McGill Summer School paper 2017

AT THE CENTRE OF THE UNION: Ireland can and must play a full part

MacGill Summer School 2017 paper by Brendan Halligan


In his recent address to the MacGill Summer School, Brendan Halligan looked at Ireland’s current situation in Europe in the light of BREXIT and discusses how, “there is one eminently pragmatic reason to be at the centre, and it’s economic. The disruption from Brexit will be widespread and long lasting and far greater here than in any other EU state.” But remaining at the centre of the EU will not only protect Ireland, but present it with a whole new gamut of possibilities

To read/download a PDF of this document, click here or scroll down.



A Union without Britain will be a challenge in its own right. Ireland playing a full part at the centre of that Union only magnifies what is already a huge challenge, the biggest since 1939 in the words of Ruairi Quinn.

In considering how we respond, I want to start with what the Union is and what is meant by the centre, in which we‘re being asked to play a full part.

Franco/German Project

The Union is a Franco/German project. They are building a European home together. 

Other countries may join in, but must obey the rules. Joining is voluntary. You don’t have to join. Membership is voluntary too. You don’t have to stay. You can leave if you want to. And if you misbehave, you can be asked to go.

The European Union was famously described as ‘Journey to an Unknown Destination‚‘ by Andrew Shonfield in his Reith Lectures given in 1972. It has a history of progressively enlarging its membership, extending its activities and deepening the interdependence of its members. Progress goes forward in spurts, sometimes at speed. I suspect we are at such a moment.

One thing is clear from the very nature of the enterprise: you can’t say, thus far have we come, and we’re going no further, as the UK tried to do repeatedly. You can minimise your engagement, as the Scandinavians have done, or optimise it, as Benelux has done. Your choice.

The organisers have asked the panel to consider how Ireland might be an active part of the centre. The previous observations constitute the framework for the analysis that follows.

That is an honourable record, which has many other examples to buttress it. But, it’s not completely convincing.

Here again, perception is political reality. 

Rejecting the Schengen Agreement to sustain the Common Travel Area is one example of Ireland consciously prioritised Anglo-centrism over Euro-centrism. Non-participation in the full suite of JHA provisions is another. 

There will be a choice to be made pretty soon over which border is to be prioritised if the UK goes for the hard Brexit the Tory government has spelled out since the beginning of the year, and still spells out. 

Leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market in order for the UK to do global trade deals and control immigration from the EU will lead to customs and frontier controls between the UK and the EU, between the Republic and the North. In common parlance that means a Hard Brexit – and that means a hard border.

If it comes to it, which it probably will, then we will have to choose between a hard border with Britain and a hard border with the EU. 

If the choice were for a hard border with the EU the consequences would be clear. They do not have to be spelled out. Yet many will baulk at a choice that imposes a hard border with Britain, that unwinds the past and weaves a new future. 

But accepting the consequences of a hard border with the North, and the island of Britain, is unavoidable if we want to be centre stage within the Union. 

Perhaps the tooth fairy will conjure up a seamless and invisible border on this island, but I doubt it. 

Being at the Centre

In sum, playing a full part at the centre of the Union means playing a full part in the future common defence and security policies, playing a full part in creating a fiscal union involving corporate tax harmonisation, playing a full part in the Franco-German re-launch of Europe and ending our psychological dependence on Britain. It means finally cutting the umbilical cord.

These are not easy choices. They go against the grain of custom and practice. They mean replacing inertia with initiative; with changing direction, and explaining why; with winning popular support for what will start out as unpopular measures.

That puts a premium on leadership. 

Lemass as Leader

It is misleading to say that Lemass showed leadership in lodging our EEC application in 1961. He didn’t. He accepted the inevitable. 

But he showed leadership in reversing the very policy he had introduced himself thirty years earlier in order to make EEC membership possible; by going against the instincts of his own party in committing Ireland to be at the centre of the new Europe; to act in a spirit of loyal and constructive cooperation with the other member states and, above all, to accept what he called the duties, obligations and responsibilities which European unity would impose; and by accepting them without qualifications or caveats.

A new Europe is being constructed today. A European renaissance is underway. The centre has held, and it is the best who are full of passionate intensity, not the worst. Things are taking their course, as Beckett said. 

We need the same pragmatic determination to accept the inevitable, the same leadership to deal with the unavoidable, the same willingness to make the difficult choices, the same capacity to vision, as Lemass did.


There is one eminently pragmatic reason to be at the centre, and it’s economic. The disruption from Brexit will be widespread and long lasting and far greater here than in any other EU state. 

In the words economists like to use, Brexit constitutes an asymmetric shock for Ireland, one that will necessitate a long period of adjustment, something analogous to what we experienced in the first decade of EEC membership.

We will inevitably be looking for assistance on grounds of solidarity. But to win solidarity you must show solidarity. 

Solidarity is a two-way street. That’s why playing a full part at the centre of the Union is more than a matter of sentiment, or altruism, it is an exercise in realpolitik. Without sympathy and good-will we will suffer more than we need to. With both, we can come through this, the biggest challenge since 1939.


Realpolitik should dictate national strategy from yet another perspective. The European Union is not going to go away, or to implode as the populists pronounce, and as Anglo-Saxon propaganda predicts. 

It will endure and it will continue to deepen, to widen, to record concrete achievements and to build the de facto solidarity foreseen by the Schuman Declaration.

There will be predictions to the contrary, of course, and siren calls to join the UK as it abandons the European home of which we are part, and for us to reverse history and become a province once again. 

Mad as it sounds, it will be pushed with fervour through a combination of economic illiteracy and political idiocy, a fervour that will grow more intense as it becomes clearer that the UK is indeed heading for a hard Brexit, as it is.

Neither the isolation that Lemass feared nor re-incorporation in the UK, as some desire, is compatible with the path Ireland chose a hundred years ago. Along the way we opted to join what John Hume called the greatest peace experiment in history. It was our salvation.

The European Union was the friend we were always looking for, said Garret FitzGerald. Joining would be a psychological liberation, he forecast four decades ago. He was right on both counts.

Playing a full role at the centre of the Union, having the courage to honour the commitments on which we joined, would be consistent with the path on which Lemass embarked, would fulfil the destiny he chose and would provide a future imbued with honour and hope.







Comments are closed.