Special Report

Exceptionally Neutral

Ireland, Europe, and the second Lisbon referendum.

By 6.4.09

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In 1942, as local gardaí collected and catalogued the intumescent corpses of the Allied sailors regularly washing up on the sand and shingle pocket beaches of western Ireland, the poet Louis MacNeice penned "Neutrality," a searing denunciation of his homeland's isolationist wartime policies. From his vantage point in England, MacNeice conceded the existence of the Irish "litter of chronicles and bones," and "such ducats of dream and great doubloons of ceremony/As nobody today would mint," but reminded his compatriots that "eastward from your heart, there bulks/A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin/While to the west off your own shores the mackerel/Are fat -- on the flesh of your kin." Clair Wills, in her recent account of 1940s Ireland, That Neutral Island (2007), correctly described MacNeice's poem as a portrayal of a nation that "endlessly loops around itself, obsessed with a history that might appear rich, but has now become dead and arid," an Ireland whose supposed self-sufficiency is "no more than a symptom of her self-absorption."

This attitude towards European affairs, right or wrong, had in fact been present in Ireland well before the adoption of "indifferent neutrality" in the run-up to the Second World War. Two decades before "Neutrality" was published, Major Bryan Cooper, a Dáil deputy, had during a heated parliamentary debate warned against setting up a "Chinese wall around the country." "For good or evil, we are a part of Europe," Cooper insisted, adding that "In the past -- the distant past -- we influenced Europe profoundly, and I hope it will be our lot to do it again. We shall not do it by pursuing a policy of isolation and by shutting out the education that comes from European civilization." Such views were in the minority, however, when compared to the nationalist position of Taioseach Éamon de Valera, who in a pivotal 1939 speech emphasized the right of nations, particularly small ones like his own, to "look at their own country first" and "consider what its interest should be and what its interests are," regardless of geopolitical pressure or external moralizing.

Today, the conjoined matters of Irish exceptionalism and political ties to continental Europe may not possess the same moral gravity as in the time of Cooper, MacNeice, and de Valera, but given the Irish rejection of the European Union's Treaty of Lisbon on June 12, 2008, and the machinations that have led to the announcement of an upcoming second referendum (which will, continental mandarins assume, produce the "correct" result after all), the nature of Irish relations with mainland Europe remain altogether consequential within and beyond the famously "neutral island." With the Czech Republic's President Václav Klaus and his Polish counterpart Lech Kaczyński indicating that their own ratification of the treaty may depend on an Irish "yes" vote, the future of Europe's "ever closer union" will continue to be determined by Irish voters punching well above their electoral weight. The "Celtic Tiger," benefiting as it has both from domestic policies like low corporate taxation as well as the largesse of EU subsidies, and aiming to maintain local autonomy while seeking European succor in a time of pronounced economic contraction, must once again grapple with the often agonizing question of its relationship with the looming continent bulking to the east.

As ever, neutrality represents an issue of the utmost importance to a significant portion of the Irish electorate, and constitutes something of a stumbling block for Europhile politicians. As Vincent Browne recently posited in the Irish Times (May 13), in "a country that is obsessed about neutrality (so neutral we hardly interfere in our own affairs)," one can assume that few are "too keen on the European Defence Agency," and many "might want to have it done in." So pronounced is this pacific predisposition that even the relatively Venusian EU is deemed potentially overly militaristic. Unsurprisingly, Irish policymakers have encountered these attitudes before within the context of European integration. Throughout the 1960s, as Ireland sought out membership in the European Economic Community, the debate over security policy and European collective defense flared up, died down, and broke out again. Taoiseach Seán Lemass insisted his country was not "morally neutral," and Jack Lynch told the Dáil in February 1969 that Ireland "had never been ideologically neutral," but anti-marketeers, in a September 19, 1970 open letter to the Irish Times, asserted that outright military neutrality was "quite as legitimate and important for us as is their similar long-established policy for the people of Sweden and Switzerland." Foreign Minister Patrick Hillery, channeling his predecessor Bryan Cooper, shot back two months later in a Dáil debate that "if we are part of Europe and enjoying all the benefits of being part of Europe, then we will take part in the defense of Europe," with the caveat that all this was "far in the future." After ten years of debate Patrick Keating, writing in the Irish hebdomadaire This Week, concluded that the issue of neutrality, "like any ghost," "made the occasional, brief appearance, took on a simple and sometimes ominous outline, but quickly dissolved into the void on closer examination," while retired Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald would eventually castigate his nation for its "aberrant eccentricity" regarding collective defense. Still, the notion of abandoning neutrality is still a domestic political non-starter in Ireland, posing further complications with respect to pan-European efforts to bolster the European Defence Agency and the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

