Ireland in Europe - Europe in Ireland

Ireland joining the European Community was one of the best things to happen to the country in centuries.

As we recovered from our post-independence isolationism, the EC was a great way for Ireland to be part of a "something bigger" that was no threat to Irish identity or to Irish independence....both treasured assets and both sensitive topics.

50 years later Ireland is transformed. We have immigrants! Wooop! We are a country that no longer merely exports people and cattle. Our little island is known about on its own terms - enough even to be occasionally controversial (tax haven.....ehem).

There has been no downside for Ireland in the EC and now in the EU. Europe has occasionally forced Ireland to move away from some of its worse aspects (like anti-gay legislation) and Europe has given Ireland opportunities it didn't dream of 50 years ago.

Personally I've lived in the UK, Spain, France, and The Netherlands. I've worked in Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Italy (briefly). My wife is Dutch and my children are Spanish. I hum songs from a variety of countries and in a variety of languages. I regard parts of various countries as "home". I love East Anglia, though it's been a LONG time. Kilkenny is "home". Kinsale is "home". Scheveningen is "home". Barcelona is "home". I walk around Pals village in the Baix Emporda and feel at home.

Europe and European "unity" are good things. At the same time more "unification" is something we need to be careful about and gentle with (see the Brexit section below).

Political unification does not come from the top down. You do not safely force a shared identity. The best way is that it grows. Gently. It grows in all directions at once, not from one side and not from a forcing center. I'm an Irishman. I'm a European. There's no contradiction between the two.

Graphic of war and peace in Europe

You know those corny messages about the EU being all about peace. They're corny and true.


What to say? Brexit is one of the stupidest things any country has done to itself for a long long time.

But it's worth Ireland and the EU all thinking about and trying to understand some of the motivations behind it...even if we think those motivations are based on mistaken ideas and on bad analogies. When I say motivations, I don't mean the motivations of people like Johnson or Gove. They're just cynical and immoral political opportunists. I mean the motivations of British people who voted for it.

In Ireland, when we talk about "identity", one of the core ideas is often something like "Irish is not British and Irishness is not lesser than Britishness".

That idea was - for a long time - the clear goal of British rule in Ireland. To absorb "Irish" within a greater British identity. To make Irish a subset of British in the same way that Scottish is now a subset of British or Welsh is a subset of British.

Whatever it was about Ireland or about British rule in Ireland, the Irish people never bought into that idea. Irishness stayed different and a recognition of that was one of the core pieces of the GFA...the famous idea of "parity of esteem". Irish is not less than British. That's exactly right. As I tell people "Ireland is not a British isle".

So let's look at whether that has parallels in the case of Brexit. It seems to me that many people in Britain do not regard British as being a subset of "European". In Ireland we generally do and we're generally fine with that, but in Britain there are a lot of people who are not. So why not? Well, I suspect it's for many of the same reasons that Irish people never accepted that Irish was a subset of British.

I believe that this lack of acceptance is based on an incorrect belief about the nature of Europe as a political construct so I think Brexit is daft. But that's a belief and a hope not necessarily an axiomatic truth. And that's what Ireland and Europe need to be careful of in the future.

I'm perfectly fine with Ireland being a subset of Europe as long as that doesn't mean we are dominated by Europe or ruled by Europe in any one-sided way. I suspect the same is true for French people and Dutch people and Italians and so on. As long as Europe means that all Europeans are equally in charge of each other and really working together then it'll all be fine. As long as there is "parity of esteem" then we'll all get along grand. The idea of the UK might have worked out fine with Ireland in it if there had ever been "parity of esteem". But there wasn't and so Ireland was right to want out.

And while I think they're wrong, I think that is a big part of what's behind Brexit. Many British people ended up feeling that Britain is being dominated by the EU...ruled by the Germans and the French. Now liars like Boris Johnson helped them feel that way, but there was some issue there before him.

Perhaps it's a harder adjustment for British people to accept that they are "mere equals" of countries like France and Germany after ruling much of the world until 70 years ago. And it's a bit contradictory for British people to claim that Britian will be able to dominate the world outside the EU while simultaneously claiming that Britain was being dominated by France and Germany inside the EU. But I think that's what's going on....and it's worth the EU paying attention to that sentiment even if it's wrong.

If any country in Europe feels that it's being "ruled" by Brussels then it's likely to want out and to have a valid point. Europe, as a political construct, needs to be a collaborative effort. It needs to feel like a collaborative effort. European identity will grow and maybe one day soon we'll all feel that being a Irish/French/Dutchman and a European is as straightforwad and non-contradictory as being a Kilkennyman and an Irishman. I believe we can. But we need to not rush it.

And meantime, Brexit is still stupid. The UK was hugely powerful within the EU. It "ruled" a lot of what went on in Europe. And outside? Nothing even close. British people voting for Brexit fell for a cynical lie.

But Brexit does still create a real risk for Europe. It's that well meaning European centralizers - unhindered now by that British reluctance - try to push too fast and that they alienate other countries too. Let's take it easy...slowly slowly catchey monkey.

Header Image from Wikipedia