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Ireland and the EU: Forty Years of Membership

Written by Brigid Laffan, Professor of European Politics, University College Dublin.

Cast your mind on other days 
That we in coming days may be 
Still the indomitable Irishry.     W.B. Yeats

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Ireland’s 7th Presidency falls on the 40th anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the European Union on the 1st of January 1973. On that day, the Irish state and its people embarked on a new relationship with the other states and peoples of what was then the European Economic Community of nine countries. 

Back in 1973, membership was viewed with a mixture of excitement and fear. Ireland was returning to Europe, to a distant but remembered part of its past. This small state would now have a seat at the table in an important global club, a club that would take the hard edge off an unequal relationship with its larger and nearest neighbour. There were, however, fears for the capacity of the Irish economy to compete in this new and more challenging environment.

Since January 1973 both the EU and Ireland have been transformed. Ireland takes on the Presidency of an EU of 27 member states, with a highly integrated market, and a currency shared by 17 states.  The single market.  Extensive US FDI and cohesion transfers have contributed to making Ireland one of the most open, competitive and export driven economies in the world.  Even in this time of seriously challenging economic conditions, Ireland’s core economic strengths have transcended expectations of what was thought possible when Ireland joined.

EU membership is now an accepted part of our landscape. The EU has left its mark on many areas of public policy from health and safety to food standards and gender equality. Evidence of its impact on society is all around us, in the availability of continental European products on our supermarket shelves, in the transformation of rural Ireland, in Irish students embarking on Erasmus programmes, in the role of women in the workplace and in the presence of workers from other EU countries in our cities and towns.  Ireland’s material, aural and oral culture has been transformed.

However there is now a risk that we take for granted the scaffolding that it offers. Back then our rationale for membership was a seat at the table. Today Ireland helps to shape the EU’s course, and through its EU membership has a role in the world it could never otherwise hope to play.

Perhaps Ireland’s greatest contribution to the EU is that it has made a success of membership. It has provided a model for other members in good times and in bad. It has shown that a small relatively poor state can prosper in the EU. And yet it has never lost its ‘indomitable Irishry’.

Find out more information about how Ireland has harnessed the potential of EU membership, and about Ireland's contribution to the EU.