The Irish Times view on Ireland and the EU: Echoes from the recent past

The six original EEC members were anxious for the UK to join but were initially cool on Irish membership

The latest volume of official documents on Irish foreign policy published yesterday reveals just how much has changed over the past 60 years but also how some problems remain stubbornly the same.

The big issue in the late 1950s and early 1960s was Ireland's first attempt to join the European Economic Community (EEC), culminating in a membership application in the autumn of 1961.

In the light of the Brexit talks it is instructive to remember that at that time the six original members were anxious for the UK to join but were initially cool on Irish membership given our protectionist economy and military neutrality.

Ironically the British representative to the EEC, Arthur H Tandy, warned his Irish counterpart Frank Biggar that some members of the six had misgivings about the Irish application from the point of view of our being prepared to accept the political implications of the Rome Treaty.


Tandy pointed out that while the wording of the Rome Treaty contained relatively little in the way of political obligation, “it was quite clear that a whole-hearted acceptance of membership did involve political implications aimed ultimately at some degree of European political unity”.

So much for the widely accepted view in Britain that the EEC was initially just a trading arrangement with no political implications. Coming from a much weaker position, the Irish accepted this reality from the beginning. Con Cremin, head of what was then called the Department of External Affairs, spelled it out in a memo to his minister, Frank Aiken. "We were well aware before we submitted our application of the political inspiration of the Rome Treaty and of the existence of extensive political implications in membership of the Community – implications of both a domestic and international character," he wrote.

It is interesting to note that while there were some reservations on the part of the Germans and the French, the state that gave us the strongest support was the Netherlands. The British were also supportive of the Irish application. Ted Heath, the minister who led the UK application, referred to the "historic, close and special trading relationship" between the two countries.

The documents also reveal the suspicion Ulster Unionists had of Dublin's intentions 60 years ago when then taoiseach Seán Lemass proposed greater trade cooperation between North and South for mutual benefit. In a speech, never actually delivered because of IRA violence, Lemass took issue with the assessment of Northern premier Lord Brookeborough that the offer was designed to weaken the North's ties with Great Britain and that acceptance would "draw a line round Northern Ireland goods, separating them from those made in Great Britain" thus constituting "the first step in moving the Border to the Irish Sea". Plus ça change.