Riding Three Horses at Once: Ireland's EU Membership as a National Development Strategy

By Hession, Peter | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, April 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Riding Three Horses at Once: Ireland's EU Membership as a National Development Strategy


Hession, Peter, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


With Brexit pole-axed by the question of the Irish border, the Irish Republic's commitment to EU membership appears stronger than ever. In the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis, which saw unemployment and emigration rates soar and representatives of the EC-IMFECB 'Troika' temporarily strip Ireland of its economic sovereignty, the idea that participation in this multinational union conferred a meaningful form of political independence seemed quixotic. A view of Irish political economy that begins and ends with the fall of the 'Celtic Tiger', however, understates the lasting significance of EU membership for the politics and economics of a peripheral European economy with a long history of underdevelopment and imperial domination.

Ireland's 1973 accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) was designed to enable a reorientation of the Irish economy away from overdependence on Great Britain. On the eve of its first application to join in 1961, Ireland remained reliant on the UK market for 75 per cent of its exports.1 As Ireland's ambassador to West Germany surmised a decade later:

[I]t is surely a hard fact of Irish history that the call to 'break the connection with England' and to develop policies based on the philosophy of 'ourselves alone' [has] again and again come up against the dependence of our economy on the British market. The exercise of full political sovereignty has always had to be related to this fact of economic dependence ... But with membership of the [European] Communities this British brake on our sovereignty would become instead a shared European commitment.2

European integration still forms part of an Irish strategy to mitigate the lasting effects of a historic pattern of dependent underdevelopment. For the time being at least, Dublin regards the EU as an indispensable forum in which to negotiate a political economy based on strategically balancing its major neighbours - the UK, the US and the EU itself. In what follows, I analyse its origins and evolution as a distinctive model of national economic development, shaped by the contingencies of Ireland's location at the intersection of British, continental European and US spheres of capital and influence.

Development or competition state? Ireland and the Single Market

On the eve of the 1987 Single European Act, a leap in integration which aimed to transform the limited Common Market for goods into a fully liberalised Single Market by 1992, the EEC had a mixed record in Ireland. While elites remained supportive, and the Common Agricultural Policy had led to a windfall for Ireland's most traditional sector, the pains of liberalisation were also felt. Writing in 1989, the historian J.J. Lee could recount how as 'job losses mounted throughout the Seventies ... there appeared to be little that anybody could do to arrest the decline of Irish-owned business. It is not clear that the government grasped or wanted to grasp the problem'.3 Despite a 'mini boom' in the 1970s, analysts have tended to isolate the shortcomings of macroeconomic policy - expansion, a wage-price spiral, and debt - as the main sources of Ireland's economic underperformance. Writing on the eve of the Single European Act, two prominent economists could thus bemoan the fact that 'the completion of the internal market pure and simple would leave many of the problems of the Irish economy still unresolved'.4

Within less than a decade, the conventional wisdom on this point had undergone a complete reversal; not only had Ireland benefited richly from EU integration at an opportune moment to exploit expanding US FDI, it was also regarded as having helped to address structural issues still seen to dog the economy up to the mid-1980s. Of key importance here was a shift in EU funding initiated during the European Commission presidencies of French socialist Jacques Delors (1985-1994), which prioritised active labour-market policies. This turn peaked with a net transfer to Ireland of 8. …

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