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Daily Telegraph
19 September 2009

Europe: will Ireland do the indecent thing?

As the republic prepares to vote — again — on the Lisbon Treaty, Ruth Dudley Edwards explores its love-hate relationship with the EU

In the bleak Ireland of the early Sixties, the playwright Brendan Behan suggested that the republic should be returned to the Queen with a note apologising for the state successive independent governments had reduced it to. Owing to the then profound anti-Britishness of the Irish public, few agreed, but it is a sentiment one often hears expressed these days, although about Brussels rather than London: "We've made such a mess of things, the EU couldn't do worse."

And therein lies the biggest problem for the No campaign. When the first referendum was held in June 2008, the Celtic Tiger was sick, but its condition was not thought to be terminal. Still confident after years of prosperity, voters were listening to concerns that Lisbon might, for instance, threaten Ireland's traditional military neutrality, abolish its permanent commissioner, impose abortion and strike at the incentives for foreign investment through the introduction of tax harmonisation. Fifteen months on, the Tiger is dead and arrogance and hubris have given way to fear.

Ireland will hold a new referendum on October 2, and early polls suggest most Irish voters will back the Lisbon Treaty this time round. The treaty's aim is to improve decision-making within the EU, although opponents believe it will concentrate too much power in Brussels. For it to come into force, all 27 member states must ratify it.

Since the first referendum, there has been a stream of revelations about nest-feathering in high places; about the bankers, politicians, regulators and megalomaniac property developers who have destroyed the economy; about politicians' expenses that make our MPs look like ascetics; and about waste on a breathtaking scale. The terrified electorate views virtually all of its politicians as corrupt and inept and the country is reverting to its traditional stance of praying for salvation from the Continent.

It was inevitable that a small island on the extreme west of Europe has been, since the Middle Ages, a pawn in bigger boys' wars. From the Irish perspective, her neighbours were usurpers and land-grabbers. To the English, Ireland was a backdoor through which European enemies might force their way, so it was essential to bring its inhabitants to heel and brutally discourage foreign incursions.

If early clashes between the neighbours were essentially about turf, the English Reformation and subsequent attempts to impose Protestantism on the Irish people added religious sectarianism to the mix, exacerbated in the early 17th century by the arrival of Anglican and Scots Presbyterian planters in the north of the island.

The Irish people, prone to romanticism and self-delusion, encouraged continental powers to intervene militarily and – despite evidence to the contrary – perceived them as idealistic liberators. During the reign of Elizabeth I, a religious crusade of Italian and Spanish troops – financed by the Pope and the King of Spain – backed Irish rebellions in the hope of speeding the restoration of a Catholic monarchy in England. Louis XIV helped the Catholic James II's Irish campaign against his son-in-law and successor, William of Orange. It was French designs on England rather than notions of universal brotherhood that had them dispatch armies to Ireland in 1796 and 1798 in support of the republicans. Like all continental forays, this was unsuccessful. Although from the 19th century the focus changed to Irish-America, revolutionaries sought German help during both world wars: in 1940, the IRA chief of staff died on a U-boat.

It was the papacy by now that was the ordinary Irish Catholic's link with Europe. "A bad day today," observed a friend in the early Seventies to his Cork newsagent. "Yes, but I believe it's sunny in Rome," she replied. Independent Ireland was an insular, protectionist and repressive theocracy, haemorrhaging its young and economically dependent on Britain as its main export market. Deliverance came from the EEC, lukewarm though it was about taking on an impoverished, socially backward island which had been neutral in the war. Ireland would demonstrate its pro-Europe DNA with an 83 per cent Yes vote in the 1972 referendum on membership: Denmark's was 63 per cent.

The republic fell in love with the sugar-daddy it joined in 1973 and was lavished with financial benefits, especially for agriculture, infrastructure, trade and industry:construction sites were proudly awash with blue and gold EU flags proclaiming the source of the funding. There was a huge party on the Dublin streets in January 1999 when the country joined the euro.

