Ireland’s 1961 application to join EEC fraught with fear of rejection

In reversal of Brexit scenario, State concern was Irish exclusion but UK acceptance in EEC

Official documents detailing Ireland’s application to join the European Economic Community (EEC) almost 60 years ago reveal striking parallels with the current Brexit negotiations. The only difference is that positions were reversed.

Irish officials were deeply worried that the UK would be admitted and the State excluded. There are references to the possibility of a border down the Irish Sea, the status of Northern Ireland, the difficulty of securing new trade agreements and the fact that the British cared little about the problems of Ireland, North or South.

The documents, published on Tuesday in the latest volume of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy 1957-1961, show that then taoiseach Seán Lemass and his government accepted that the EEC would evolve into a political union.

When Lemass succeeded Éamon de Valera as taoiseach in 1959, there was an immediate change in foreign policy. Lemass regularly worked directly with the secretary of the department of external affairs, Con Cremin.


As foreign trade and export-led growth were central to Lemass’s vision for Ireland, foreign economic policy came to the fore after 1959. When the heads of missions met in Dublin in the summer of 1961, improving Ireland’s foreign trade potential, opening new markets and increasing exports were high on the agenda. This was all in the context of Lemass’s goal of EEC membership.

The move towards Europe began in the summer of 1959 with a cabinet decision to establish diplomatic relations with the EEC. Ireland’s ambassador to Belgium, Frank Biggar, would represent the country to the EEC. At that stage Ireland did not have diplomatic relations with all six EEC members, nor was it represented in other countries aspiring to join, such as Denmark and Norway.

There were serious doubts whether Ireland would be judged economically fit for EEC membership and whether suitable transitional arrangements could be agreed, which took into account the underdeveloped state of the Irish agricultural and industrial sectors.

British-Irish trade

Even more important was the impact that EEC membership might have on the all-important British-Irish trade relationship. There was discussion of whether associate or full membership of the EEC could be agreed and also whether Ireland’s military neutrality would be compatible with EEC membership, especially given that since the Bonn Declaration of 1961 the six founding members had made known their hopes for a European political union.

For economic, political and defence reasons it was by no means clear that Ireland would be deemed suitable for EEC membership.

An Irish application for EEC membership took on a greater level of reality by the late spring of 1961 when it became clear that Britain was seriously considering joining.

The secretary of the department of finance Ken Whitaker referred this in a letter to Cremin in February 1961.

“There is also the question of whether the EEC would be favourably disposed towards an application from Ireland in advance of a solution to the problem of linking the UK with the community.”

He presciently forecast that in time the co-ordination of monetary policy envisaged by the Rome Treaty might entail Ireland withdrawing from the sterling area. He also anticipated that while the treaty did not explicitly provide for political union, it paved the way for it.

By June 1961, the government was prepared to submit its application for full membership of the EEC to the Council of Ministers in Brussels. Ireland’s ambassadors in five of the six EEC capitals made a case for full membership and finally, and in advance of Britain, on July 31st, 1961, Ireland applied to join.

Political and economic issues as well as Ireland’s military neutrality and non-membership of Nato persisted as concerns, with officials from the Netherlands and Belgium particularly helpful in providing explanations and analysis to Ireland on the status of the application.

Through the summer of 1961, Dublin had to clarify aspects of its application and emphasise that it was economically fit to join and willing to accept future political and even defence obligations. The question of Britain’s membership of the EEC was central to Irish concerns.

European integration

Lemass on August 29th, 1961, in a minute to Tadhg Ó Cearbhaill, an official in his department, told him Irish diplomats should make clear that Ireland would have joined at the very beginning in 1956 but the problem was that Britain did not seek membership.

“It is not possible to determine now what our attitude would be if Britain did not acquire membership. We would wish to pursue our application if this was economically possible for us but the British attitude would have to be taken into full account,” he wrote, adding that a definite reply should be avoided while “emphasising our desire” to move towards European integration.

On the same day, there was a worrying message to Dublin from Ireland’s ambassador to London, Hugh McCann, who said an informant at the British foreign office had told him that some EEC members had misgivings about Ireland being prepared to accept the political implications of the Rome Treaty.

To explain Ireland’s positions across the EEC, Whitaker and Cremin, with the assistance of Ireland’s ambassadors, embarked on a tour of the six EEC capitals in September 1961. Despite these diplomatic moves to assuage fears that Ireland’s economically underdeveloped status was an impediment to membership, there was still no certainty that Ireland would be accepted and it appeared by autumn 1961 that the council of ministers was treating Ireland differently to Britain and Denmark, the other applicants.

Biggar reported on fraught conversations he had with EEC council official Calmes about the fact the Irish application was being treated very differently from that of Denmark.

“He started his reply by saying that our application was dependent on the British and that the council was definitely determined to give the British application priority . . .”..”

To make matters worse McCann reported from London that Britain was not in fact supportive of future Irish membership of the EEC and was working against Ireland’s bid. This proved to be unfounded.

In the event, all of the Irish efforts proved in vain not because of a rejection by the EEC but because Charles de Gaulle vetoed the British application in January 1963, and the Irish government had no choice but to withdraw its application.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times