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The European Union and Relationships Within Ireland,
by Jeson Ingraham

[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: © Jeson Ingraham ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

The following is the first draft of an article contributed by Jeson Ingraham who, at the time of writing, was a temporary intern student at INCORE (INitiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity). The text is based on an essay written by the author during a course of study on the BA in Peace and Conflict Studies degree at the University of Ulster at Magee. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

This article is copyright (© 1998) of Jeson Ingraham and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author.You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

The European Union and Relationships Within Ireland

by Jeson Ingraham


The European Union (EU) has undergone a number of profound changes in the past two decades and further changes in the nature of the EU are set to occur. The proposed expansion of the number of member states, the introduction of a single currency in 1999, and the pooling of sovereignty will have far-reaching implications for all the member states. Europe has also directly and indirectly influenced the search for a political settlement in Northern Ireland.

For centuries the conflict in Ireland has been viewed in a narrow context. The conflict was seen mainly in terms of the relationship between Ireland and England. England's military conquest of Ireland was to be followed by a political and economic dominance that for many years denied Ireland an independent voice in Europe. The geographic and political obscurity of Ireland is exemplified in the statement that it was an "island behind an island" (O'Conner, March 9, 1998).

However, the supranational EU has had, and will have, a considerable impact on the economic, social, and political life of people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The addition of the European context to Northern Ireland's political problems has the scope for further positive impact. Nevertheless, there remains the possibility that disagreement on Europe's role in Northern Ireland's affairs might reinforce divisions and tensions which exist between both communities. Ultimately, the extent to which Europe has, and will have, an impact on North / South relations will indicate whether or not the EU will be able to encourage a positive political settlement in Northern Ireland. To answer this question properly it is necessary to examine: developments in North / South relations since Ireland's and the UK's entry into the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973; unionist and nationalist reactions to the EU's involvement in Northern Ireland's affairs; and finally the role the EU is likely to take in the future.

The European Union's Impact on Anglo-Irish and North-South Relations

Historically, Ireland has been overly dependent on Britain economically, and the Irish government realised that entry into the EEC could significantly reduce that dependence. Despite this realisation, in 1963 Ireland withdrew its application to join the EEC mainly because Britain had decided to withdraw its own application (O'Conner, February 9, 1998). This event highlighted both Ireland's dependence on Britain and the reality that this economic dependence would only be reduced after both countries had joined the EEC. In the meantime, the Irish government prepared itself for EEC membership. Both countries finally joined in 1973.

Remarkably, Ireland had drastically reduced its reliance on trade with Britain. In a period of fifty years, the percentage of Irish exports to Britain declined from 98 per cent in 1922, to 58 per cent in 1973. The most rapid reduction occurred between 1958 and 1973, when it dropped from 80 per cent to 58 per cent (O'Conner, February 9, 1998). These were not the only events which helped show that Ireland was shedding its "inferior" status in relation to Britain. In 1979, Ireland joined the European Monetary System (EMS) even though Britain did not. In this decision, the Irish government expressed confidence that the EMS would be strong enough for the Irish Pound to end its subservient fiscal relation to the British pound (Sharp, February 23, 1998).

As Ireland looked to Europe changes were not only economic but political and psychological as well. In his book, Ireland and the Irish, John Ardagh commented, the EU has "enabled the old unequal face-to-face relationship with Britain to change into a new, more relaxed partnership, within a wider club where both are equal members; and this has eased the old Irish complex about the English" (Ardagh, 1994; 328). In the case of Northern Ireland, this new attitude allowed the British and Irish governments to forge ahead and seek agreement in documents such as the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), the Downing Street Declaration (1993), the New Framework for Agreement (1995), and The Agreement (1998).

Unfortunately, there is a fine line between Anglo-Irish relations and North-South relations. Although the majority population in Northern Ireland refer to themselves as British, developments between the unionist controlled government of Northern Ireland (1922 to 1972) and the Republic were minute in comparison to the huge forward steps made between the Irish and British governments following the imposition of 'Direct Rule' in 1972.

Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have benefited economically from membership of the EU. For the purpose of determining EU spending, Northern Ireland "is defined as an Objective One region, despite being ranked as number 45 of the poorest regions in Europe" (Lyderson and Skar, 1993; p3). However, the benefit accruing from Northern Ireland's objective one-status must be seen in the context of funding received from Britain. From 1989 to 1993, the EU contributed £600 million "to Northern Ireland from the Structural Funds through a series of programmes directed particularly towards economic revitalisation and development " (Bell, 1993; p28). Of this money, £106 million went towards improving transportation infrastructure, £87 million "towards strengthening and diversifying the region's industrial base," and £70 million were "allocated towards development in tourism and agricultural sectors" (Bell, 1993; p28). Despite the fact Northern Ireland has been a EU economic priority, the £600 million Northern Ireland has received over four years seems small in comparison to the £2.4 billion "grant-in-aid" money they receive each year from the UK (Bell, 1993; p28).

The Republic of Ireland was also given Objective One status which allowed it to apply for a range of funding from the EU. However, as the Republic was dealing directly with the EU, whereas Northern Ireland's case was being presented indirectly through Westminster, the Republic of Ireland was more successful in terms of the total amount of funding received on a per capita basis. The largest difference in funding resulted in differences due to income form the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). However, even in the case of structural funding the Republic of Ireland was still able to secure a higher level of funding per capita; see Table 1. Still, only 6.4 per cent of Ireland's Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) is coming from EU funding (Sharp, March 23, 1998). Both Northern Ireland and Ireland have received substantial funding from the EU, but the impact of EU funding should not be overestimated because it represents only a small proportion of both states' GDP. Furthermore, the EU's generous funding will not continue, as the proposed enlargement will bring five more countries, all of which are economically poorer than all current EU members, into the existing 15 member union.

Table 1. European Union Structural Funding to Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, 1989 - 1993, per capita

Amount of Structural Funding, 1989 - 1993
Total Population, 1991
Per Capita Funding
Republic of Ireland
Northern Ireland

Since funding will inevitably decrease, the status of North / South relations in a European context faces some uncertainty. Commenting on the "chiefly economic" benefits of EU membership, Peter Bell of the Northern Ireland Office concluded it was doubtful the EU "could play a significant political role in the Province for the time being" (Bell, 1993; p32). Although economic benefits will decrease in the future, European integrationists believe it will be EU structures which help transform relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The trading relationships between European members have changed radically since the introduction of the single European market in 1992. The act significantly reduced the relevance of political borders by implementing free trade. This act is sure to increase trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland, a relationship which has been historically dismal. While the Republic has been reducing its proportion of trade with Britain in the last forty years Northern Ireland remained, until recently, heavily dependent on trade with other parts of the UK. "Estimated figures for 1990 are that some £6,000 million worth of goods manufactured in Northern Ireland some £4,000 million were exported, but of these some £2,000 million went to Great Britain and only about £400 million to the Republic; almost double that amount, some £750 million, was exported from the Republic to Northern Ireland (Boyle and Hadden, 1994; p141). Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden note that with the development of the single European market, "this picture is changing rapidly. There is now an increasing flow of goods and of capital across the border" (Boyle and Hadden, 1994; p141).

In the future, further economic co-operation across the border is likely as, "considerable efforts are being made by the business community both to promote and develop these cross-border trading and organisational links and also make it clear that they are entirely independent and without any political or constitutional implications" (Boyle and Hadden, 1994; pp141-142). David Donoghue, then a member of Ireland's Department of Foreign affairs, recognised the necessity of increased trading: "As the search for markets becomes more intense, businessmen in both parts of Ireland will realise that they simply cannot afford to ignore a market on their doorstep" (Donoghue, 1993; p20). It will clearly be in the interests of both economies to increase trade between the two regions and, in the long-term, to establish a more mutually beneficial economic relationship.

The ending of economic custom controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic also had the effect of removing one particular physical manifestation of the border. The removal of customs posts and custom officers from the 'approved' border crossings changed the way people, north and south, viewed and thought of the border.

