Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m very glad to be here with you this evening. This has been a turbulent and interesting few weeks for everyone with an interest in Irish or European affairs. It has been especially interesting for those of us with a strong interest in both! Tonight we are honouring Brendan Halligan and his immense contribution to Irish and European public life.
Brendan Halligan is a giant of modern Ireland. Founder and Chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs, Ireland’s number 1 think tank. One of Ireland’s foremost public intellectuals. A former MEP, Senator, TD and General Secretary of the Labour Party. An economist. An expert on ancient Irish language and culture. An advocate for the transition to a green energy future. An environmentalist. A keen student of the rise of China. A Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur – the highest civilian honour in France. A great raconteur, a lover of Sancerre and most importantly of all – a Southsider and a great supporter of the Dubs!
In some ways, the timing of this event is very appropriate. The chaos arising from the UK referendum has really brought home how important it is that we talk about Europe and we understand the European project, for we are all, as Brendan realised before many, Europeans.
Europe was never “over there” for Brendan and he has been one of the modern leaders in ensuring that the European vocation has remained at the heart of the Irish body politic and Irish society as a whole. This is not just rhetoric, as all opinion surveys point to Ireland being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the European project. The contrast could not be starker, when we look across the Irish Sea at our nearest neighbour and the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
The UK campaign proved yet again how little is known throughout Europe about the work that happens in Brussels. And it also proved that negative and sometimes even mendacious reporting about the EU can influence people’s view. It proved that there is always a space and a need in our public sphere for strong organisations like the IIEA to debate, to inform, to analyse and to advise. Brendan and the other co-founders of the IIEA understood that the Irish constitution requires a referendum whenever there is a potential transfer of sovereignty.
The motivation to set up the Institute was based on the experience of the referendum on the Single European Act in May 1987, when the turnout was 44%. While the yes vote was 2 to 1 in favour the quality of the debate and the low turnout boded ill for a country with a referendum requirement. A group led by Brendan, including Bridget Laffan, Patrick Keating, Tony Browne, Frank Wall and Maurice Manning, came together in 1989 to lay the ground work for the Institute for European Affairs to open its doors in 1991. Thanks to Brendan’s generosity and that of Niall Green, the Institute moved into the premises in North Great George’s Street.
What is particularly unique about the Institute’s remit was the focus on analysis and information for policy makers in small member states, and emphasising the importance of the Commission in fostering equality between Member States both large and small. I think it’s fair to say that Ireland is an active and very visible member of the EU, in spite of our comparatively small size. And it’s also fair to say that the IIEA can take a great deal of credit for that fact.
Today, the IIEA is going from strength to strength, continuing its core business of strong and timely debates and publications – of never ceasing to grasp the policy nettle, ahead of the curve and ahead of the posse. For instance, the IIEA’s publication of a book entitled “Britain and Europe – the Endgame – An Irish Perspective” in March 2015, outlining the scenarios for Brexit and its potential impact on Ireland and Europe, displayed the immense foresight, value and continued worth of the Institute in the Irish, EU and international policymaking realm. It is notable that this book was written before the 2015 UK general election, in a time when the general consensus was that the British Conservative Party would not win an overall majority and thus a mandate to hold a Brexit referendum. In that halcyon era, it was still considered a relatively long shot that Britain’s place in the EU would come up for debate, despite the commitment given by Prime Minister Cameron in 2013. Nevertheless, the IIEA, led by Brendan, sought to paint a picture of the different scenarios of Brexit. If only the Leave campaign had the foresight of Brendan Halligan and the IIEA, they might have had a workable plan in a post-Brexit world!
Let me give you a quick example of such foresight. I quote directly from a speech delivered by Brendan at an IIEA event on Brexit in Lansdowne Road on the 19th of May:
“In the event of a vote for Brexit the political situation will literally change overnight. It will be immediate, dramatic and profound. In the face of defeat, Mr Cameron will resign as Prime Minister. Within days, certainly within two or three weeks, there will be a new Prime Minister and a new cabinet, with a new Chancellor, a new Foreign Secretary and many other new faces in key ministerial positions. More ominously, they will be without a game plan for managing the exit process or constructing a new relationship with the EU. As of now, no such plan exists. In the immediate aftermath there will be political turmoil, particularly within the Conservative Party. Bearing in mind the situation in the Labour Party, both of the main parties will be riven by disunity precisely at the moment when policy coherence and national unity are most needed. The turmoil within the political system will be matched by turmoil on the markets, notwithstanding the fact that they will have already factored in the Brexit effect. The realisation that Britain is really going to leave the European Union would would be like stepping under a cold shower, by mistake. On the morning after the night before the shock effect on the markets and on sterling will be dramatic.”
Let me say a little more about Brendan’s distinguished career.
As I have mentioned, you have had a very decorated and indeed unique political and legislative career: Senator, T.D and MEP as well as General Secretary of the Labour Party. Through these offices you have made a great and lasting contribution to political and public life, in Dublin, Brussels and beyond. You have been deeply committed to the ideals of peace and prosperity underlying the European project. Following our country’s 1972 referendum decision to join the European Economic Community, and the call by the then leader of your party Brendan Corish for Labour to accept the will of the people, you have devoted your official as well as your private energy in pursuit of this noble project.
Your role behind the scenes in the National Coalition government of Liam Cosgrave and Brendan Corish will never be forgotten. At a difficult time for Ireland, when it must be recalled that the concept of Coalition government was still relatively alien, your diligent, committed behind the scenes work ensured Ireland could enjoy a period of political stability at a time of enormous economic upheaval, or rapid social change, and of course in the context of the Northern Troubles.
Many people in Labour and Fine Gael have recognised your role as a lynchpin in the government. You demonstrated your ability to build bridges and bring people with you, regardless of political colour, is a trait which you subsequently put to good use in the European Parliament and in the foundation of the IIEA itself.
At a time of instability for Europe, at a time when the European Project itself is being called into question. At a time when intergovernmentalism is edging out the community method. At a time when the dark forces of chauvinistic nationalism are stalking Europe once again, we need more people of the calibre of Brendan Halligan to step up to the plate. We need more people to commit to the European project. We will not achieve this through directives, rules or regulations, but through genuine civil society movements, such as the IIEA.
I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. What is remarkable from the recent UK referendum result is the large majority of young people who voted in favour of the EU. I believe that, notwithstanding the huge problems affecting the youth of Europe today, particularly the scourge of youth unemployment, that the youth of Europe feel as European as they do Irish, or British, or Belgian. Despite the sense of constant crisis and the continued criticism of the EU, this attitude and this identity will prevail. I believe that, in light of this trend, we will see more Brendan Halligans, more Jacques Delors and more Altiero Spinellis emerge on to the scene to defend and advance the European Project.
Young people understand that the EU equates to freedom: freedom to travel, to work and to form friendships across borders. This is the European ideal, not one of regulations and directives. This is the Europe which we must all strive to nourish and project. It is the Europe that people like Brendan have worked to create, and we cannot take it for granted.
It is timely to make this commitment to the European project once again, as we commemorate the tragedy of all who suffered on the Somme, at Verdun and at Ypres and other sites here in Belgium – we must not take Europe for granted.