An Island at the Centre of the World, a Country at the Heart of Europe

Looking to the future requires us first to look to the past; to learn and to truly understand where we as a people have come from.

When Ireland first applied to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in the mid 1960’s, it was made clear to the Government of the young Republic that any application would not even be considered unless an application was also received from the United Kingdom. Ireland had gained its independence from the UK in 1922 but nearly 50 years later, its destination and its actions remained wedded to those of her former colonial master next door. In truth, at the time, Ireland was independent in name only. Effectively the country’s exchange rate and interest rate was set by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer while over 60% of its exports, primarily in the agri food sector went to the UK.

When Ireland was finally admitted to the EEC in 1973, it was indeed alongside the UK as well as Denmark in the EEC’s first ever expansion. When joining the EEC, Ireland was effectively an agrarian society wedded to the instructions of the Roman Catholic Church with minimal industrial output. Beef, whiskey and milk may have been seen as Ireland’s biggest exports but in all honesty, Ireland’s largest and most impactful export was its people. Irishmen and women moved to the UK, to the USA, to Australia, to Canada and all over the world in search of work and in search of a better life. Net migration was almost wholly outward with a few students and entrepreneurs only daring to come to Ireland.

This has changed, changed drastically. Change has come through Ireland’s membership of the European Union and has come at all levels, not just economic. When change happens, it happens fast; it hasn’t been easy but the Ireland of today is unrecognisable from the Ireland of 1973.

Ireland is now seen as a modern economy becoming a European hub for tech, pharma, aviation and much more. Despite the disastrous effects of the global financial crisis, Ireland will return to full employment in 2019. Where once 60% of Irish exports went to the UK, this is now down to 11% with the combined EU market being the destination for most Irish goods and services.

Socially Ireland has gone from being a patrician state under the dominant reach of the Roman Catholic Church to being the first country in the world to legalise marriage equality by popular vote. Compared to 1973 not only does Ireland have marriage equality but the bar on married women working in the civil service has been lifted; the legal definition of children being borne out of wedlock as illegitimate is gone; divorce is legal; religious denomination is no longer a criteria for school admissions and abortion is now legal.

From the mid 1990’s Ireland has begun to benefit from real inward migration for the first time, creating a more cosmopolitan country that is also economically more diverse and it is along this theme that I would like to look to the future.

Being open is good.

Open for business, open for investment, open for migration, open for refuge, open for tolerance, open for diversity, open for dialogue, open for responsibility, open for co-operation.

In the era of hardening borders, increasing protectionism, aggressive nationalism and vile xenophobia; I truly believe Ireland can set itself as a counter balance, an example. At a time when our nearest neighbour and oldest, most complicated, of allies is opting to leave the EU; Irish sentiment towards the EU has never been more popular with a 92% approval rating. Ireland is increasing economic activity both within and through the EU. New EU trade deals with Canada, Japan, South Korea and Mexico as well as potential deals with Malaysia and Vietnam offer huge opportunities for Ireland. Our reliance on the UK market for butter and cheese exports can now be divested through massive exports of evaporated milk and baby formula to South East Asia.

When some EU partner countries are seeking to stem the flow of migrants, Ireland is issuing more and more work permits to people from outside the EU to address labour shortages. And as some EU partner countries refuse to share the burden of refugees fleeing conflicts such as Syria, Ireland is taking double their quota and sending naval vessels to the Mediterranean to help rescue stranded migrants. We have more to do here; most refugees to Ireland live in what is known as direct provision while their applications are processed too slowly. Direct provision as it is needs to be improved and in 2019 refugees in Ireland longer than nine months will be allowed to work.

On the global stage, Ireland is increasing its commitment to Overseas Development Aid, on course to hit its 0.7% commitment by 2030. Since 1958, the Irish Defence Forces have had a continuous presence on UN peace support operations, mainly in the Middle East. Although a neutral country, Ireland is prepared to maintain and increase its commitment to peace keeping and common EU security efforts such as PESCO. Ireland will double its diplomatic footprint around the world by 2025.

By being open, Ireland can be an island at the centre of the world and a country at the heart of Europe. This simple aspiration is one that I believe can and will make the world a better place and allow Ireland to prosper. Being insular, being nationalist and being protectionist will not solve the world’s problems nor make our society kinder. A populist response with a tweet form message may be electorally beneficial for now and may tap into increasing anti-establishment sentiment borne out of weariness with austerity but it is not a blue print for a better world. Being open is.

Senator Neale Richmond is a member of Ireland’s governing Fine Gael party and Chairman of the Irish Brexit Committee.