Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

History warns us about the risks of ceding power to EU

In his moderate and balanced article on the Lisbon Treaty, in this paper on Wednesday, Micheal Martin called for "a mature debate" during the next three months and one that was based on facts, not heckling.

It will undoubtedly engage with history and the past, and it is on this starting point we should focus. The myth of Ireland's dedication and devotion to European ideals, our wish to be part of, or at the centre of, the EU, where we would always have belonged, but for Britain, is just one of the idiocies that will no doubt be trotted out on display for the benefit of the gullible.

When that happens, history and truth will be swept away. That is clearly already the intention. In an effort to give the debate some historical grounding I venture to put forward the views of Eamon de Valera on the occasion of his return from Strasbourg in 1955 where he had been attending a meeting that was part of the construction of the future Europe.

He spoke on it in the Dail on his return and was uncharacteristically direct and blunt in what he said, quite different from his usual manner where his speech was described in his obituary in the 'London Times' on August 30 1975 as "soft, dry and labyrinthine".

He was anything but labyrinthine about Europe and bluntly told the Dail on June 12 1955 that Ireland would end up losing its freedom and independence if it joined any European federation. He also warned about the dangers of a European constitution and of getting entangled in European-led military adventures over which, ultimately, we would have no control.

It was a core-value speech, remarkably prophetic in ranging forward in time that is, today, quite astonishing. Most the issues now facing us were embraced, including those that have been identified and patched up at the last European summit, and those that have been ignored.

He dealt with the spiritual dimension: "We realise that, small as were our physical resources, there were spiritual ones which were of great value; and we never doubted that our nation, though a small one, in the material sense, could play a very important part in international affairs."

Ireland did so play a part and Eamon de Valera referred directly and indeed proudly to his own leadership of the country into the League of Nations, announced before independence, in 1919 and implemented in the period between the two world wars, though it was doomed by the rise of fascism to fail.

After his Strasbourg meeting, however, he referred positively to the United Nations as the place for Ireland's international role.

He went on: "I might point out, that, on the economic side for instance, in the Council of Europe it would have been most unwise for our people to enter into a political federation which would mean that you had a European parliament deciding the economic circumstances, for example, of our life here."

He then turned his attention to the numbers' game, which is already being misrepresented to the Irish people in terms of the percentage of power we will enjoy under the Lisbon Treaty. For de Valera -- himself a noted mathematician -- the mathematics were more straightforward: "For economic and other reasons we had refused to be satisfied with a representative of, say, one in six, as was our representation in the British parliament. Our representation in the European assembly was, I think, something like four out of 120 or some number of that magnitude. That is, instead of being out-voted on matters that we would have regarded as of important interest to us by five or six to one, we would have been out-voted by 30 or 40 to one."

He then made a point that is a telling part of the current debate and relates directly to one of the more absurd 'Yes'-vote arguments, which is that we still have to get away from entanglement with our nearest neighbour, Britain. He said: "We did not strive to get out of that British domination of our affairs by outside force, or we did not get out of that position to get into a worse one."

It is part of de Valera's heritage, and a kind of message to those who will take part in the coming debate, that he focused, even then, in 1955, on the threat of a superior constitutional basis for European power over Ireland.

He said: "One of the things that made me unhappy at Strasbourg was that I saw that at the first meeting of the Assembly, instead of trying to get co-operation and to provide organs for co-operation, there was an attempt to provide a full-blooded political constitution. There were members there who were actually dividing themselves into socialist parties, and so on, as they might do in a national parliament.

"As far as we are concerned, whilst we wish well to all those who think that it is in their interest to do that, we certainly felt that we should not be committed as a nation to do it. Nations much more powerful with their associated states than we, were chary of that, and I, for one, felt that we would not be wise as a nation in entering into a full-blooded political federation."

On the issue of Ireland getting involved in military alliances, de Valera enunciated his neutrality views, stating the obvious, but stating it well. Less obvious, however, is the real message for Ireland linked constitutionally and politically with 26 other states:

"A small nation has to be extremely cautious when it enters into alliances which bring it, willy nilly, into wars ... we would not be consulted on how a war would be started -- the great powers would do that -- and when it ended, no matter who won ... we would not be consulted as to the terms on which it should end."

There are many things he did not cover, but in these essentials there are more issues that have not yet been resolved, more questions that have not been answered, more problems that hover over us, than those that are argued in favour of the 'Yes' vote.