Ireland to the Rescue

June 20, 1992

Ireland, by ratifying the Maastricht Treaty in a thumping referendum, puts the plan for a single European currency by century's end back on track. Had the Irish rejected this, immediately after the Danish rejection, the whole movement toward a unified Europe -- a single economy based on the current European Community membership -- would have crumbled.

As it is, the treaty calls for unanimity which the Danish rejection prevents. But this can now be seen as a surmountable hurdle, calling for a minor rewriting of the rules now, a second appeal to Danish voters later on. Had the only two referendums to be held in the ratification process gone against it, the notion would have been unstoppable that parliamentary acceptances elsewhere represented only the detachment of Europe's politicians and bureaucrats from their constituents.

And yet the Irish electorate was not thinking of saving Europe at all. The campaign turned into a debate about Irishness, about nationalism, about how distinctively Irish the Irish want to be, or how much in the European mainstream. The vote, not surprising in terms of recent Irish elections, was resoundingly for joining modern Europe, for not clinging too tightly to the Celtic myths or the symbols of Irish nationalism of this century.

The actual terms of the Maastricht Treaty barely figured in discussion. Emotion was spent on issues that it doesn't cover. For these, such as abortion, the bishops advised a "no" vote, and then the issue became whether the Irish vote as their bishops instruct. Today, they do not. The keepers of the republican tradition raised the specter of losing hard-won Irish neutralism. The Irish electorate has not been guided by self-appointed guardians of patriotism in decades.

It was a victory for the current generation of Irish politicians and officials, virtually all of whom had staked everything on a "yes" vote. It was a vote from fear of being left out of European Community subsidies which have greatly benefited Ireland. Irish unemployment is 20 percent, and the Dublin government estimates windfalls from EC programs over the next five years at $10 billion. It was a vote for modernity over national myths. But it was a vote from inward insecurity, not outward confidence. And yet as a byproduct, it may well have saved the political programs of the German chancellor, the French president, the British prime minister and other major powers too grand ever to be seen asking the Irish people for help.

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