In 1992 I was involved in a campaign opposing the signing by Ireland of the EEC’s Maastricht Treaty. That treaty created the single Union, changing Europe from the EEC to the EU and paved the way for the single currency.
I opposed it from a sovereignty argument. That the 26 Counties could lose its neutrality and be drawn into a military union with other member states – not least with Britain. And that would undermine the pursuit of a free Ireland. Not a single person I spoke with during that campaign agreed with that position.
Europe was seen as a good thing. Many people expressed a vision that Ireland’s still doldrums economy would benefit from the Union. I remember a worker for Dublin Corporation fixing the fire in the flat I lived in saying that a European Union would diminish the border and could be a significant contribution to reunification by diminishing Britain’s role. I thought he was mad.
But I was not one bit surprised when the referendum passed with a huge majority. Irish people like being part of Europe.
Fast forward to last Friday in the Balmoral Hotel and a conference on the proposed referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU (now called BREXIT in annoying shorthand jargon). Dr Conor Patterson, Chief Executive of the Newry and Mourne Enterprise Agency described how any notion of BREXIT would usher in renewed border controls and diminish industry on both sides of the border. It was a compelling speech and packed full of strong economic argument.
My opinion of Europe, since my debate with the prophetic fire fixer in School Street 23 years ago, has taken a u turn. I would need someone to point out a single other part of my politics that has, but regarding Europe, well I reckon your man from the Corpo was right.
The EU is very flawed in many areas. The treatment of Ireland and Greece following the banking crisis is evidence of that. But reforms within are by far the better option than exit.
Three things dominate my change of heart.
European investment in our peace process. The EU put their money where our mouths were and delivered. The Peace funding has not been perfect (the UDA chippie vans were a mistake) but all in all it is inestimably vital.
The European Convention of Human Rights application through the Human Rights Act. Local application of the Convention has been the most important tool in the armoury of victims and survivors of our conflict seeking truth and accountability. And yes the European Court is flawed and I know that it is not even formally tied to the EU. But the Tory party has made it part of this debate, so I make it part of my commitment to staying put. Without the Convention this government will abandon the minorities who need human rights protections. And we all know that.
And, contrary to my young idealistic fears, the border has become invisible, to the benefit of all.