Nationalist and Unionist Reactions to EU Involvement in Northern Irish Affairs

Potential economic changes have increased discussion on the possibility that all-Ireland economic developments will also lead to all-Ireland political developments. Europe finds its most enthusiastic supporters in Ireland, North and South. This is due to a multiplicity of reasons, but certainly those who identify themselves as Irish see that the diminishing importance of the economic border may indeed have unifying political implications. The governing party of the Irish Republic Fianna Fáil submitted a statement to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation suggesting that,

The setting up of democratically mandated North-South institutions with executive powers is essential, both for practical reasons to serve common interests between North and South against the backdrop of the European Single Market, and for reasons of identity as a reflection of the Irish dimension. (Reynolds, 1995; p9-10)

David Donoghue predicted that, "with more and more co-operation between North and South in the European framework, and with steady progress which is being made towards the European Union, the relevance of the border in a political sense will also, in time, be diminished" (Donoghue, 1993; p21). Popular Irish politician Garret FitzGerald wrote in 1972 that membership in the European Community would "likely be uniformly directed towards that path to a united Ireland" (Arthur, 1993; p56). Perhaps politicians learned over time to avoid such blunt comments which were, and still are, of much concern to unionists.

The pro-European stance of all the major political parties in the Republic, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland, has more to do with economic concerns than with nationalist aspirations. Unionists however were suspect of the motivies of John Hume and the SDLP because Hume was, and is, the most prominent pro-European member of the European Parliament. Yet, in the past, supporters of Sinn Féin (SF) have argued that the pro-European stance of the SDLP would lead them to "abandon the goal of a united Ireland" (Guelke, 1993; p79). The argument that the Irish pro-European status is a Trojan Horse to a united Ireland can also be diluted by those who say Europe will lead to a politics of accommodation in which both communities will find a common European identity. This perspective is held by Richard Kearney, then Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin, in his book Postnationalist Ireland. Kearney claims that in a new Europe borders will cease to be important, and that, "Such a focus could help modernise nationalist politics on the island in the process, away from the traditional emphasis on border change and territorial unity towards a stress on the unity of peoples, of 'hearts and minds'" (Kearney, 1997; 87).

Kearney is not without critics. Jan Erik Grindheim, then Professor of Comparative Politics University of Bergen, contrasts Kearney's Euro-idealism stating,

If the Europe of the Regions shall succeed, a new European citizenship will have to be created. However, I do not believe this will happen on any broad base in Europe, nor do I think it will have any positive influence on the conflict in Northern Ireland. It is not possible to replace the British and Irish identities with a native or genuine identity [i.e. a unity of peoples hearts and minds], and a European identity will be hard to develop (Grindheim, 1993; p85).

In this statement, Grindheim highlights the most fundamental reason for Unionist scepticism of the EU, which is the issue of identity. There is a portion of the population which believes their British identity is threatened by the evolution of cross-border institutions. Despite the Irish desire to build North and South structures, the extreme section of the unionist population wishes to cut off ties to the Republic. In 1993, William Lafferty wrote,

It is widely acknowledged that the principal goal of the loyalists in the talks that have been conducted off and on for the past several years is to weaken the little influence that the Dublin government now has through the Anglo-Irish Agreement (Lafferty, 1993; p52).

The Downing Street Declaration, the New Framework for Agreement, and the current all-party talks which led to Good Friday's Agreement have greatly increased Ireland's involvement in Northern Ireland's affairs, and assuredly will provoke more loyalist resentment to their involvement.

In 1985, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald of the British and Irish governments, the Rev. Ian Paisley opened his morning church service in Belfast praying, "Very solemnly right now we hand Mrs Thatcher over to the devil that she might not learn to blaspheme" (Cooke, 1996; p1). It is unfair to align all unionists with the views of Ian Paisley. His Free Presbyterian denomination is attended by only a minority of people in a society with large numbers of church attendees. But, it must be recognised that he is the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the third largest party in Northern Ireland, and his theology of separation receives a great deal of support when converted into a distinct political philosophy. While in Church, Paisley asserted that the EU "challenged the distinctive Christian moral standards of Northern Ireland," (Arthur, 1993; p59) in the political sphere he claimed, "the whole aim of the community is to seek to weaken and eventually destroy [Northern Ireland's] links with the rest of the United Kingdom" (Arthur, 1993; p62).

