50 Years in The EU: A Changed Ireland

Daniel Durand

2023 will mark Ireland’s fiftieth year in the European Union. A significant milestone for an island country once so reserved and destitute.

As the union’s future is being subjected to continued scrutiny from rising rates of nationalism and exit movements, a look back on the last half-century may give us an idea about where things may be heading.

Ireland’s membership into the European Economic Community came at a time when its protectionist policies were being relaxed in favour of more open-ended free trade practises.

These protectionist policies had stunted the growth of Ireland’s economy during a time when its neighboring European countries were bouncing back after World War II.

Up until the 1950s, Ireland’s economy was primarily agriculture-based, with up to two fifths of the working population working in the sector, according to University College Cork’s research center.

This sector was in an irreversible decline as the rapid rise of industrialisation could not be sustained by the small rural farms common throughout Ireland, particularly in the west.

Additionally, little effort was made by Ireland’s government to facilitate the growth and development of newer industries.

Due to this, many young Irish citizens seeking work chose to leave the country to do so. Approximately 500,000 people (16% of the total population at the time) had emigrated elsewhere, sending the economy into a further decline and creating a downward spiral.

During this time, Ireland became one of the only countries to see its population decline, rather than rise- the only other one being East Germany.

In response to this, reforms were taken by The Dáil in the 1960s to be more accommodating toward free trade. Multinational Corporations (MNCs) could now work and operate within Ireland without being imposed with significant taxes acting as a deterrent.

During this time, Ireland’s education system was vastly improved, which generated a more educated workforce to expand the countries more clerical professions.

These new policies were complimented by Ireland’s admittance into the European Economic Community (now EU) in 1973, along with the UK and Denmark.

From this point onward, Ireland’s economy changed rapidly. From 1973 to 2018, Ireland was a net recipient of over €40 billion in EU funds, which went into strengthening the country’s tourism, education and research and development (R&D) sectors; as well as the bolstering of its transport and communication infrastructures.

The construction and maintenance of tourist spots throughout Ireland have benefitted from funds partly contributed by the EU, such as the interpretive center at The Cliffs of Moher, and the visitor center at Waterford Crystal. The freedom of movement of EU citizens between countries also boosted tourism in Ireland.

From 2014 to 2020, Irish education has been supported by the EU’s Erasnus+ programme, with up to €170 million being granted to the sector. This benefitted both formal and informal education, with many youth groups and adult education centers also availing of these grants.

Under the European Redevelopment Fund, the Luas red line was constructed in 2004, facilitated by EU funding of €28 million. The M4 and M9 motorways were also partly funded by the EU, along with the completion of the Dart and Port Tunnel.

In 2003, Ireland lowered its tax rate to 12.5%, which, along with Ireland’s skilled workforce and EU membership status, attracted many global companies to set up their base of operations there, generating thousands of jobs in modern and robust sectors.

Ireland’s status as an EU member has also reduced their reliance on the UK for trade. According to the Irish Exporters Association, in 1949, 94% of Ireland’s exports were to the UK. In August 2021, the Central Statistics Office found that figure to be 9%. 

Simultaneously, in August 2021, 37% of Ireland’s exports were to the EU.

However, being a member state has its set of disadvantages. Countries in the Eurozone do not have the ability to amend their monetary policy to an extent which may be most suitable for their own unique circumstances and regions.

With some countries in the Eurozone having stronger economies than others- and with these economies tending to fluctuate, the value of the Euro is more subject to instability than what other currencies would be.

Now, in 2022, Ireland’s standing in the EU is a unique one. The effects of Brexit will continue to transpire as Ireland navigates through newfound complexities when trading with one of its closest partners.

The EU has promised to help Ireland with its Brexit fallout, with a €200 million investment scheme put in place to support the agricultural sector, and the EU’s continued full support for peace in Northern Ireland with the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement, and funding to maintain the economy in the border regions, and maintaining peace.

With tech giants such as Apple and Alphabet (Google) being based in Ireland, the continuing tech takeover will be at the forefront here, generating more jobs and contributing to the countries R&D facilities.

While the benefits of the EU are large and plentiful, they should never serve as a rationale for a justification of any wrongdoing on behalf of the union. The EU serves to solely benefit its member states and their citizens, and it is up to those citizens to ensure that this remains the case.

Author’s name: Daniel Durand

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