Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
You’ve probably seen that clip recently of over three thousand new Irish citizens being sworn in at the Gleneagles centre in Killarney. Those citizenship ceremonies, an initiative of Alan Shatter when he was justice minister may well turn out to be his greatest ministerial legacy. They’re a huge improvement on the old system, where people turned up at an old drafty courthouse and took an oath with little pomp or ceremony and I have to admit bring a certain moistening to my eyes every time I see the happiness on the faces of the people becoming citizens of our great country.
It’s a big deal, and a big contrast to the UK. Whereas our taoiseach lauded them and their contribution to our country, next door Theresa May was unveiling her stripping of British and EU citizens rights to live and work across the EU and UK with disturbing salivation. Gavin Esler, the former BBC journalist and now novelist remarked on the juxtaposition, pointing out Leo’s welcome marked the country as “a place where new arrivals enrich a country and are not referred to as “queue jumpers.”
As a progressive liberal, one could easily drown in one’s sense of smug satisfaction, living in a country which, by eurobarometer standards, is the most pro-EU in Europe, has just elected an intellectual lefty poet as president by a landslide, became the first country in the world to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote, and finally resolved the unpleasantness that was the 8th amendment.
One could easily think Ireland is bulletproof from a liberal standpoint.
Think again. It would not take a lot to move this country into a Hungarian-style populist fury, burning EU flags and where non-whites live in terror.
We must never forget that as a people we are terribly susceptible to group-think. We desperately want to fit in, not be the outlier with the awkward opinion. Our political class is stuffed with mob panderers pretending to stand up for some innocuous principle and “not caring who knows it”, all the while making sure they’re on the least unpopular side of an issue.
One of the biggest dangers in the western democracies, including ourselves, is complacency and the belief that human rights only ratchet in one direction. The death penalty was illegal in the United States from 1972 to 1976. For most of the 1980s and 1990s the idea of Britain leaving the European Community was the argument mostly of marginal cranks.
It’s simply not that incredible to imagine a scenario where 35%-40% of Irish voters could support withdrawal from a future EU. Polls currently showing support for Irish membership of the EU at 92% suggest to me widespread but not very deep support for the EU, which could turn given the right conditions.
The first condition for Irexit (Or EireGo! as I call it) would be a credible party advocating it. No major party in Ireland currently supports it, but let’s not forget that Sinn Fein is only relatively new to supporting EU membership. Indeed, the party has spent more of my adult life supporting withdrawal than membership. It also can’t be ignored that the DUP’s hysterical opposition and paranoia about the EU contributed to Sinn Fein’s ability to support the EU on the “If themmuns are agin’ it, it must be doing something right” platform.
In 1972 Labour, now one of our most pro-European parties, campaigned against us joining. DeValera himself, ensconced at the Áras at the time, was reputedly against us joining the EEC and apparently voted against.
At the same time the Tories were very much the European party in the UK, with Labour the little Englander party. Now it’s hard to imagine a new openly pro-EU prospective candidate getting through a Conservative selection convention. Parties change.
It’s not hard to imagine a future Fianna Fail, frustrated with opposition, opening the door to moderate euro-criticism and then getting hooked on the support from latent eurosceptics who do indeed exist in the country.
The next condition would be economic.
A recession, cuts to public services, and suddenly the fact that we have been nett contributors to the EU since 2014 and will pay the EU €2.7 billion this year (although we will get back about €1.8 billion in EU funding) suddenly becomes a public debating point. Never forget the curious pride the Irish have in seeing ourselves as a poor downtrodden nation. The argument, for which we are the actual living embodiment, that investing in EU funds in poorer EU countries creates future markets for your products won’t carry much water against tax rises or cuts in public spending.
Don’t think that we’re immune to the anti-immigrant thing either.
We’ve just been fortunate that so far it has been pitched by dopes.
Imagine a clean-cut Mammy’s Favourite Lovely Young Man Micheál Martin-style (not him personally, obviously. He’s solid on Europe and will have no truck with racism) candidate, an articulate Peter Casey talking about housing shortages and waiting lists and how “we must put our own first” without coming across as a neo-nazi.
Imagine such a party leader standing up to Brussels a la Viktor Orban, trying to disperse refugees across Europe, talking about elites. It wouldn’t take long, in an Ireland still racked by obscene housing costs and shortages, for refugees and the EU to be identified as the source of our woes.
The desire of the rest of Europe to actually defend itself, a concept that is regarded as alien to most of the Irish population, could be another source of Irexiteer growth. It’s not impossible to imagine a future EU insisting that a substantial part of the EU budget be directed at defence. An Irexit party could make, I suspect, plenty of hay wanting to know why Irish taxpayer money is funding tanks protecting Estonia and not building houses in Ringsend?
That’s all assuming there is a credible Irexit party in Ireland with credible candidates, something which I suspect is much harder to achieve than it appears. I also suspect that the sort of people agitated by Irexit and asylum seekers and abortion are less likely to be willing to do the constituency graft that in Ireland builds critical voting mass.
But here’s a different scenario: what about a Irexit supported by the current mainstream parties?
What if the EU were to fundamentally change?
Picture a future Europe with Marine Le Pen in the Elysee, Alternativ fur Deutschland in coalition in Germany, Salvini in Italy, Orban in Hungary, all planning to “do something” about the Muslims in Europe. Imagine if Putin offered to “host” a vast refugee camp in occupied Ukraine in return for Europe turning a blind eye to the tightening Russian stranglehold on that country.
Consider the spectacle of Irish naval ships pulling migrants out of the Mediterranean as they do now, and then handing them over to an EU border force which loads them at machine gun point onto trains to the Ukraine, no longer our problem? Would that be an EU we’d wish to be part of?
I sometimes get accused of pushing out the fantasy i bit too much in these columns. In response, I always remind people of one simple fact.
In the May 1928 Reichstag elections the Nazi party got 2.6% and 12 seats out of 491.
Just over five years later, they got all the seats.
Every single one.
Freedom is fragile, and what we cherish has to be fought for every single day.