The reasons for Euro-scepticism among unionists should not be over simplified. Although the most excessive objections to the EU are to be found in the DUP and various Loyalist organisations, the largest party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) also has its share of EU doubters. This section of unionism is usually composed of those "who believe that the European dimension is either irrelevant or is being used to further traditional nationalist aims" (Guelke, 1993; p84). It is usually this portion of the population which feels they have been poorly represented by their leaders at Westminster and that they have not seen the benefits of EU membership. Although both the North and the South have received Objective One status, "one of the major priorities [of EU spending] is to support areas of particular social and economic need, and these are disproportionately inhabited by Catholics" (Darby, 1993; p44). In the future it is possible that those who have been politically sceptical of the EU will pragmatically support economic developments by beneficial cross-border institutions.

It is the general support of the nationalist community for the EU and the sometimes extreme scepticism on the part of the unionist community which creates the possibility that EU involvement in Northern Ireland affairs will only make divisions deeper. Jan Erik Grindheim expanded this thought by writing,

we cannot be certain that the introduction of the European dimension, together with the question of self-determination and constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland, will reduce the conflict between the two communities. Quite the contrary, it might reinforce the old cleavages (Grindheim, 1993; p84).

Grindheim makes a crucial point in observing that extremists on both sides will not discriminate in their dislike of those who seek to bring change contrary to their political objectives. Pro-Europeans will, for example, surely feel pressure from extreme elements within loyalism if they attempt to pursue a political agenda which reflects issues regarding self-determination and constitutional nationalism.


There are many uncertainties in trying to predict the future impact of the EU on relationships between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. At least for the short-term, it does not appear that the EU will do anything more than affect the economic relationship between the two parts of Ireland. In their book Northern Ireland: The Choice, Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden conclude that:

the European Union is unlikely in the immediate future to become an active participant in the creation of new constitutional structures for a place like Northern Ireland. It may be better to think of it as a framework within which the almost exclusive financial dependence of Northern Ireland on the British Exchequer may gradually be diminished, and more generally as a model for interstate co-operation on an open-ended basis without any clear constitutional objective in view (Boyle and Hadden, 1994; 148).

There appears to be enough pragmatic support for the EU to increase cross-border communication between the North and the South. The controversy arises in debating whether or not economical accommodation will be a stepping stone to political accommodation.

If current trends continue, the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is expected to exceed that of Protestants within the next thirty years. With a recognition from the British and Irish governments in a New Framework for Agreement that the people of Northern Ireland have the right to self-determination, it makes a united Ireland a possibility in the distant future. Perhaps it will be in this area that the European Union has its most prominent political impact. If the EU integration continues, then borders will become less relevant, and in the words of Richard Kearny, the nation state will be "leaking power both upwards and downwards to the regional level" (Kearney, 1997; p78). The loss of relevance of the border would not only transform the relationship of the North and the South, but would also create a new and positive bond between Britain and Ireland. Yet, this prospect for future co-operation might never escape the shadows of the Loyalist and Republican battle over their irreconcilable objectives. If the troubles continue, the power of Europe to assist a settlement in Northern Ireland will be stifled. Therefore, it will require creativity and openness on the part of both communities to seek political change in a European context.



1. It should be noted that more recently Sinn Féin has become more open to the idea of European involvement in a Northern Ireland political settlement.


Ardagh, John, Ireland and the Irish (London, Penguin Books, 1994)

Arthur, Paul, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

Bell, Peter, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

Boyle, Kevin and Tom Hadden, Northern Ireland: The Choice (London, Penguin Books, 1994)

Boyle, Kevin and Tom Hadden, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

Cooke, Dennis, Persecuting Zeal (Kerry, Ireland, Brandon, 1996)

Donoghue, David, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

Grindheim, Jan Erik, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

Guelke, Adrian, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

Kearney, Richard, Postnationalist Ireland (London, Routledge, 1997)

Lafferty, William, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

Lyderson, Bjorn and Harold Olav Skar, Northern Ireland: A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions? (Norway, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 1993)

O'Conner, Dr. E., Lecture at University of Ulster at Magee, February 2, 1998

O'Conner, Dr. E., Lecture at University of Ulster at Magee, February 9, 1998

O'Conner, Dr. E., Lecture at University of Ulster at Magee, March 9, 1998

Reynolds, Albert, Paths to a Political Settlement in Ireland (Belfast, The Blackstaff Press, 1995)

Sharp, Prof. Alan, Lecture at University of Ulster at Magee, February 23, 1998

Sharp, Prof. Alan, Lecture at University of Ulster at Magee, March 23, 1998

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