Ireland joined the European Communities—as they were known then—in 1973, alongside the United Kingdom and Denmark. In many ways, that membership was defined by the bilateral British-Irish relationship. Ireland was, to all intents and purposes, an underdeveloped appendage of the British economy, and membership alongside the United Kingdom was deemed by most of the Irish political and economic establishment as virtually axiomatic. Irish policy makers, however, took full advantage of the opportunities offered by membership; in particular the Common Agricultural Policy, the direct transfers that derived from cohesion, regional and structural funding, and the opportunity to present the country as a successful location for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) with access to the entire European market. Irish policy makers also positioned themselves rhetorically close to the heart of European construction, which had the added value of creating an Irish antithesis to Britain’s ongoing European discontents.
There are perhaps four key themes to be analyzed with respect to Ireland and its membership of the European Union. The first is the question of a small state and its sovereignty. As a former colony, with a bitter experience of imperialism and a strong sense of independence, Ireland’s pooling of sovereignty with its European partners has most often been presented as a desirable trade-off between legal, formal sovereignty and effective sovereignty. Having a seat at the main table—alongside the former imperial hegemon—was deemed to be a major advance, one that allowed the state more effectively to pursue its interests—including the resolution of conflict on the island of Ireland. The 2008 financial collapse, and Ireland’s experience of the EU-led troika briefly challenged that narrative. Subsequently, the support given by the EU26 to a resolution of post-Brexit border relations on the island substantially reinforced Ireland’s European commitment.
A second theme of inquiry is that of Irish economic development within the European Union. In contrast to other similarly under-developed states and regions in the EU, Ireland is seen by many as something of a poster child for making a success of EU membership. In the run-up to the 2004 enlargement and shortly thereafter, Dublin was a magnet for central European and Mediterranean states looking to replicate the success of the so-called “Celtic Tiger.” Debate persists, however, on the precise balance of costs and benefits deriving from the model of economic development pursued by the Irish state, the role of Irish government policy therein, and consistency between Irish and EU policy priorities, especially in the field of corporate taxation and the regulation of large multinationals.
A third theme of inquiry is the intersection of local, national, and European democracy. Once membership was secured, the European Union became a central and largely uncontested fact of Irish political life. Early constitutional referenda authorizing ratification of EC and then EU treaty changes, while vigorously contested, were overwhelmingly won by coalitions of the mainstream political parties and sectoral interest groups. With both the Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2007) treaties, however, ambivalence, antagonism, and complacency combined initially to thwart ratification. The gap between popular opinion on EU treaty change, which ultimately divided roughly 60/40 in favor, and the near unanimity among political elites and sectoral interests, opened a conversation on the relationship between local, national, and European democracy, which is as yet unresolved, but which many see as having further centralized policy making and distanced it from effective democratic control.
A fourth theme is that of Ireland and Europe in the world. Ireland joined the European Communities with no expressed reservations on its further political integration, but as the only non-member of NATO. During those initial debates, economic arguments overwhelmingly predominated, but the political issues were aired and the implications for Ireland’s traditional military neutrality were robustly discussed. The subsequent membership of other non-aligned states ought, on the face of things, to have made Ireland’s position all the more secure. Thus, with a long and popular history of UN peacekeeping and active international engagement, the development of European foreign, security, and defense policies should not have proven to be problematic. In fact, neutrality, security, and defense remain neuralgic issues for Ireland within the European Union and have contributed in a very modest way to the challenges faced by the Union in its attempts to craft a coherent and credible common security and defense policy. This speaks to debates surrounding Ireland’s proper place in the world, the lessons of its own history and the perceived capacity for smaller states to shape the international community.
These four themes underpin much research and analysis on Ireland as a member of the European Union. In an unstable contemporary climate, with many well-established expectations under threat, they also serve to identify the pathways available to navigate beyond political and economic instability both for Ireland and the wider European project.