Danger lurks in complacency about Ireland's place in the EU

World View: Lessons to be learned through the experience of defeated Remainers

Has Brexit killed off Irish Euroscepticism? After Britain's shambolic effort to extricate itself from the European Union, Irish attachment to membership has seldom been stronger, according to opinion polls. Continental partners are lauded here for their solidarity towards the State over the past three years, and the argument that Brexit will inevitably be followed by Irexit is one that emanates almost exclusively from English Brexiteers, not a group renowned for their nuanced understanding of Irish life.

The manifestos of the mainstream parties this election season were solidly pro-European; even Sinn Féin and the Green Party, consistent opponents of EU treaties in the past, offer policy platforms that are broadly reconciled with the EU’s role and structure, and Ireland’s place within it. There will be a clutch of anti-EU candidates on ballot papers around the country on Saturday, but they will be among the first to be eliminated when counting begins.

Britain's pro-Europeans can now see that they spent too little time making a positive case for the EU

For all that, however, Ireland's pro-Europeans would do well to pay attention to the anguished postmortems of Britain's defeated Remainers. Some will instantly dismiss the exercise. They will point out that the two countries' situations are so different as to make the drawing of parallels seem pointless. The context is radically different in some ways, certainly. Whereas many in England associated European integration with their country's decline as a global power and could never conceive of shared sovereignty as anything other than a grievous loss, the popular imagination in Ireland identifies membership of the European project with progress, modernity and the country's emergence as a rich, self-confident state finally standing apart from its larger neighbour.

Xenophobic tensions

While Ireland, like England, has received large numbers of migrants in the past two decades, the xenophobia and social tensions that played such an important part in the British Leave campaign have no real parallel – at least at nowhere near on the same scale – here. The EU is widely associated with some of the best things that have happened in Ireland over the past two generations: the peace process, laws on women's rights and social protection, the foreign direct investment strategy and new opportunities for trade and travel and study. It helped, of course, what while Britain was a net contributor to the EU, Ireland, at least until recently, got more money out of Brussels than it put in.


While the social and regional inequalities that helped drive the Leave vote were in some ways specific to the British experience, both are problems that Ireland shares

The failure of British Remainers offers important lessons, however. As they kick at the smouldering embers of the long war they have just lost, Britain’s pro-Europeans can now see that they spent too little time making a positive case for the EU. When they did make the case, it was largely an economic, pragmatic one – and a negative one, which stressed the monetary costs of disengagement. The Leave argument was an emotional one – Eurosceptics bet that people would vote contrary to their economic interest if they were offered a cultural/identity argument that resonated with their view of the world.

Impossiblity of Irexit?

Irexit seems inconceivable. But then, when Nigel Farage founded Ukip in the early 1990s, so did Brexit. We know that Irish voters have twice rejected European treaties, and while those referendums turned on issues often entirely unconnected to the EU, the Brexit vote itself was only tangentially to do with the European Union. Ireland does not have a strongly anti-EU press, but that could change, and the fragmentation of news consumption patterns – not to mention the proliferation of fake news – works to the advantage of those who think of European integration as a vast conspiracy. And while the social and regional inequalities that helped drive the Leave vote were in some ways specific to the British experience, both are problems that Ireland shares.

To date, Irish Eurosceptics have enjoyed their biggest successes not at the ballot box but in the courtroom: no individual has had more direct impact on Irish law as it relates to European integration than Anthony Coughlan, the Eurosceptic activist who was a driving force behind a series of landmark court judgments – the Crotty, McKenna, Coughlan and Pringle cases – in the area. The Crotty case has been interpreted by successive governments as meaning that a referendum must be held on every EU treaty, giving Eurosceptics an opportunity, every few years, to raise their profile and build support for their cause.

The point is the danger of complacency. In 2009, the academic Katy Hayward argued that the visionary arguments that carried Ireland into the European Economic Community in 1973 had all but disappeared by the time of the first Nice Treaty referendum in 2001, having given way to "functional", pragmatic argument rooted in economics.

If those who valued Britain’s place in the EU could rerun the last 30 years, they would do things very differently. They would speak up for the EU, not apologise for it. They would build a positive, idealistic, emotional case, not a coldly rational one. They would remind their public of the EU’s benefits, and they would push back against misinformation. For Ireland’s pro-Europeans, these are cautionary lessons.