During the Republic of Ireland's long drift eastward, the matter of neutrality remained intertwined with overall considerations of national sovereignty, which itself had only been gained in 1921 (and, to some, remains incomplete without six counties to the north). Given that the Treaty of Rome excluded matters of defense, the debate over EC membership ultimately hinged on economic opportunism and the pursuit of international autonomy, with a potential windfall awaiting Ireland in the form of grants, loans, subsidies, the lure of a Common Agricultural Policy, and the chance to interact with the United Kingdom in a multilateral setting. Despite the efforts of the aforementioned anti-marketeers, the 1972 referendum produced a clear result: some 83 percent of the population endorsed EC accession. A referendum held fifteen years later regarding a constitutional revision to give effect to the Single European Act passed with 70 percent of the vote, with a similar percentage approving the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. Only 62 percent approved of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1998, and in 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice, which provided for the expansion of the EU from fifteen to twenty-five member states (the newest members of which were slated to receive subsidies previously allocated to nations like Ireland, Portugal, and Greece). It took a re-vote in October of 2002 to ratify the treaty, with 62 percent consenting. Despite the eventual success of each referendum, it is worth noting that, with electoral turnout plummeting with each passing round, only in 1972 did a majority of the electorate actually vote in favor of the EU project. Nevertheless, integration had become a fait accompli.

As the EU has yet to attain the status of federal super-state, its constituent nations are understandably prone to self-interested instrumentalization of the institution. Thus Garret FitzGerald could, in his Reflections on the Irish State (2002), insist quite rightly that "far from there being any contradiction between our demand for independence from Britain and our later accession to the EC, Irish membership of the EC ultimately justified that independence." EC membership served the twin goals of asserting independence from Britain (it was only in 1979 that the parity link between the Irish punt and the pound sterling was severed, before which Ireland was often treated as a de facto region of the UK) and opening up the country to continental aid. The Common Agricultural Policy, subsequent price increases, and the devaluation of the punt resulted in undeniable benefits for the Irish agricultural sector; between 1970 and 1978 the per capita income for Irish farmers doubled. (One cynic, Fintan O'Toole, claimed that the EC had successfully "bought off the conservative heartlands of rural Ireland.") Meanwhile, as Diarmaid Ferriter has pointed out, membership in the European Economic Community allowed Irish pressure groups the chance "to compare standards in Europe when looking for direct action, rather than merely using Britain and Northern Ireland as the standard comparisons." Few were overly dismayed by these developments. A representative Euro Barometer poll, taken in 1994, found that 79 percent of the population continued to believe that EC membership was "a good thing," compared to 58 percent of respondents in the rest of Europe (and only 35 percent in the UK). The "Chinese wall" was gradually being demolished, and the Celtic Tiger economy was taking shape. In 1992, Therese Caherty could still pose the question "Is Ireland a Third World Country?" but by the turn of the millennium an affirmative answer to such a question would of course have been unthinkable.