It was not just financial liberation: Ireland was dragged out of entrenched and highly discriminatory social conservatism. It was, for instance, because of the EU that the ban on married women working in the public service was raised, and, though it took until 1993, it was the European Court of Human Rights that forced the legalisation of homosexuality. With the simultaneous meltdown of the Irish Roman Catholic church over revelations of child abuse, the new mores became widely acceptable. And the appearance of Ireland was transformed by immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Even more important, membership of the EU had given the country enormous self-assurance. The Irish diplomatic service punched way above its weight, as did most politicians dispatched to Europe: skilled in milking resources for constituency advantage, they proved just as effective at extracting money from EU budgets for the voters back home.

Coupled with the emergence in the early Nineties of a phenomenal growth rate, Ireland was now the EU's favourite child. In the Commission, Ireland and Britain were equal partners, so the obsession with the wickedness of the old enemy began to dissolve, and slowly the British and Irish governments began to develop levels of trust that would in time give birth to the Good Friday Agreement.

Yet there were still enormous cultural differences. In the Nineties, at an Anglo-Irish conference exploring attitudes to the EU, the English spoke of building up the institutions soberly and brick-by-brick, while the Irish were preoccupied with the vision thing, with allusions to the need to recreate the Holy Roman Empire. Although shivering in the Atlantic, the republic behaves like a Mediterranean country: along with high-sounding rhetoric (a No vote would represent a "spiritual withdrawal" from Europe, the Minister for Finance said recently) comes the solid materialism of the peasant and a disinclination to follow EU rules that don't suit. "Here's a metaphor for the EU," said an Irish friend last weekend. "We have a motorway system which it has largely funded, we have signed up to its regulations about the need for regular rest stops, yet there is nowhere on the network where you can pull in and rest, eat or even get petrol."

There is little rational discussion on Lisbon going on now, not least because the No groups are mainly republicans, the far-Left and Right-wing Catholics, many of whom are making claims about the EU's wicked plans that are too crazy to be taken seriously. A poster reading "€1.84 minimum wage after Lisbon?' – a reduction of 6.81 euros from the present level – is arresting, but the message unconvincing. Ukip has made things worse with leaflets which, inter alia, warn that Turkey's accession would bring about mass Muslim migration, and have enabled the Yes side to dismiss the party as racist. Nigel Farage, who has thrown himself into the campaign, exemplifies the kind of Englishman the Irish particularly like to hate. Much more attractive to the Irish psyche is the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney proclaiming that Europe is "more than a bureaucracy, it's an ideal".

For the most part, the Yes side – backed by all the establishment parties, the vast majority of business, unions and most of the media –implies that No voters are lunatics bent on destroying the country. The subliminal message is that Ireland should keep its head down and humbly hold out the begging bowl to its Continental betters. Otherwise terrible punishments will follow. Last week, The Irish Times carried an interview with European Commissioner José Manuel Barroso in which he predicted that a No vote could lose Ireland its commissioner, create uncertainly about its place in Europe, threaten jobs and investment and damage the economy.

Charlie McCreevy, Ireland's commissioner, recently said cheerily that 95 per cent of EU member countries would vote against Lisbon if they had the chance. Some serious voices, like the multi-millionaire businessman Declan Ganley, of Libertas, who fronted the last No campaign and is pro-EU but anti-Lisbon, are trying to force a debate about this democratic deficit as well as about the inevitable loss of sovereignty and accountability that the treaty will bring. "There's a group-think which emanates from Dublin which is utterly unquestioning of any diktat which comes from Brussels," he says, noting ruefully that no major politicians will debate with him. His message is that it is Ireland's duty to save the whole EU from a bad treaty, but the scared public are in no mood to think beyond immediate national interest and its attention anyway is focused on whether the proposed National Asset Management Agency (Nama) will bail out the banks or lead to national bankruptcy.

That moral giant and Europhobe Kevin Myers explained last week why – despite his admiration for Ganley – the No campaign's scaremongering had caused him to change sides: Ireland was populated by "inept and unrepentant thieves" and he would rather be governed by "a parcel of fork-tongued Euro-reptiles" than by the nauseating, corrupt, useless Irish governing class. Truly, if they win the Yes vote, Irish politicians can take the credit.

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Ruth Dudley Edwards


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