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A productive triangle: Ireland, the UK and the EU

Ambassador Mulhall’s speech at the Strand Group, King’s College, London

A productive triangle: Ireland, the UK and the EU


When I was a student of history at University College Cork during the 1970s, my study of Irish history was dominated by the 'Anglo-Irish' dimension. I specialised in 19th and 20th century history from the Act of Union of 1800 to the achievement and consolidation of Irish independence in the 1920s and 1930s.  My studies spotlighted Anglo-Irish relations as a perennial problem for both nations. Even the description of Irish literature in English as Anglo-Irish literature was a disputed concept.     

19th century Irish history is the tale of a struggle to undo the Act of Union and re-establish a separate Irish parliament. This was pursued primarily by parliamentary methods in movements to secure Catholic Emancipation and the Repeal of the Act of Union led by Daniel O'Connell in the 1820s, '30s and '40s, and the demand for Home Rule led by Charles Stewart Parnell and his late-19th and early 20th century successors in the Irish Party at Westminster.  

Even after independence, Anglo-Irish relations remained a vexed domain, with tensions over land annuities which led to an economic war during the 1930s. In the 1950s, Ireland renewed its opposition to partition, conducting an international campaign on the subject.  However, the most significant development that took place during that decade was the opening up of the Irish economy from 1958 onwards which, together with the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965, prepared the way for Ireland to join what is now the European Union in 1973.   As far as I am concerned, EU membership has been a game changer for Ireland and for relations with the UK.  

I want to look at the triangle between Ireland, the UK and the EU, and to suggest that Ireland's relationship with our nearest neighbour has benefited from the fact that we have both been members of the EU since 1973.

Furthermore, I want to argue that Ireland and the UK have contributed positively to the evolution of the European Union during the decades of our membership.  

This leads me to conclude that continued UK membership of the EU is important to Ireland and to the European Union, which is why our Government has been quite vocal on this issue during the past year.  We do not have a say in the coming referendum, but we do have a view and, as a friendly neighbour, it would be remiss of us not to express our opinion on the consequences of a possible Brexit for Ireland and for our relations with the UK. I am conscious, of course, that Irish citizens in Britain and British people resident in Ireland will have a vote on 23 June. I will continue to urge them to make their voices heard in the coming weeks as this referendum is, I think, a watershed moment, for our two countries and for the European Union as a whole.

The impact of EU membership:

The first decades of Irish independence were characterised by a continuing economic dependence on Britain.  Let me cite one figure that sums up the economics of Irish independence in the period before our EU membership. In 1960, after almost four decades of independence, 74% of Irish exports went to the UK. This level of economic dependence was hardly consistent with political sovereignty. It meant that, if Britain decided to join the EEC, Ireland effectively had no realistic option but to follow suit.

Both our countries sought to join the EEC in the early 1960s, but our membership ambitions were blocked by France. One of the arguments put forward in Ireland at that time in favour of membership was that it would help to reduce our unhealthy dependence on the British market.

The then Taoiseach Sean Lemass was unambiguous in his enthusiasm for membership. 'Ireland belongs to Europe by history, tradition and sentiment no less than by geography. ... Our people have always tended to look to Europe for inspiration, guidance and encouragement.'

Our White Paper on EEC membership tackled the issue of sovereignty head on.
'There is no form of cooperation between nations that does not involve for them some limitations on their freedom of action. ... Countries willingly accept such limitations where they consider that their interests are being served by participation in the international cooperation involved ... Ireland is no exception.'

While perhaps the most obvious impact of membership has been in the economic sphere, the impact has gone well beyond that.  As one authority has put it, Irish membership 'represented a qualitative change in the way in which Ireland interacts with the world.' In the New History of Ireland Vol. VII the point is made that membership ‘helped galvanise social and economic change’ in Ireland. 

I recently had a look at a table of statistics from the 1970s comparing Ireland with other EU member states under twelve socio-economic indicators. They show that Ireland was the worst performer in ten of the twelve categories. Tellingly, our GDP per capita was just a little over one-third of the wealthiest European state (Luxembourg). In 1972, our GDP per capita was just 60% of the EU average. Today, Ireland's wealth levels are significantly above the EU average, which makes an unanswerable case for Irish membership.