These pro-European political developments (excepting the vexations over the Treaty of Nice) help explain the shock felt by EU policymakers when, in June of 2008, Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Lisbon, a constitutional end-around designed after the French and Dutch "no" votes in 2005. The wholehearted support of the Irish political establishment for the referendum (with Sinn Féin the only party in opposition) could not overcome a vocal anti-Lisbon campaign orchestrated in part by Declan Ganley's Libertas group. The 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent victory, the result of traditional concerns over European defense, social, and economic policies, was greeted with instant derision by European elites. Although current Taoiseach Brian Cowen proclaimed that "The will of the people as expressed at the ballot box is sovereign. The Government accepts and respects the verdict of the Irish people," by July 16 Nicolas Sarkozy had already called for a second referendum. Libertas' Declan soon decried the "anti-democratic nature of what's going on in Brussels," and Sinn Féin's Aengus Ó Snodaigh chided the "succession of EU leaders lining up to try and bully and coerce us into doing what they want." The subsequent bursting of the Irish economic bubble in the second half of 2008 would, however, provide those very same EU leaders with a cudgel with which to browbeat the Irish populace into a potentially successful re-vote.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso recently surmised that "if there is some impact of the crisis on the attitude towards the Lisbon Treaty it would probably be in favor of the Lisbon Treaty," playing on "Ireland, not Iceland" fears of the so-called "Celtic Kitten" of 2009. Yet the notion that "further EU integration would provide a more social Europe that could help tackle unemployment" is undeniably vague, even insipid, and more practical measures, like the proposed freer access to the European Social Fund and the €500 million globalization adjustment fund, in no way require passage of the quasi-constitutional Lisbon Treaty. Taoiseach Cowen, whose Fianna Fáil party supported a "yes" vote in the previous Lisbon referendum, has adopted Barroso's rhetoric, claiming that finally "there is sufficient maturity and discernment among all of our electorate now in the present circumstances to recognize that this [a "yes" vote] is an absolute must." At the same time, Ireland's Minister for European Affairs, Dick Roche, has attempted to rebut Euro-skeptics, stating that "To those who argue that the Union is a hotbed of waste and overregulation, we will point to the Union's achievements," namely "creating the European single market and establishing the euro." Again, this rather nebulous argument sidesteps the more pressing issue presented by the current crisis, including whether EU member nations will in the future possess sufficient autonomy to address local concerns with local solutions.

As much as Europhile Irish politicians, and meddling policymakers abroad, wish to focus on the present economic climate, there remain some socio-political currents upon which the first referendum foundered. Ireland is currently attempting to secure guarantees from Brussels in the form of additional protocols to the treaty (a strategy used by the Danish government after the 1992 rejection of the Maastricht Treaty), in the specific areas of taxation policy, social matters like abortion, and defense oversight. The latter area is proving particularly difficult from a domestic standpoint, as Fianna Fáil opposes any withdrawal from the European Defence Agency, a move that would make the treaty more palatable to neutrality enthusiasts. Irish voters will determine whether these guarantees are sufficient some time in the autumn.

What is certain is that Ireland's position in Europe remains an issue fraught with political tension. The scheduled Lisbon re-vote has become a cause célèbre for Irish and European Europhiles and Euro-skeptics who view the referendum as an opportunity for political progress, or a prime instance of Europe's democratic deficit, respectively. The fast-approaching June 5 European Parliament elections may provide some preview of the electoral state of mind, though the previously-quoted Vincent Browne is likely correct that the campaign will be marked only by "waffle, waffle, waffle, posters, leaflets, doorsteps, hullabaloo and flannel," and thus evident electoral apathy. Yet a great deal is nevertheless at stake in the coming months, including Ireland's -- and indeed Europe's -- very identity. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend Diarmuid Martin, recently opined that a "pluralist Europe does not mean a secularist Europe; Europe needs its religious heritage and can only benefit from welcoming and respecting that religious heritage," before expressing his hope that "Ireland's believers will feel more and more welcome to play their part in the future of Europe, as they have done right throughout their history."

Archbishop Martin, like Bryan Cooper back in 1924, had invoked the deep history of Ireland's contribution to the mainland (though the contemporary relevance of, say, the monastic contribution to the Carolingian Renaissance is by now somewhat muted), while the spokesmen of Libertas and Sinn Féin likewise invoke the Irish past, albeit the exceptionalist, neutral, self-sufficient (some would say self-absorbed) version thereof. The outside observer may simply note that, in the words of the great 20th-century geographer H.J. Fleure, "Ireland has been looked upon as an ultimate corner of western Europe, a treasury of the past, the last place to which a culture would spread and the last place in which an out-of-date culture would linger." As such, Ireland is in some ways the EU's ne plus ultra, and the second Lisbon referendum will likely prove a turning point for the EU integration effort, though the direction will only be known in the fall (Presidents Sarkozy and Klaus no doubt await the result with baited breath). Regardless of whether one agrees with the poet Louis MacNeice's derision of his country's "litter of chronicles and bones," he was right to warn his co-nationals that eastward from their hearts bulks a continent from which disengagement is impossible, and with which engagement is often onerous. In such a situation, the binary choice offered by the upcoming referendum seems entirely insufficient. 

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.