Tiger years. Dr Laffan refers to the complacency involved in the turnout of 34.8 per cent of the electorate that saw us absentmindedly rejecting the Nice Treaty in 2001. (Next year, in a re-run, there was a clear Yes on a near-50 per cent turnout.) It was rejection time again in June 2008 for the Lisbon Treaty. But once more we were given a second chance. Something must have happened in the interim – a fright of some kind perhaps – for in October of the following year the electorate endorsed (more or less) the same proposals by a margin of more than two to one. It is perhaps worth noting that while many people, perhaps correctly, predict widespread anger and disaffection with democracy if the English are asked the same question (on Brexit) twice we appear to have taken this imposition very largely in our stride. A calmer people perhaps.
I like to think there was a parallel on the level of popular culture to the hubris seen in our referendum voting in the 2000s. The European institution that Irish people are (or perhaps were) most interested in, the European Song Contest, crowned Ireland as winners in 1980, 1987 and again in 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1996. This was at a time when the nation was not accustomed to being first in anything, and we lapped it up. Wasn’t it wonderful that people liked us so much? By 2008, however, the boom had become so dizzily boomy that we thought we didn’t need anyone any more. And so we chose as our Eurovision entry a song with lyrics rather too glic and knowing, sung, in a fairly impenetrable Dublin accent, by a turkey. We all got the joke of course, but one can be pretty certain that few others did. But what did we care about that? We were Ireland, on top of the world: no one could touch us. Just to rub it in perhaps to them over there the song title, Irelande Douze Pointes, featured two misspellings. “Yeah, I know it’s wrong. You think we care? We’re havin’ a laugh.” Two years later the French head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, told finance minister Brian Lenihan quite firmly that there would be no more money coming over unless Ireland entered a bailout programme. Now we cared.
The interventions of de Valera and Harney highlighted, Dr Laffan writes, “the manner in which Ireland anchored itself in three spheres – the UK, the US and continental Europe. Membership had not forced Ireland to choose. It could have both Berlin and Boston.” And can it still? In the conclusion to her essay Brigid Laffan writes that, as it watches the UK depart from Europe, Ireland still “appears far more comfortable in an world of connectivity with multiple cross-cutting fuzzy identities”.
In the 1980s, during the periods in office of Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, Ireland would perhaps have been seen as more oriented towards Europe (particularly France) than towards the United Kingdom. If this began to change that may have been a result of closer, and warmer, relations with the Major and Blair governments as Ireland and the UK together grappled with the peace process; and it may also have been a result of a realignment of Irish economic policy which saw a move towards more low-tax, low-regulation policies, in tune with those of Britain. Arguably both Haughey and FitzGerald had wanted to see Ireland take its place among the nations (to use Robert Emmet’s formulation) by developing multiple relationships instead of the suffocating single one that had long characterised our economy and our mindsets. Such a realignment of course would have cultural as well as economic implications. Ireland’s anglophone status has certainly been a positive factor in the past. Its monolingualism may not be in the future.
A country that – from one geographical perspective at least – is an offshore island off an offshore island (une île derrière une île, Chateaubriand is supposed to have said) is always going to have particular problems of peripherality, problems which Ireland has tackled pragmatically and with considerable success over the last forty years and more. Now that the other island is pushing off, however, perhaps a reorientation will be called for. There was a hint of such in the interview https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/britain-has-always-struggled-to-take-ireland-seriously-say-irish-ex-diplomats-1.3981993 recently conducted by Fiach Kelly of The Irish Times with a number of retired senior civil servants and diplomats. While all three interviewees insisted on the continuing importance in the future of relationships with Britain, in particular so as to manage the difficult and perhaps dangerous problem of post-Brexit Northern Ireland, Paddy Teahon, secretary of the department of the taoiseach in the 1990s, said: “It was a piece of reality [in the past] that in many cases we agreed with Britain in terms of issues like taxation or whatever. Whereas now we’re in a new regime and therefore in our relations with the EU we will have to rethink a bit, and I know that they’re doing this already …”
Ireland will of course, as always, be looking for a middle way, but perhaps we can hope that at least in terms of regulation, social inclusion and social provision we may in future consider sailing closer to the European shore than the Anglo-American one.
Note: Brigid Laffan’s essay is just one of nineteen included in Ireland in the European Eye, with contributions covering a wide range of social and particularly cultural topics to do with Ireland’s relation to Europe and Europeans’ perceptions of Ireland. This variety and plenitude makes the book virtually impossible to review, but we would hope in due course to return to other essays as jumping-off points for further ruminations on our relationships with Europe. It is worth saying at this stage, however, that the book is beautifully produced, excellent value, and, with German editors, multinational contributors, sponsorship from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Goethe-Institut and the National University of Ireland, and a Polish printer, a splendid embodiment of the kind of co-operation and mutual understanding it seeks to foster.