Impact of membership on Britain and Ireland:

Ireland and the UK joined on the same day in 1973 at a time when our two Governments were again at odds with each other following the outbreak of violence in NI.  Our then Foreign Minister, Patrick Hillery, came to London in 1969 following the outbreak of serious violence in Northern Ireland, but failed to secure a meeting with his counterpart, the then Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, but was met by an FCO Minister of State, Lord Chalfont.  It was a difficult meeting, with Chalfont indicating that he could not consult with a member of 'a foreign government' on developments in Northern Ireland, insisting that this was 'a domestic affair.' The upshot of this unsatisfactory encounter was that Ireland took the issue of Northern Ireland to the United Nations in 1969.  It took considerable time and effort for the two governments to find an agreed approach that recognised the special character of the Northern Ireland situation and the road to an agreed solution.  It is probably no coincidence that the first breaking of the ice between the two governments occurred with the negotiation of the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973, just under a year after our two countries acceded to the European Union.    

The European Union provided a very productive framework within which a more accommodating relationship could be developed. The kind of discussion that Patrick Hillery had with Lord Chalfont in the summer of 1969, when he was effectively told that Ireland should mind its own business, would thankfully be unthinkable today as our two governments work in close cooperation on issues to do with Northern Ireland.  

Membership of the European Union has, in my view, helped to transform relations between our two countries. Prior to our accession in 1973, the relationship was asymmetric. For Ireland, it was an overwhelming priority, but far less so for the UK with its wider horizons. Before 1972, our trade relations were governed by the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, in which Ireland swapped access for British manufactured goods for access for our agricultural exports to the British market.  In 1959, the Irish Government offered full, tariff-free access for British industrial goods in return for Irish agricultural produce being given equal treatment with British produce in the British market.  This offer was rejected by London as offering too much advantage to Ireland. This illustrates the nature of free trade agreements, which are competitive and not benevolent.       

One of the spin offs of EU membership has been a diversification of our trade with our partners including with the UK. While some 40% of Ireland's exports of food and drinks still go to the UK, this is now only a fraction of overall exports which currently consist mainly of manufactured items and services.

Ireland's economic development has benefited hugely from the development of the single market since 1993 and it is in the years since then that Ireland has bridged the gap between our wealth levels and those of the UK and our continental neighbours. In our first 20 years of membership, Ireland’s GDP per capita went from 60% to 72% of the EU average.  By contrast, the first decade of the single market saw Ireland’s wealth levels increase quite dramatically.  This illustrates the value of the single market, which is why we are so keen that the UK and Ireland continue to be part of it.       

Reflecting on the impact of EU membership on Irish-UK relations during his time as Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd put it well in a speech he gave in Dublin in 1994 when he said that: 'Britain and Ireland joined the Community together because of a sense of our place in history. For the British it was about finding a new place in the world after the two centuries of imperial experience.'  Mr Hurd summarised his assessment of the Irish rationale for membership. It was, he said, about 'confirming Ireland's position as a modern state in Europe ... and its decisive shift away from the embrace of Britain.' In fact, I would argue that EU membership has led to a more mature embrace by our two countries of each other, respecting our differences while nurturing affinities between us.

Being partners in Europe has helped us to understand how much we have in common. We tend to see eye-to-eye on a wide range of EU issues. Every day in Brussels there are about 25 meetings at all levels and at each of these, Irish and British officials will meet and cooperate. We take part together in several like-minded groups on issues where we have shared interests and perspectives.   Ireland and the UK have always been champions of the single market, from which we have both benefited. We both favour smart regulation. We are allies in advocating the advantages of free trade, from which both our countries have derived considerable benefit. Our economies are very similar in profile and structure although different in scale.

We have worked together successfully to shape the EU in directions conducive to our respective, interconnected interests. And there is much that remains to be done. Ireland and the UK are at one in wanting to see the completion of the single market for services and in our desire to see the potential of the digital economy being fully realised at EU level.

Membership has been very good for our trading relationship. While the UK has declined in relative importance as a market for Irish exports, the scale of those exports has increased dramatically.  Last year, goods and services to the tune of €65 billion were traded back and forth across the Irish Sea. This is a significant trading relationship by any standards and confers benefit on both our economies and our peoples. Given the extent of our trading relationship, it can hardly be surprising that we look with a degree of trepidation on the possibility of the UK leaving the single market, as some prominent campaigners on the leave side now say is their intention. It is hard to predict the precise impact of such a development, but it cannot possibly be positive. Our Economic and Social Research Institute has come up with an analysis pointing to a reduction of perhaps 20% or more in Irish-UK trade. Even if the reduction were to be more in the region of 10% or even 5%, this would still amount to a loss to both economies of between €3.25 and €6.5 billion. These would be significant impacts even for an economy as large as the UK’s.

