Bruce Arnold

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

Like Lemass, we should not be in thrall to Europe

Whatever Lucinda Creighton may have meant in her reference to the possibility that we might 'revert to clinging on to the coattails of the UK', this is not our position

Ronan Fanning developed an interesting argument in the 'Sunday Independent' a week ago. It was two-pronged. It had a debating dimension that attempted to be rational and historical, dealing with Ireland's relationship with Europe and invoking Sean Lemass as the main force in what he had to say.

Side by side with this, he put forward a highly political set of proposals dealing with the possible referendum later this year on the EU Intergovernmental Treaty and the likely attitudes to it of Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail, and the two government parties.

His own position was clearly presented and was unequivocal. Ireland must commit itself to an integrated Europe "without any reservations". And to this end he recommended that Micheal Martin and Fianna Fail should follow the 'Lemass Line'. He defined this in the same unequivocal terms and actually described Mr Lemass as "forging ahead on all European fronts".

I am surprised that a distinguished historian, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at UCD, should make this claim. Mr Lemass was never unequivocal about Europe. Throughout his career he took his line on Europe from the United Kingdom. The only thing he was unequivocal about was Anglo-Irish relations.

From the time Eamon de Valera appointed him to the vital job of Minister for Supplies, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939, until Mr Lemass's resignation in the autumn of 1966, he worked closely with successive British governments. When Britain applied for EEC membership Ireland applied also. When British entry was vetoed by De Gaulle, Ireland withdrew and worked for, and got, virtual free trade between the two countries.

Mr Lemass had learnt his lesson painfully; firstly over wartime supplies, then at all times over Ireland's agricultural interests and over the importance of actual trade; he was not overly concerned with moral or democratic principles or the preservation of world peace. True, he did value a foreign policy that paid more than lip-service to western defence interests, differing from Mr De Valera over neutrality and giving to Frank Aiken virtual autonomy at the United Nations which is where the minister for foreign affairs spent most of his time and focused all his attention. Brussels was not in the equation until Britain once again sought EEC entry in 1969 and Ireland tagged along.

All of this later development happened under Jack Lynch and Ireland began to reap what became huge financial benefit from membership and the widening of trade, together with funding for national reform and agricultural and other development. We took the money and did less of the reform than we should have done. But by the time this epoch started in 1973 Mr Lemass was dead.

Mr Lemass never did any of the things that Mr Fanning credits him with. He did not forge ahead on all European fronts. The notable interview to which Mr Fanning refers, given to the 'New York Times' in July 1962, promised that Ireland was "prepared" to go into an integrated Europe, but saying that this was "without any reservations" referred only to foreign policy and defence. On these points such a change of view by Ireland was long overdue. But it never embraced the kind of wholesale economic and fiscal integration that we face now and Mr Lemass would certainly never have endorsed our present loss of sovereignty and abject obedience to Brussels officials represented by the troika.

This view is true of our political submission to successive indignities over the past years, during the endorsement of the Lisbon Treaty, which is now, unsurprisingly, being subversively altered to our disadvantage. But he would have had a fit in the light of David Cameron's reversal of the De Gaulle rejection of the UK and -- by extension -- of Ireland late last year.

If there is any basis at all in the current set of circumstances on which Fianna Fail under Micheal Martin might choose to take the former leader's European and international politics to heart and follow his lead, it would have to be in favour of the emerging option for Ireland, of a closer realignment with the United Kingdom.

There is real logic in the adoption of the line Mr Lemass held throughout his career, of working closely with our nearest neighbour, especially in view of the Good Friday Agreement, which was probably the principal achievement of Fianna Fail in office and could only have been achieved by an unusually close Anglo-Irish relationship quite unlike our relationship with any other European country.

Part of Mr Fanning's argument focused on another important aspect of the potential for change within Fianna Fail in the immediate future. This is the problem the party faces in respect of Sinn Fein. The strong historical Sinn Fein motivation against the United Kingdom is not an attractive route for Fianna Fail, nor is opposition to the EU and our membership. So this fear can be easily dismissed.

Where Mr Fanning's arguments are much more open to question is the entirely unjustified claim that Mr Lemass suggested that Ireland's commitment to any integrated Europe should have been without reservation. Mr Lemass never even envisaged Mr Fanning's objective. It would have gone against every political scruple in his make-up.

He was a man who thought through his policies and based them, above all, on the factual circumstances. During his era these all revolved around the relationship between Ireland and Britain.

He knew his way through the other political territories, was comfortable about our relationship with the US and with Europe and enjoyed visits to and encounters with European leaders such as Konrad Adenauer. Beyond that, Europe was not on his agenda.

Mr Fanning makes much of Ireland's potential for being "at the heart of Europe" and is ready for the country to surrender all future rights to referendums in this interest of being there, at the heart. God forbid!

Being aware of the reality within history of geographical circumstance, he must see the idea is a complete impossibility. Our size and economic vulnerability reinforce that. It has been made far more clearly evident by Ireland's unavoidable relegation to the outer group of eurozone states. Moreover, the centre of Europe is fully occupied by Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy.

Whatever Lucinda Creighton may have meant in her reference to the possibility that we might "revert to clinging on to the coattails of the UK", quoted by Mr Fanning, this is not our position with the UK and never has been, least of all when Mr Lemass was in power. It is, however, our position with the EU to such an extent that the idea of us occupying the EU presidency in 2013 is little short of fearful, if not ridiculous.

If this kind of thinking, expressed by Mr Fanning, is followed it will hasten us along the road to perdition. We might be saved in the increasingly likely event of the euro crashing, for which we have made no sensible preparation. But it would be better if we made more ordered plans and thought in broader terms less governed by distorted views of history.