Irish Times Opinion Piece by IIEA Chairman19 Jan 2012
Lemass's determination opened the door to Europe
FIFTY YEARS ago, on this very day, Seán Lemass, then aged 62 and in his third year as taoiseach, personally submitted Ireland’s case for membership of the European Economic Community to the Council of Ministers in Brussels. His appearance signified that Ireland, after 40 years of independence, was willing to share its sovereignty with other European states and take part in the first enlargement of the EEC, writes BRENDAN HALLIGAN
Lemass had a problem, however. Whereas similar applications from Britain, Denmark and Norway had been welcomed by the member states, Ireland’s had not. The misgivings about its political commitment and economic capacity were so strong that the application submitted six months earlier had not been formally accepted and no date had been set for opening negotiations.
The response from the Council of Ministers to Ireland’s letter of application, submitted the previous June, had arrived only in late October and was no more than a suggestion to hold an exchange of views about the “special problems raised by the application of the Irish government”.
The reference to special problems was ominous. In effect, if Ireland wanted to become a member of the European Economic Community it would have to fight its way in; whereas Ireland might need Europe, Europe did not need Ireland.
The misgivings were understandable. Up to that point, Ireland had not participated in the process of economic integration. In contrast, the other three applicants were members of the European Free Trade Association. Furthermore, Ireland’s economy was predominantly agricultural and seen as no more than an underdeveloped region of Britain. To compound matters, it had previously argued that in the event of a free trade area covering western Europe it would require lengthy derogations to protect its infant industries. In addition, the member states had problems with a neutral state like Ireland joining their community. They and the other applicants were s members of Nato and committed to mutual assistance in the event of external aggression. Ireland had declined membership, making itself the political odd man out.
Lemass had come to Brussels to deal with this litany of misgivings. His one task was to ensure that negotiations for Irish membership would start in parallel with the other applicants. His goal was to get Ireland into the EEC, for the alternative to membership was isolation, a prospect that haunted him and his senior officials. They had concluded that if Britain joined the EEC, then Ireland had no alternative but to do likewise. There was no choice in the matter, unpalatable as this may have been to the generation that had fought for and secured Irish independence.
Lemass had been one of those. Aged 16 he had fought in the Rising and then in the War of Independence; he had been captured and imprisoned and had been part of the Four Courts garrison. First elected as a Sinn Féin deputy in 1924, he was a founder member of Fianna Fáil and had served in each de Valera government, charged with building an industrial base for the economy. If there was an architect of modern Ireland then it was he.
Now he was trying to add to his creation through membership of the EEC, but the only chance of success was to deal systematically with each of the misgivings. Lemass went on the offensive, opening with an emphatic assertion that Ireland belonged to Europe by history, tradition and sentiment. He dispelled any doubts about its commitment to the community’s political aims, saying he knew they went “much beyond purely economic matters” and that it was in full awareness of these facts the government declared that it shared the aims and ideals of the community.
Having established Ireland’s European credentials he turned to the contentious issue of defence, stating that while Ireland had not acceded to the North Atlantic Treaty it had always agreed with its general aim, and he amplified this point six months later by recognising that a military commitment would be an inevitable consequences of joining the Common Market and that ultimately Ireland would be prepared to yield even the technical label of neutrality.
On economic issues he said that Ireland did not anticipate it would be necessary “to seek any special financial assistance from the Community” and he refrained from seeking derogations for either agriculture or industry. He concluded with a declaration that the Irish people felt they had a contribution to make to “the accomplishment of the community’s design for a new European society” and that they would do so “in a spirit of loyal and constructive co-operation”.
The Lemass presentation turned out to be decisive. The tone of the discussion turned for the better and further improved when he made a grand tour of the six capitals later in the year. On October 22nd the Council of Ministers decided in favour of opening negotiations with Ireland. Lemass had succeeded in his primary objective and Ireland had avoided the isolation he feared.
History shows the negotiations were to be postponed for five years due to a veto by Gen de Gaulle on Britain joining the community. By the time they were resumed Lemass had resigned as taoiseach and he was to die before Ireland became a member of the European Economic Community in January 1973.
But the Lemass legacy is clear enough. Ireland took its place in Europe because of his appreciation of where the national interest lay; involvement in Europe rather than isolation amid the unknown. Fifty years later Europe is being refashioned again. The Lemass legacy suggests the need for a clear understanding of where the national interest lies today. He would, for sure, be opting for involvement rather than isolation.
Brendan Halligan is chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs and a former general secretary of the Labour Party
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