While it is not possible to be precise about the impact of a UK exit on trade as this will depend on the nature of the new relationship to be forged between the UK and the EU, it is clear to me is that it is not credible that the UK could leave the EU and enjoy exactly the same rights and access as a non-member as it currently has as a member. This simply cannot happen and those who insist it can are indulging in a fantasy.  There would be economic losses in the event of a Brexit and this would be most unfortunate for both our countries.

Northern Ireland:

EU membership has had, I believe, a helpful impact on Northern Ireland. The EU has been a source of encouragement and financial support. Northern Ireland receives significant transfers from the EU budget in the form of agricultural payments, structural funding and direct EU programme support for the peace process. The EU also encourages North-South cooperation through its Interreg programmes.  

Moreover, EU membership has introduced elements of affinity and identity that transcend the traditional British-Irish, Unionist-Nationalist divide.  EU membership is valued by Northern Ireland’s nationalist community for the connection it gives them  with their fellow Irish people south of the border. This should not be underrated as a contributor to stability in Northern Ireland.      

North-South links in Ireland have been enhanced as a result of EU membership. The emergence of the single market has meant a single market in Ireland also to the benefit of both parts of our island. Today, Ireland has an open border and we are very keen to see this continue in the future.  A UK exit from the EU would mean that the Irish border would become an external border of the EU and it is impossible to be confident about the implications that might have in the future.

The transformation of our economy due to EU membership has made Ireland an increasingly important market for British exporters.  This means that our bilateral relationship is less asymmetrical than it was in the pre-1973 era, when we were excessively dependant on the British market and our interest rates were set by the Bank of England. Ireland is now the UK’s 5th most important export market, a remarkable fact when you consider that our population is just 4.6 million.      

I would not, of course, claim the EU membership has been the sole factor in creating this positive trend in Irish-UK relations. The other transformational element has been our joint handling of the situation in Northern Ireland. The outbreak of the troubles required the two governments to work together more closely than ever before. This produced a succession of initiatives - the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and eventually the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Over time, the two Governments deepened their dialogue and reached a shared understanding of what was required to bring peace and political progress to Northern Ireland.

I doubt if the mutual confidence required to facilitate the peace process would have come about without the experience of working together as partners within the EU. The first in a series of productive personal relationships between Taoiseach and PM developed between Albert Reynolds and John Major, whose friendship was forged around the Ecofin table in Brussels when they were both Finance Ministers.  Over the decades it has been invaluable for Irish and UK Prime Ministers to be able to meet in the margins of EU Summits to exchange views on Northern Ireland and find agreed ways forward during some troubled times.    


It is an irony, 100 years after the events of 1916 and with the relationship at an unprecedented peak of friendship and cooperation, that the UK is considering the option of leaving the EU.  This concerns us deeply. We are staying in the EU and would wish that our nearest neighbour will continue to be our closest partner in Europe.

We worry about the implications of Brexit for British-Irish relations, for North-South links in Ireland and for Europe, which would be damaged by a UK departure. I would like to dwell briefly on that aspect of the current UK debate. Ours has over the centuries been a quarrelsome relationship in which the things that separated us eclipsed our affinities. We can now see clearly the shared values that unite us and our European partners. We can also see that these are not invulnerable.  In fact they are subject to multiple challenges from various quarters. In our view, these values can best be advanced through concerted action at EU level. This is not an easy task because it requires unanimity among our 28 member states and that is not easy to come by, but it is well worth the effort.

Britain has a very different international profile from ours. It is a member of NATO and we're not and it possess a nuclear deterrent, whereas we  strongly oppose nuclear weapons.  But this does not stop us from recognising all that we have in common. Our military specialises in peacekeeping where we have a proud record of service. Last year, our two navies worked together in the Mediterranean rescuing migrants from drowning. However appealing unilateral action might seem to be, it makes sense for Europeans to band together in our pursuit of shared objectives rather than going it alone in a world where concerted action will increasingly be required.

There is a sense in which Irish-UK relations have come a full circle since 1916 - from conflict to cooperation, from friction to friendship. What do we want for the future? A continuation of current arrangements seems to us to be the best option. This brings Ireland and the UK together into a productive partnership in an EU that is a vital asset for Europeans as we face the many challenges of the future.

In a changing world, the affinities between us are likely to grow rather than to diminish.  Whatever happens on 23 June I am sure that both governments will do all in their power to mitigate potential damage to our unique and mutually-beneficial bilateral relationship. It would be, however, represent a risk if Ireland and the UK were to find themselves separated by virtue of no longer being close partners within the European family of nations.  We see risks in Brexit for Irish-UK relations and believe that these are best avoided.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London