Ireland is one of the EU’s most successful case studies

Its trajectory from poor, rural member state on the periphery is relevant for Ukraine and others

A passport to progress: Ireland’s distinctive record as the first non-imperial and postcolonial member state of the EU should be highlighted

Framing perspectives matter greatly in contextualising political identities and positioning political actors. Ireland’s 50 years in the EU and its forerunners is a case study in such analyses.

Periphery/core, poor/rich, rural/urban, underdeveloped/developed, weak/strong and small/large states are some of the main binary terms used to understand how the Irish story has unfolded since 1973. All contribute constructively to our history and future perspectives.

Over those years Ireland made a distinctive, even exemplary journey from being a poor, rural, peripheral and least developed member state to become one of the EU’s richest and most developed ones. The State remains small and relatively weak compared with the most powerful ones but it plays effectively into a much enlarged EU system with a smart capacity to establish and protect its priorities, as seen vividly in the Brexit negotiations.

The EU is not only a union of states but of people, too. It combines domestic politics and international diplomacy along with highly diverse national and international identities. Its geopolitical role is changing rapidly in a contested and multipolar world no longer dominated by the West, and subject to greater movements of people and deeper ontological interdependence because of the growing climate catastrophe. Both sets of change require greater politicisation and citizen engagement if European integration is to maintain its legitimacy.


Ireland’s equally distinctive record as the first non-imperial and postcolonial member state of the EU should be highlighted. Much political discourse, policy and academic analysis is responding to these changing international perspectives by reframing them in postcolonial terms. Ireland had a pioneering role here.

Ireland’s membership of EU most transformative event of modern Irish history, says TánaisteOpens in new window ]

Of the six founding members – aside from the microstate Luxembourg – France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands were previous colonial powers in 1973. The 1957 Treaty of Rome came a year after French and British leaders were humiliated in the Suez crisis by the ascendant United States. That Algeria left the EEC in 1962 when it achieved independence reminds us that European integration was born just after, or still in the midst of Middle Eastern, African and Asian decolonisation, and partly in response to its traumas.

Ireland joined the EEC along with the United Kingdom, its former imperial ruler, 50 years after the Civil War in 1922-1923. Those five decades saw the State establish sovereign independence from British dominion status by way of neutrality in the second World War and the declaration of a republic in 1949.

Ireland’s distinctive experience in European integration brings postcolonial values to the EU’s external policies too, in a new multipolar world no longer dominated by the West

Both events affirmed Ireland’s anti-imperial nationalism, into which was built an internationalism in pursuit of sovereign equality and respect. This differentiated it qualitatively, along with similar anti-colonial movements, from the domineering imperial ethno-national nationalisms whose two world wars created the demand for a post-imperial peace settlement among the EEC’s founding member states and peoples. Similar values of equality and respect found rapid resonance among the political and official elites who led this State’s first decades of membership. Their nationalism proved compatible with pooling sovereignty.

Broadening horizons beyond the narrow irredentist nationalism they had grown up with as part of a continuing economic and political dependence on Britain paradoxically made for greatly improved relations with their fellow British elites in Europe. That contributed significantly to the Northern Ireland peace process.

Ireland’s 50 years in the EUOpens in new window ]

Ireland remained distinctive within the EEC until joined by former Ottoman colony Greece in 1981, by former Russian colony Finland in 1995 and then by former Soviet bloc and older Russian, Habsburg, Prussian and British colonies Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta in 2004. Subsequent enlargements to Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia in 2013 reinforced the pattern.

Ireland’s role as a model of development within the EEC/EU – making the transition from poor, rural, peripheral member state to become one of richest and most developed ones – is captured by its journey from former subaltern position within the British imperial system.

The enlargement process has largely been towards states having a similar historical background within Europe rather than in seaborne empires. So far Ireland has been the most successful example, benefiting from an in-between status that remains relevant for Ukraine and others.

Ireland’s distinctive experience in European integration brings postcolonial values to the EU’s external policies too, in a new multipolar world no longer dominated by the West. That can give us a constructive role to play with African, Asian and Middle Eastern partners and associates of the EU.

A reformulated and reconstituted Irish neutrality policy better equipped to project those values thus remains a relevant policy goal for this State.