The first fifty years of Ireland’s independent statehood were marked by economic stagnation, and by ongoing subordination to its more powerful neighbour across the Irish Sea. Its accession to what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 marked a turning point. Pooling sovereignty at the European level was not regarded by Ireland’s political leaders, or by a majority of its voters (83 percent of whom voted in favour of EEC membership in a referendum in 1972) as a sacrifice, but as an opportunity for economic renewal and a chance to re-make relationships with Britain, the European continent, and the wider world. And in more than 47 years of membership of what would become the European Union (EU), this small state on the western-most edge of Europe has indeed been transformed.
As Brigid Laffan has suggested, membership of the EU has provided Ireland with a
“geo-political and geo-economic anchor and shelter [and] a very benign geo-political, geo-economic environment [that has] allowed Ireland to transform itself from a very poor, dependent state into one of the most globalised economies and societies in the world…This small, peripheral, poor state made a success of membership.”
The early years of Irish EEC membership heralded progressive changes for the rights of women in Ireland and the state’s first gender equality legislation, while Irish farmers benefited substantially from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which provided guaranteed prices and opened up European export markets for Irish agricultural products. Over time, as the European project continued to evolve, Ireland’s EEC and eventual EU membership facilitated the Irish economy’s gradual transition away from its historical reliance on both agriculture and the British market. From the late 1980s, Ireland was opened up to new opportunities in growth industries like finance, communications and technology, as multinational companies were drawn to an increasingly dynamic economy at the heart of the newly completed European single market. The completion of the European single market in the 1980s and 1990s also provided new opportunities for Irish citizens to travel, live, work and study throughout Europe, and for European citizens to do the same in Ireland. This was combined with the benefits of EU trade deals, and huge levels of European investment in Ireland through the European structural funds. Between 1973 and 2018, Ireland was a net beneficiary of EEC/EU membership, receiving more than it put in, to the tune of some €40 billion. While Ireland’s relationship with the EU has ebbed and flowed, and debate about key areas of EU policy will undoubtedly continue, it is noteworthy that Irish support for remaining in the EU today stands at 84 percent.
Perhaps the most important contribution that EU membership has made to social, cultural, political and economic life in Ireland has been its role in ending the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Joint UK and Irish membership of the EU (the UK having also acceded to the EEC in 1973) recalibrated the relationship between the two states, provided new opportunities for British and Irish politicians and civil servants to work together and get to know each other, and a new forum in which to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the Northern Ireland conflict. Multi-level governance within the EU also provided a new framework for devising creative solutions to the conflict, and new forms of North-South and East-West co-operation, while EU PEACE funding supported community-led peacebuilding initiatives. In particular, the free-flow of goods, people, capital and services across the Irish border was facilitated by the EU’s single market and customs union. The pivotal importance of this open border to peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland has been acknowledged by both the EU and the UK, with agreement to protect it, even as the UK seeks a new path outside of the EU, enshrined in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Of course, it is not only at the land border that the transformative effects of Ireland’s EU membership have been felt. Its impact has also been profound at Ireland’s ports. Indeed, as ‘gateways’ to the Irish economy, the ports have been bellwethers for many of the deeper and wider changes that Ireland has undergone since 1973. The removal of barriers to trade and travel within the EU has altered the flow of both goods and people at the ports, with accompanying changes in their physical, cognitive and cultural infrastructure. EU frameworks have set new legal and regulatory standards in areas including workers’ rights, health and safety and environmental protection, while EU programmes have also supported growth in key sectors such as tourism. The Dublin Port tunnel, for which funding was provided by the EU has changed the nature of movement in, around and between the port and the city, with dramatic consequences for the social landscape in North Dublin. Improved connectivity between Dublin Port, the M50 and the wider motorway network (also financed in large part by the EU) has had important consequences for the all-island economy. Redeveloped between the late 1980s and the 2000s with the support of EU funds, Rosslare Europort now forms an integral part of pan-European trade and tourism networks.
Ongoing processes of change and adaptation in the EU, including in the wake of Brexit and in the face of the global Coronavirus pandemic, continue to bring with them new challenges, and the continued evolution of Ireland’s ports.