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Ireland's EU journey before and after Brexit

Published 31 Mar 2023

On Tuesday 28th March 2023, the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW welcomed Rosie Keane, the Irish Consul General in Sydney, to discuss Ireland’s journey from being an isolated island with an underdeveloped economy to becoming one of Europe’s most open and progressive societies. Keane began her presentation by celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s membership of the EU, and then guided the audience through what she named the ‘five phases’ of Ireland’s social, political and economic journey.

Keane identified the eve of Ireland’s membership of the EU in 1973 as its first phase, during which Ireland was a poor country struggling with high unemployment, poverty and emigration. This phase was also characterised by a period of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland – ‘the Troubles’ – in which thousands lost their lives and the nation was divided. A deep desire for change grew across Ireland, prompting a majority ‘yes’ vote in the referendum which would approve Ireland’s accession to the EU.

Keane’s description of Ireland’s second phase focused on its early years of EU membership, in which Ireland gained access to EU structural funds and entered a new period of rapid economic growth: Ireland was often referred to as the Celtic Tiger. Keane drew on personal anecdotes to highlight the generational effects of a surge in socially progressive policies that occurred in the early 90s, including the introduction of free secondary education.

Ireland’s third phase was characterised by social change, most notably the establishment of peace in Northern Ireland via the Good Friday Agreement. Keane highlighted the defining role of the EU in bringing peace to Ireland, through its facilitation of dialogue between parties and through the EU peace financial package offered to Northern Ireland. It was also during this phase that the Catholic Church’s grip weakened on Irish society and Ireland became further integrated in the EU by adopting its shared currency.

Keane then reflected on a more troubling fourth phase, in which Ireland suffered under the Global Financial Crisis and was faced with the challenge of mobilising voters to engage in the European Union. Rather than discussing the economic intricacies of the crisis, she focused on the real human cost encountered by Ireland, including widespread home foreclosures, a surge in emigration and an increase in unemployment. Ultimately Ireland was able to establish a more resilient domestic financial system compared to the pre-crisis period.

Finally, Keane brought the audience to the fifth phase – Brexit – during which she worked as Ireland’s Deputy Director for Brexit in London. She outlined the challenges that Brexit posed for Ireland, including impacts on the Ireland-UK trade relationship, the Common Travel Area and the Good Friday Agreement. Keane touched on initiatives, such as the Windsor Framework, that have thus far assisted the Irish and British governments in responding to such issues.

While Keane acknowledged the challenges that Ireland has encountered during its EU journey, she rejoiced at the significant social, economic and political progress that it has achieved since becoming a member of the EU.

In the question-and-answer session, Keane was asked about existing social divisions between the Republic and Northern Ireland. She noted that in reality there is little division between the North and South but acknowledged that tensions can linger for some as a result of the Troubles. Keane responded to suggestions of a united North and South in the future by highlighting that Ireland’s constitution allows for this possibility but that it would require a majority vote from both sides.

When asked about the relocation of business to Ireland following Brexit, Keane suggested that international corporations have seen Ireland as an opportunity to maintain access to the Single EU Market as well as the British market.

Keane responded to a question about the recent visit to Australia by Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, stressing the importance of a healthy trade relationship between Ireland and Australia. She emphasised the shared values between the two societies and underscored the significance of the relationship by citing the success of Australian companies in Ireland.

Keane’s presentation served as a reminder of both Ireland’s achievements since joining the EU and the obstacles that still lie ahead for this island on Europe’s periphery.

Report by Roisin Browne, AIIA NSW intern


Irish Consul General Rosie Deane (centre) with AIIA NSW audience members Anne Warr (left) and Shirley Randell