Guest Speaker’s Address

The importance to the Republic of Ireland of EU membership has, I believe, been widely misunderstood.

It has been misunderstood in Britain where there has been an almost tabloid fascination with the ability of the cute Paddies to wheedle endless amounts of cash from the Brussels bureaucracy.

It has been misunderstood here in Northern Ireland where the focus has been on the generous aid that Ireland has received under the CAP and various development funds.

And it has been misunderstood in the Republic itself where many people still see our membership of the EU in the narrow terms of financial transfers and farm supports.

Yes, the Republic has benefited from EU aid. We gained huge support for our farmers and food processors-not of all it wisely applied I might add. We have gained huge support for training and educational programmes. And we have gained huge support for the improvement of our infrastructure.

From the middle of 2003 the entire route from just south of Dundalk to Dublin will be in motorway-and that is not something we could have afforded to put in place without generous EU assistance.

But to focus on financial transfers would be to miss the main point of EU membership completely. In reality, the main benefit of membership of the Union has been to open up Ireland to the outside world. And that opening has many facets.

There is the opening of trade. Thirty years ago we in the South were painfully dependent on Britain as a market for our exports. We were price-takers for commodity products, a business that offered little prospect of generating real economic prosperity.

Today we export added-value products all over the world-but particularly to the continental European market. Despite what the left-wing doomsayers warned at the time, the creation of the single European market has been an enormous boon for the Republic of Ireland.

There is the opening up of markets. In Ireland, we had built up state monopolies in many important sectors of the economy. In an ideal world, we would have moved towards liberalisation ourselves, and probably would have done so. But the process would have been slow to effect, and the benefits would have been even slower to appear.

Membership of the EU changed that. Liberalisation of the telecoms market has transformed that sector in the Republic, and delivered huge benefits to consumers in terms of wider choice and lower prices. Without the pro-competition pressures, which were applied by the EU, that whole process would never have happened as quickly as it did.

There is the opening of vistas. In 1973, Ireland was still quite an insular state. We had limited diplomatic representation. Our worldview was obsessed with Britain. And we struggled to make any real impact on the international stage.

Membership of the EU changed all that. We gradually extended outwards to embrace the wider Europe. We learned to participate and to prosper in the complex world of EU negotiations. And national self-confidence grew as we demonstrated our ability as a small nation to host the European presidency, to chair intergovernmental conferences, and to represent Europe on the world stage.

And then there is the opening of minds.

The Ireland of thirty years ago was by no means a backward place. I sat at the cabinet table for the first time in 1969, and around me sat a group of people who had a real determination to change the country for the better.

Around me also sat another group of people who might have changed it irrevocably for the worse, but that is a subject for another day.

The desire for change was there. The drive to improve things and modernise things was there. But there was still a lot of close-mindedness, and this gave rise to attitudes that seem almost incomprehensible today.

The role of women in society and in the workplace, for example, was quite severely restricted. The transforming impact of EU membership manifested itself early on, as Ireland was required to bring itself into line with the standards of modern European society.

The European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution; but it would be unfair not to mention the role that that body played in opening up Irish society also, as litigants who were stymied in the domestic courts took their cases to the more liberal bar of European justice.

One area where Europe has really helped to open minds has been the area of British-Irish relations.

This has been a two-way process. On the British side, the remnants of colonial condescension took a long time to fade, and they were still there during my time as a minister, right up to the early 1990s.

Gradually, however, Britain began to perceive Ireland less as a former colony and more as a present partner. We are a partner on the European stage, albeit a small one, and we are a partner in working towards a resolution of the long-running conflict here in Northern Ireland.

This change of attitude on the part of Britain has been long and slow. Perhaps the first flicker of change was visible during the premiership of Heath. That flicker grew stronger under Thatcher-although people in the Republic would hate to admit that. Real change was evident under Major. And the process has been brought to completion under Blair.

A related but quite different process of change was going on on the Irish side. Lemass was the first to reach out. Lynch followed. Cosgrave continued. Fitzgerald made a real breakthrough with the Hillsborough Agreement.

Unable to break free from the shackles of opportunism, Haughey sometimes moved the process forward, sometimes back.

In more recent times, Reynolds, Bruton and Ahern have all developed good working relationships with their counterparts in Downing Street.

But the nature of that relationship today should not go without comment. It’s not so long ago that prime-ministerial summits were major news items in both countries. They often produced major news in the form of differences and dust-ups over Northern Ireland.

Today, such summits are routine. Ahern and Blair meet regularly and often. That is normal. But that which is normal and routine is often greatly to be prized in the world of democratic politics, and so it is with the current state of British-Irish relations.

It took us a long time and a lot of effort to get this far-too much time and too much effort ever to consider going back.

I would like to speak briefly about the impact of the euro.

The EU now has its own currency-it has had, in fact, since 1999-though notes and coins only went into circulation at the start of last year. Membership of the single currency is the ultimate test of membership of the European club-the twelve participating countries have a significantly deeper relationship with each other than have the broader fifteen.

The euro now circulates as the main currency in Munich and Marseilles, in Milan and Madrid, but not, alas, in Maghera or Magherafelt. Britain may stay outside of EMU for a time, but it will only be for a time.

I believe that Britain should be at the heart of Europe, and I believe that that is where Britain wants to be.

Participation in the single currency involves a diminution of sovereignty, but so does participation in the United Nations. Isolationism is not a realistic policy option for any European country any longer. It is by involvement not isolation that you influence institutions and events.

There is of course a question, and an important question, as to the rate at which Britain should take the pound into EMU. But that is merely a tactical decision: the strategic decision-the decision to go in-will have to be taken sooner or later.

The older members in the audience will remember a time when political visitors from south of the border used to be pelted with snowballs by certain distinguished clergymen.

Thankfully there has been something of a thaw in the course of the last three decades, and the snows of misunderstanding have begun to melt away. All of us on this island, I think, should recognise the constructive role that EU membership by both Britain and Ireland has played in that process.

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